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Just one hitch with all those eulogies
Who was the greater public intellectual, Christopher Hitchens or Vaclav Havel?
First Act: all forgiven and forgotten.
Second Act: December 2011. Pearly Gates. Loud knocking.
Third Act: Entrance. Fireworks. Festivity. General hubbub.
Applause-o-meter ratings: Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011), British-American controversialist and debater, clapping, polite but restrained. Václav Havel (1936-2011), dissident, playwright and president of Czech Republic, whistles, brass band, Mexican wave.
The difference was sharpest in the words. The Brit was a magician of language, pulling those glittering phrases from his sleeve, delighting his audiences. So full of fury and fulmination, they scorched the paper they were written on. Liars, cretins, hypocrites, despots, idiots looking for a village: these were his targets and he ladled over them the brimstone of his corrosive hatred.
Magicians like this are born mostly in Britain, where they are suckled on Shakespeare, gorged with poetry and history and entertained with Monty Python. In fact, this Brit had much in common with John Cleese: the plummy accent, the quirky imagination, the Oxbridge talent for festooning his entertainments with 2000 years of history and literature.
Perhaps that’s why he became a fixture in the American media. To the preacher-man earnestness of American debates, where epigrams and puns are darkly suspected of betraying moral frivolity, he brought the exhilaration of words, the wicked puns, the volcanic eruption of invectives, the excoriating similes, the savage reductio ad absurdum, the dismissive sneer.
But “one of the great public intellectuals of modern times”, a latter-day Orwell, an English Voltaire? Surely his obituarists have been bewitched by spells stolen from Hogwarts? Christopher Hitchens was a contrarian, not an intellectual. “Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses.”
Temperamentally, he never ceased thinking like a Trotskyite he was in his youth. He spent his life shivering his swords on the conventional wisdom, opposing, criticising, hectoring, defying, blowing raspberries. On Islamofascists. On the “solemn, mirthless, herbivorous, dull, monochrome, righteous, and boring” American Left. On Saddam Hussein. On Mother Teresa. On God. On Jerry Falwell. All devious, all mendacious, all enemies of free thought. Like the man in the Monty Python skit, he was an argument junkie who gargled bile before his morning whiskey.
“For a lot of people, their first love is what they'll always remember. For me it's always been the first hate, and I think that hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going.”
But an intellectual? A truth-seeker laboriously picking his way through the thickets of self-deception and prejudice to the clarity of the summit. How could someone one whose greatest professional achievement was to dress his readers’ prejudices in haute couture be an intellectual? A wise guy, sure, but not an intellectual.
Hatred is anti-intellectual, even if it is masked in laughter. Deep beneath even the bizarre cruelty of a man like Kim Jong-il (who died today) burns a small flame of human dignity. Hatred ignores that and is fundamentally untruthful.
The genuine public intellectual was Václav Havel, a man whose commitment to truth was sealed with years of oppression and censorship under a brutal Communist regime. Because he had a politically incorrect background he was denied a university education. He held down menial jobs and spent years in jail while building a reputation as a playwright and dissident. After the Communist regime collapsed, he became the philosopher-king of Czechoslovakia. He knew what freedom was and he knew that it could also be betrayed by wealth and consumerism: “Our main enemy today is our own bad traits: indifference to the common good, vanity, personal ambition, selfishness, and rivalry.” Like Alexander Solzynitsyn, he had been schooled, not in toffy public schools and Oxbridge debating societies, but in prison and poverty.
Will he be mourned with the same ululation and lamentation from the commentariat? The problem is the language. Unlike Hitchens, Havel speaks to us in anaemic translations from his native Czech, his words drained of their wit. Perhaps it is better that way. The ideas have to sustain the argument, not the epigrams. He stoked the coals of a intellectual furnace, urging his countrymen never to stop struggling to achieve democratic values by “living in the truth”.
It is his eloquence which will endure, rather than Hitch's. He inspired, while his companion at Gate 17 merely entertained.
Like Hitchens, Havel was not a Christian, but he defended the achievements of Christendom because it appreciated that man is a mystery and because it had preserved a commitment to transcendent values. He had suffered under Communism and he knew what the alternative was. Unlike Hitchens, he knew that without God, anything is possible. Anything terrible and depraved.
Let him have the last word.
“In today's multicultural world, the truly reliable path to coexistence, to peaceful coexistence and creative cooperation, must start from what is at the root of all cultures and what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies, or sympathies--it must be rooted in self-transcendence.
“Transcendence as a hand reached out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe. Transcendence as a deeply and joyously experienced need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, what we do not understand, what seems distant from us in time and space, but with which we are nevertheless mysteriously linked because, together with us, all this constitutes a single world. Transcendence as the only real alternative to extinction.
“The [American] Declaration of Independence states that the Creator gave man the right to liberty. It seems man can realize that liberty only if he does not forget the One who endowed him with it.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
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