Archive for January, 2011

HITCHENS, RUSHDIE AND SAID: A TANGLED TRIAD

The year 2010 saw the publication of Christopher Hitchens’ eagerly-awaited autobiography, Hitch-22 (London: Atlantic, 435 pp, ISBN 978-184354-921-5). Its author’s multiple interests and chequered political history are such that it is not my intention here to give the book a full review: others are far more qualified than I am to do so. What I will do in this brief piece is offer some comments on two of the chapters on which I do feel my opinion is valid, namely those on Hitchens’ professional and personal relations with two other distinguished intellectuals of our time, Salman Rushdie and the late Edward Said.

It is impossible to write about Hitchens and avoid the controversial. At the same time, the universal sympathy which he has received, even from his detractors, in his present battle with cancer comes as a welcome reminder that in order to respect someone, one does not have to agree with them about absolutely everything.

The tangled triad that is Hitchens-Rushdie-Said consists of three major intellectuals – two essayists (Said being an academic and Hitchens not) and a novelist who is also an essayist – all writing in English, though only one (Hitchens) is a native speaker, all in some way hybrid in national and ethnic terms and all nonetheless received into the US’s Ellis Island melting-pot (Said a Christian Palestinian become a Columbia lecturer, Rushdie a British national of Indo-Pakistani origins morphed into a US resident, and Hitchens a Briton deracinated to New York and turned binational).

All the triad knew each other, all had literature and politics in common at the top of their interests, and all three began their intellectual-political trajectories very decidedly on the left. However, Said at no point shifted his position on the political spectrum, whereas both Rushdie and Hitchens have, rightly or wrongly, been accused by many in recent times of mutating from left progressives into mainstream liberals, if not indeed neo-cons. Rushdie may not have explicitly concurred with his detractors’ charges of abandoning the left, but Hitchens, as is clear from the new book, does go that far. Meanwhile, neither would agree that their political or intellectual judgment has been vitiated by any ideological metamorphosis, and both would no doubt consider themselves as qualified as ever to sup at the table of the great and good with the shade of Edward Said.

Christopher Hitchens’ chapter on Rushdie, ‘Salman’ (261-280) is, inevitably, taken up mostly with the ‘Rushdie affair’, i.e. the controversy around The Satanic Verses and Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa. Hitchens does not invoke the affair as such as a cause of his breach with the left (that honour, or otherwise, falls to the Iraq war), but his defence of Enlightenment values and his harsh critique of the anti-Rushdie faction clearly run parallel with his divergence with large sectors of left-wing opinion on more strictly political matters. The defence of Rushdie in this book is made on similar secularist lines to those earlier staked out by Hitchens in his anti-religious treatise God Is Not Great (2007). He excoriates those on the Western left like Germaine Greer and John Berger, as well as fellow writers like Arthur Miller, who failed to uphold Rushdie’s right to publish or to condemn religious censorship, and promotes his friend as an exemplar of free speech and his novel as a test case. The parallel attacks on Rushdie from the right might, at the time, have appeared predictable: those on the left were (then) less so – and indicative of things to come. For Hitchens, by writing The Satanic Verses Rushdie ‘ignited one of the greatest-ever confrontations between the ironic and the literal mind’. The phrase ‘the literal mind’ clearly includes both Rushdie’s Muslim foes and his censorious opponents in the West. Implicitly, Hitchens demarcates himself from those who have opined on the issue without having read the novel and speaks en connaissance de cause: he praises Rushdie for undertaking the confrontation ‘with care and measure and scruple’ in his writing (267), also making it clear that – again unlike many self-appointed pundits – he is also familiar with Rushdie’s other books, both pre- and post-fatwa (Midnight’s Children and Shame – 264, but also The Ground Beneath Her Feet – 279n).

Hitchens relates how, when asked by the Washington Post on that fatal St Valentine’s Day in 1989 to state his position on the matter, he unequivocally leapt to his friend’s defence: ‘I felt at once that here was something that completely committed me’, a cause aligning ‘literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression’ against ‘dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation’: ‘no more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment … or to the First Amendment to the [US] Constitution, could be imagined’ (268). He supported the likes of Susan Sontag who publicly defended free speech against theocracy, while intuiting the emergence in the anti-Rushdie relativist camp of a species of ‘postmodern « Left », somehow in league with political Islam’, which was ‘something new, if not exactly New Left’ (270). Then as now, we find Christopher Hitchens saying no to today’s frequent bien-pensant conflation of religion and race, the ‘wilful, crass confusion between religious faith, which is voluntary, and ethnicity, which is not’ (269).

