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THE ROUGH AND THE SMOOTH
July 6, 2010 - 2:00pm

By

UD

"I must continue to write for the same reason I am always compelled to write, in sickness and in health: for otherwise I die deadly, but this way, by this work, I may die forward into the intensified agon of living."

The British social theorist Gillian Rose wrote this, in Love's Work (1995), a meditation on life, illness, and death (she had been diagnosed with cancer). She wrote it in response to some of her friends and family having, in the wake of her diagnosis, urged her to embrace what she regarded as soothing - mentally palliative - new age thoughts and practices.

Rose rejects what she calls "the deadly blandishments of the exoteric language of cosmic love." She writes:

The injunction, which pervades the literature of alternative healing to become 'exceptional' (Bernie Siegal), or 'edgeless' (Stephen Levine), to assume unconditional love, is poor psychology, worse theology and no notion of justice at all. While presenting itself as a post-Judaic, New Age Buddhism, this spirituality re-insinuates the most remorseless protestantism. It burdens the individual soul with an inner predestination: you have eternal life only if you dissolve the difficulty of living, of love, of self and other, of the other in the self, if you are translucid, without inner or outer boundaries. ... This is the counsel of despair which would keep the mind out of hell. ... [It is far kinder to understand] that to live, to love, is to be failed, to forgive, to have failed to be forgiven, for ever and ever. Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

An intense humanist, a Blakean in ceaseless mental fight, Rose detested any philosophy or theology that assumed you had a desire to be lifted above the soil of love's work, above the sublunary business of cultivating a lucid self; of being in dynamic erotic and intellectual relation with other selves; and of seeking, through thought, speech, and action, to love the world in such a way as to make it more just, to make people less cruel, to make states less despotic.

"Exceptional, edgeless love effaces the risk of relation: that mix of exposure and reserve, of revelation and reticence," she writes, remembering with delight her edgy sexual and intellectual adventures.

The poet Mark Doty, recalling, in Heaven's Coast, his grief at the death of his lover, says something similar. The spiritual therapies various friends prescribed "allow the suspension of painful and confusing ambiguities, and offer us a chance to give up the difficult, frustrating work of living on that dizzying, live edge between affirmation and despair."

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As Christopher Hitchens deals with his recent cancer diagnosis, expect to see his own Blakean commitment to mental fight intensify.

"Hitchens claims to believe in Einstein's injunction to 'remember your humanity and forget the rest,'" writes a skeptical columnist in the Guardian. Her skepticism has to do with the fact that Hitchens can be - at least when arguing - strikingly inhumane.

Yet it's as true of Hitchens as it was of Gillian Rose that their humanism is so deep that they lend that emptiest of words -- humanism -- a substance it assumes in few other places. Humanism's meaning has been smoothed out to the point where it mainly conveys being nice to people, liking people. Up with people!

But humanism seems to me to have more to do with a full-bodied, well-considered commitment to us as we are, to the world as it is. Loving the world despite there being a good deal of shit in it, the humanist meets it on its own terms and tries to make it better, more lovable. The writing of deep-dyed humanists like Rose and Hitchens -- throw in Albert Camus -- expresses their contented - even ecstatic - embeddedness not merely in the visible, empirical, material world around them, but in their own physical body, their own embodied humanity.

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Why, after all, is Hitchens hilarious? Because he's outrageously accepting of his own and life's absurdity. He finds manifold ways to play with the world's mud pies. He tells the rough truth about life and then laughs.

Male humor prefers the laugh to be at someone's expense, and understands that life is quite possibly a joke to begin with—and often a joke in extremely poor taste. Humor is part of the armor-plate with which to resist what is already farcical enough. (Perhaps not by coincidence, battered as they are by motherfucking nature, men tend to refer to life itself as a bitch.) Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is. Jokes about calamitous visits to the doctor or the shrink or the bathroom, or the venting of sexual frustration on furry domestic animals, are a male province. It must have been a man who originated the phrase "funny like a heart attack." In all the millions of cartoons that feature a patient listening glum-faced to a physician ("There's no cure. There isn't even a race for a cure"), do you remember even one where the patient is a woman? I thought as much.

Of course, everyone prefers inoffensive smoothies to rough folk like Christopher Hitchens. Tiger Woods, John Edwards, that's the ticket. Earnest, groomed, smooth. Never put a foot wrong.

Everyone's made uncomfortable when rough offensive Hitchens gets ugly, as he did, for instance, at a panel discussion about Buddhism at Berkeley about ten years ago. Matthieu Ricard first spoke:

"Happiness should have a ...lasting quality," he said, "so that once you have discovered within yourself this sort of inner peace, a sense of fulfillment, a sense of meaning, it doesn't really depend too much on outer circumstances. Whether they are good or bad, we can somehow use them."

The panel responded. [Orville] Schell, [Lewis] Lapham and [Mark] Richardson weighed in with words about harmony, peace and the search for meaning.

Finally it was Hitchens' turn. He leaned back, ran a hand through his hair and hit the ground running: "Many of us ... do not think that harmony is the great goal, or unity or peacefulness, [and] actually quite like hard questions for their own sake, and enjoy ... the life of the mind. I just thought if I didn't say this, it's just possible nobody would."

... He called reincarnation "a pathetic belief," nirvana of the mind "a kind of hell," and to the question of how to live responded, "by disagreement."

... And yet Hitchens -- disharmony incarnate -- deserves a place in an article about [Jean-Francois] Revel and Ricard. Hitchens articulated the unspoken critique hovering above their discourse; his was the voice pausing to ask, "Is this even legitimate? Can this discussion occur?" While Revel may differ with Ricard as consistently as Hitchens does, he has consented to a dialogue -- perhaps, for Hitchens, this is something like surrender. Perhaps the true and stalwart cynic refuses to discuss, as he indeed did by the end of the evening.

[Hitchens represented] an entrenched, and arguably brave, resistance to the fuzzy vibe floating above the panel discussion.

... "Do you disagree with everything, including yourself?" Ricard asked [Hitchens] at one point.

"Yes," snapped Hitchens.

But is the writer correct to call Hitchens a disharmonic cynic? Obviously I don't think so. Hitchens is in reasonable harmony with existence as it is. He certainly seems to have a smoother relationship with it than Woods or Edwards. Hitchens is out of harmony with what he sees as efforts to transcend existence rather than dig into it and fight your way to some ideas about how to have it make more sense and be kinder. He's cynical about consolations that seem to operate by dissolving the self as it struggles to know itself and to be in honest edgy relation to the world.

Is his reading of Buddhism fair? I think it's probably a fair reading of the variant that expressed itself one way or another that evening in Berkeley.

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"I positively like stress, arrange to inflict it on myself, and sheer awkwardly away from anybody who tries to promise me a more soothed or relaxed existence," writes Christopher Hitchens. The equanimity Buddhist practice tends toward is not for him.

His happiness has nothing to do with a sense of inner peace. It's odd, junky, intense. "Most of my bad habits are connected with the only way I know to make a living. In order to keep reading and writing, I need the junky energy that scotch can provide, and the intense short-term concentration that nicotine can help supply. To be crouched over a book or a keyboard, with these conditions of mingled reverie and alertness, is my highest happiness."

Crouched over the book or the keyboard, Hitchens, with untranscendent joy, searches for the right words to satisfy his hunger for the truth. "[T]here is some relationship between the hunger for truth and the search for the right words. This struggle may be ultimately indefinable and even undecidable, but one damn well knows it when one sees it."

 

 

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