More than twenty years on, The Satanic Verses has not been banned in the US or in any European country but Turkey. To this extent, Hitchens should consider himself and Rushdie vindicated. However, he doubts whether the novel could be published today (‘nobody in the Anglo-American publishing business would now commission or print The Satanic Verses’ – 280): the implicit alignment of sections of the Western left with militant Islam, he argues, generated ‘a hinting undercurrent of menace and implied moral and racial blackmail that has never since been dispelled’ (270). Hitchens displays consistency in extending his defence of Rushdie to others who have found themselves on the wrong side of Islam, from the Danish cartoonists to Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the murdered Theo van Gogh, and also notes, correctly, that Rushdie ‘has become one of the most reliable defenders of the free expression of others’ (280). He is not sanguine about the prospects for untrammelled freedom of the imagination in ‘the world in which we all, to a greater or lesser extent, live now … a world in which a fanatical religion, which makes absolute claims for itself … regards itself as so pure as to be above criticism’ (277); and he laments what he sees as a hegemonic ‘moral relativism … whereby the Enlightenment has been redefined as « white » and oppressive’ (280).

 Hitchens’ account of the Satanic Verses saga includes a little-known but significant detail, which also has the virtue of connecting the subject to Edward Said. It emerges that Rushdie actually sent Said the typescript of his novel with the request : « Dear Edward, I’d be obliged to have your view on this » (267), and that Hitchens knew of this directly from Said. In other words, the controversial novel was validated before it appeared by the author of Orientalism – a point which its hostile critics on the left might care to note. What Hitchens does not mention, however, is Said’s subsequent eloquent defence of The Satanic Verses, published in 1994 in a collective volume of pro-Rushdie writings by Arab and Muslim intellectuals, in which he went so far as to call Rushdie ‘the intifada of the imagination’.

 This brings us to Hitchens’ chapter on Said, ‘Edward Said in Light and Shade’ (385-404), which charts a relationship more chequered in its course than that with Rushdie, but nonetheless, as our author affirms, ‘a friendship that taught me a very great deal’ (385). Hitchens considers Said as both political commentator and postcolonial literary scholar. Sceptical of such currents as deconstruction and postmodernism, Hitchens nonetheless praises Said the critic as someone genuinely committed to literature : « when Edward talked about English literature and quoted from it, he passed the test that I always privately apply: Do you truly love this subject … ? » (385-86). He notes « Edward’s pronounced dislike of George Orwell », surely a potential bone of contention in the light of Hitchens’ own major reflection on the subject, Why Orwell Matters (2002) (a book which for some reason he scarcely mentions in Hitch-22). He praises Orientalism, if a shade grudgingly, as a ‘book which made one think’, while heretically pointing out Said’s failure to consider the reverse Orientalism or Occidentalism of a phenomenon like the Ottoman Empire (390), and rather ambivalently recalling his own (in fact measured and informed) review in the Atlantic Monthly of the book’s reissue in 2003 (397; www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/09/where-the-twain-should-have-met/2779/ ). He does not, however, mention Said’s later opus Culture and Imperialism, whose ‘contrapuntal’ readings of the likes of Conrad and Kipling surely help correct the reductivist tendency visible in Orientalism. Said’s writings on music and his work with Daniel Barenboim – an important and often neglected side of his polymath career – are passed over in silence.

The key divergences between Hitchens and Said are less over culture than over politics. The reader senses both Hitchens’ respect for his friend’s towering intellect and his recurrent feeling that Said, over-influenced by both Marxist orthodoxy and its successor political correctness, was unwilling to be too hard on either Stalinism or political Islam: ‘Edward didn’t feel himself quite at liberty to say certain things’. Hitchens observes tellingly: ‘his life – the life of the mind, the life of the book collector and music lover … would become simply unlivable and unthinkable in an Islamic republic’ (391), adding that ‘Edward could only condemn Islamism if it could somehow be blamed on either Israel or the United States or the West, and not as a thing in itself’ (393) (this charge, though, does not seem quite consistent with Said’s support for Rushdie).

 Observing that ‘if a difference of principle goes undisguised for any length of time, it will start to compromise and undermine the integrity of a friendship’ (396), Hitchens charts the unravelling of his relationship with the Palestinian-American intellectual. Post-9-11, he is unsettled by Said’s ‘picture of an almost fascist America’ (397) and his reluctance to take on Al-Qaeda. The rift finally came soon before Said’s death in 2003 from leukaemia (as we now know, cancer provides one of the sadder connections between the two), in an episode which I reproduce in Hitchens’ own words. In an article in an obscure London magazine, Said had ‘quoted some sentences about the Iraq war that he off-handily described as « racist ». The sentences in question had been written by me … He had cited the words without naming their author’ (397-98). That was the end of the friendship, though hard on the heels of the rift came Said’s premature demise. Hitchens retained enough respect for his ex-friend to write him a decent obituary, which he rather understatedly calls ‘the best tribute I could manage’ (398; http://www.slate.com/id/2088944/), and to defend his memory and achievement against hard-right slurs of the type ‘Edward Said: Professor of Terror’ (399). We should, finally, recall in all this, and not forgetting Said’s very specific objective positioning vis-à-vis the Middle East through his Palestinian-Christian origins, that the Hitchens-Said breach was about politics, not religion, and about political Islam rather than Islam as such.

 The parallel stories of Hitchens’ professional and personal relations with Said and Rushdie reflect his necessary engagement as a Western intellectual with the key issues of the postcolonial and globalised world: the early Rushdie and the Said of Orientalism are, of course, both bright stars in the firmament of postcolonial studies. The two stories also reflect Hitchens’ growing estrangement over time from the (postmodern) left – a political odyssey in which he has been at least in part accompanied by Rushdie, but was not by Said. Where, on the evidence of Hitch-22, does Christopher Hitchens stand on the political spectrum today? Some now link him to the New Right, and on his own admission, it was the Iraq war that persuaded him to abandon his long-standing identification with the left: ‘I couldn’t any longer remain where I was’ (307), and thus, at a Labour Party conference in Blackpool, ‘I consciously made my last appearance as a man of the Left’ (308). However, and despite his passionate defence of the American way of life against the Islamist threat, can someone as ardently secular as Hitchens now be pigeon-holed as being on the right? Today he prefers to define himself as ‘liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ – or as a sceptic and ‘unbeliever’, yet committed, as he affirms at the end of Hitch-22, to the cause of ‘science and reason’ (422): and perhaps he is best now seen as an eclectic libertarian maverick. Nonetheless, and although his explanation of his ideological shift centres on politics, not religion, it is difficult to believe that Hitchens’ abandonment of the left is bereft of all connection with the espousal in influential sectors of the Western left of the neo-theocratic notion, light-years removed from Marx, of ‘respect for religion’.

 Hitchens is, certainly, one in a longish line of twentieth- and twenty-first-century intellectuals who started out on the left but over time ended up distancing themselves from it or rejecting it outright. The ranks of this tendency include Rushdie, Harold Bloom, and two Latin American Nobel laureates, Mario Vargas Llosa and the late Octavio Paz. On the other hand, Hitchens’ hero George Orwell, despite almost being killed by the Stalinists in Barcelona, remained loyal to the end to the left, continuing to hope the Spanish republic won its war and denying the charge that Nineteen Eighty-Four might be a satire on a Labour government he supported. Equally, one may draw up a counter-list of intellectuals who did not abandon, or have not abandoned, the left, which would certainly include, apart from Said, Raymond Williams, Julio Cortázar, José Saramago or, among the living, Eric Hobsbawm.

 The question still has to be asked, though: why does the left end up losing minds of the calibre of Hitchens’? The Hitchens-Rushdie-Said triangular prism is, I suggest, worth focusing on in the new book for the light it can shed on this vexed issue. Has the replacement as dominant belief-system on the Western left of Marxism by postmodernism – of a world-view claiming historical objectivity by a plethora of conflicting subjectivities – been an unmitigated success, or not? Christopher Hitchens’ answer is not hard to seek, but he is no longer part of the left, though he still back-handedly admires Marx. At all events, his memoir is a timely reminder that on a whole spectrum of vexed and urgent political and cultural issues the jury is still very much out.

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UMBERTO ECO : ‘Internet es la vuelta de Gutenberg’ / “Internet: Gutenberg strikes back” (‘El País’, 22-I-11)

En ‘El País’ (sábado 22-I-11, suplemento Babelia, págs. 14-16):

www.elpais.com/articulo/portada/Dialogo/politeista/elpepuculbab/20110122elpbabpor_9/Tes

apareció una plática entre Umberto Eco y el escritor español Javier Marías, moderado por Winston Manrique Sabogal y bajo el título « Diálogo politeísta ».

Los dialogantes plantean toda una serie de temas, pero lo que desearía destacar aquí son los comentarios, diría yo más bien importantes, del semiólogo y novelista italiano sobre Internet y la época cibernética. 

Afirma el autor de « El nombre de la rosa »:

“Internet es la vuelta de Gutenberg. Si McLuhan estuviera vivo tendría que cambiar sus teorías. Con Internet es una civilización alfabética. Escribirán mal, leerán deprisa, pero si no saben el abecedario se quedan fuera. Los padres de hoy veían la televisión, no leían, pero sus hijos tienen que leer en Internet, y rápidamente. Es un fenómeno nuevo.” (14)

y luego:

“Lo que se está perfilando, y ya lo escribí años atrás, es un nuevo 1984 con la clase dirigente que tiene acceso a Internet y los proletarios que no tienen acceso, que ven la televisión. ¿Hacia qué futuro nos dirigimos? ¿Habrá más proletarios o más clase informatizada?” (16)

(efectivamente, Eco ya ha vaticinado esa sociedad escindida en otros escritos, pero ahora plantea el asunto en términos menos orwellianos y más voluntaristas).

Hallo que los comentarios de Umberto Eco hablan por si solos y no necesitan adornos míos: así, los divulgo para vuestra mejor reflexión.

** The Spanish newspaper ‘El País’ (Saturday 22-I-11, supplement “Babelia”, pp. 14-16):

www.elpais.com/articulo/portada/Dialogo/politeista/elpepuculbab/20110122elpbabpor_9/Tes

recently published a conversation between Umberto Eco and the Spanish writer Javier Marías, moderated by Winston Manrique Sabogal, under the title « Diálogo politeísta » (“A polytheistic dialogue”).

The dialogue covered a whole range of topics, but what I would like to stress here are the comments, as I see it of major importance, of the Italian semiologist and novelist on the Internet and the cybernetic epoch.

The author of ‘The Name of the Rose’ states (I translate):

“The Internet means: Gutenberg strikes back. If McLuhan were alive today, he would have to change his theories. The Internet creates an alphabetic civilisation. People will write badly and read fast, but if they don’t know their ABC they’re out of it. Today’s parents were TV-watchers who didn’t read, but their children have to read on the Internet, and quickly. This is a new phenomenon.” (14)

and:

“What is coming – and I said so in my writings years back – is a new ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four”, with a ruling class that has access to the Internet and TV-watching proletarians. What kind of future awaits us? Will the proletarians or the IT-using class be the majority?” (16)

(Eco has, indeed, predicted such a split society in other writings, but he now raises the issue in less Orwellian and more proactive terms).

I believe Umberto Eco’s remarks speak for themselves and do not need my adornments. I therefore pass them on to you for your further reflection.

INDIAN JOURNAL OF POSTCOLONIAL LITERATURES: December 2010 issue

Just issued is the latest number (10.2, Dec. 2010) of the INDIAN JOURNAL OF POSTCOLONIAL LITERATURES, edited by Dr K.V. Dominic (prof.kvdominic@gmail.com) from Thodupuzha, Kerala (India) (ISSN 0974-7370).

This number is dedicated to the memory of the late scholar, publisher, poet and translator P. Lal, and carries several tributes to him.

Also included are poems, short stories, reviews and a wide range of articles, among them studies on: T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (Anuradha Sharma), Toni Morrison, ‘The Bluest Eye’ and ‘Sula’ (Ahmed Saeed Ahmed), Amitav Ghosh, “Sea of Poppies” (J. Elizabeth Lucy), Aravand Adiga, “The White Tiger” (Cielo G. Festino), R.K. Narayan, “The Guide” (K.V. Dominic), Manju Kapur, “Difficult Daughters” (Satendra Kumar), Tagore’s short stories (S. Kumaran) and Salman Rushdie, ‘Shame’ (Abdulmonim Ali Ben Ali and Lingaraj Gandhi).

José María Arguedas: centenario de nacimiento y homenaje de Ariel Dorfman

Hoy, el 18 de enero de 2011, es el centenario de nacimiento del gran novelista y antropólogo peruano José María Arguedas (1911-1969), mejor conocido como autor de la novela “Los ríos profundos”. En conmemoración de este aniversario, hay en “El País” de hoy (edición internacional, págs. 27-28):

www.elpais.com/articulo/opinion/Pagando/deuda/imposible/elpepuopi/20110118elpepiopi_4/Tes

un texto del escritor chileno Ariel Dorfman, ‘Pagando una deuda imposible’.

Dorfman afirma: ‘El centenario de su nacimiento (…) debe ser, ante todo, una celebración, el recuerdo de que su obra y su vida se fundaban en una apuesta primordial: que la cultura de los Andes – imbuida de amor a la naturaleza, moral y estéticamente superior a quienes la sojuzgaban – era capaz de salvar a la humanidad contemporánea presa de un progreso avaro e insensato que se erige sobre la explotación de la tierra y de nuestros semejantes, la apuesta todavía vigente de que hay otra humanidad posible’, y pregunta: ‘¿Hay alguien más vivo que Arguedas hoy? ¿Hay alguien más relevante en este tiempo en que la especie se encamina hacia el apocalipsis? ¿Hay alguien que escribió con más lucimiento y grandeza sobre lo que significa vivir y morir y sobrevivir en nuestra encrucijada inacabable?’

Para quien aún no conoce la obra de este importante escritor latinoamericano, el centenario que ahora comienza constituirá una excelente oportunidad. Espero poder informar desde esta bitácora de los eventos conmemorativos que vayan surgiendo.

Edgar Allan Poe portrait collection: now on-line

Scholars and admirers of Edgar Allan Poe may like to know that a classic volume of portaits and daguerreotypes of the author of ‘The Raven’ is now available on-line (free of charge), thanks to the good offices of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, at:

www.eapoe.org/papers/misc1921/deas00ca.htm  –

 Michael Deas, “The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe” (original publication: Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1989).

 

Next Manju Kapur novel will be called ‘Custody’

The Indian newspaper THE PIONEER carried, in its 17 January 2011 edition, an interview by Shana M. Verghis with novelist Manju Kapur: ‘I wasn’t a writer, I was an academic’ –

http://www.dailypioneer.com/311063/%E2%80%98I-wasn%E2%80%99t-a-writer-I-was-an-academic%E2%80%99.html

 It is stated in the interview that Manju Kapu’s next (fifth) novel, “Custody” (advance warning: not to be confused with Anita Desai’s “In Custody” …) will appear in the UK in March 2011 and will deal with ‘divorce and custody battles over kids’.

**

Note added 13 October 2011:

I have now read CUSTODY. Manju Kapur’s novel is a compelling, dense and closely observed narrative of divorce in modernIndia. I emphasise “modern”: the reader should not expect denunciations of divorcees being stigmatised in traditional milieux as in Arundhati Roy’s Kerala. CUSTODY seems to me the best equal of its author’s  five novels to date, on a par with her second, A MARRIED WOMAN, to whose social environment it returns. This is the ruthless, go-getting world of the English-speakingDelhibusiness class and its diasporic extensions. Kapur traces the fortunes of a divorcing couple, both of whose members remarry, and, above all, the impact of the break-up on their two young children as the tussle for custody evolves. Both Indian and universal, this narrative of human relations for our time alternately elates and disturbs, and will certainly provide strong food for thought to readers from anywhere (there will be many) who have lived through similar battles.

EUROPEAN ENGLISH MESSENGER 19.2: THE EDGAR ALLAN POE BICENTENNIAL IN SPAIN

The Autumn 2010 issue (Vol. 19.2) of The European English Messenger (EEM), published by the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE), includes (pp. 50-55) my report on ‘The Poe Bicentennial Year 2009 in Spain’, in which I summarise the Spanish contribution (conferences, publications, events, etc) to the bicentenary celebrations that commemorated worldwide the birth of Edgar Allan Poe in 1809.

The full text is on-lime at:

http://yatrarollason.info/files/PoeinSpain2009EEM.pdf

The EEM site is at:

http://www.essenglish.org/messenger.html

 

**

Abstract: 

Edgar Allan Poe’s presence as a major influence in Latin American literature is well-known, thanks to the likes of Borges and Cortázar, but less attention has been paid to the remarkable popularity which he today also enjoys in Spain, both in university circles and among readers at large. Poe’s birth bicentennial year of 2009 was marked by multiple academic and cultural events worldwide, and, outside the United States, quite probably nowhere more than in Spain, which had, by the end of the year, hosted a whole series of commemorative readings, theatrical performances, exhibitions, etc, as well as no less than four international academic conferences, held by the Universities of Castilla-La Mancha (Albacete, February), Alcalá de Henares (May), Extremadura (Cáceres, November) and Valencia (December). There were also several important reissues of Poe’s works, among them a new edition of the Cortázar translation of the stories with each tale prefaced by a different Spanish-speaking writer, and Siniestras amadas, an impressive illustrated volume produced by the artist Jack Mircala. This paper will offer an overview of this rich and varied Spanish contribution to the bicentennial, considering its different manifestations and with particular stress on the four conferences. It will, finally, offer some provisional conclusions and suggestions in the endeavour to account for the ‘Poe phenomenon’ in Spain today.