Thursday, February 2, 2012

Christopher Hitchens and Joshua Bell

(I'm taking an online writing class on medical narrative through Creative Nonfiction.  I was just getting ready to post this on our discussion board, but I could tell it was going to be a long one by discussion board standards, so I'm making it a blog post.)

After reading the essays for this week, I cannot help but compare Christopher Hitchens and Joshua Bell.  First, I have to be honest: I have never really been a fan of Hitchens.  I would not say I actively dislike his work, but I have rarely finished one of his pieces.  I start reading, and something annoys me, so I move on.  I think, after reading "Trial of the Will," my problem is that a masculine bravado seems to permeate his work. "Arrogance" has never felt like the right word. But when Hitchens mentions Nietzsche's bravado, that word clicked with me.  Hitchens and I have just lived very different lives, which is relevant because the life of the reader is as much a part of an essay as the life of the writer.  Hitchens is smart and well-read.  There is nothing wrong with his writing.  He just has a view of the world that clashes greatly with mine. The value of reading sometimes rests in the text's ability to make us see things anew. Other times, it's just annoying.

Hitchens writes about philosopher Sidney Hook and how he wanted to die after suffering a stroke from an angiogram given after congestive heart failure.  He is in great pain, his family is in pain, but doctors deny his plea to stop all life-supporting procedures.  Hitchens is suffering from esophageal cancer (and its treatment) when he writes his essay.  Hitchens writes, "I haven’t sailed as close to the bitter end as he [Hook] had to do. Nor have I yet had to think of having such an arduous conversation with a physician."  That just stuns me.  He has never thought about having a conversation with doctors about what life-saving measures he does or does not want performed on him?  That is either because of ignorance or bravado (okay, as I write, I'm starting to wonder if "arrogance" should be the word I use), and Hitchens is not ignorant.  But how could he have never "had to think" about taling with his doctors about end-of-life decision making, especially after his own father died of esophageal cancer in 1987.  Is it just because I watched so many die of AIDS when I was younger and that I ended up marrying someone who because his family's patriarch at 37 that I have thought about my death and that he and I have talked about what we do and do not want?  Is it just because I have been lucky enough to work with medical students at UConn and had discussions with them about end-of-life issues?  That right there is one big example of how we just look at the world so differently and why I am perhaps not drawn to his writing and its grounding in literature and philosophy, whereas my essays are grounded in experience first.

Ian McEwan's "Christopher Hitchens, Consummate Writer, Brilliant Friend" is very well-written.  I can appreciate how he sets the scene of Hitchens in the hospital, especially a hospital I have been in myself.  I am really interested in how the narrator of the essay is not the main character in the essay; as someone who writes memoir, that's not what I usually do.  But my appreciation for it is mainly intellectual.  Hitchens was not someone putting on an act, and I respect that.

Now, Joshua Bell who is a primary subject in "Pearls Before Breakfast" fascinates me, and it is because he does not seem to have the bravado I see in Hitchens.  A world-class violinist plays on a subway platform during rush hour to see what happens.  Now that's performance art!  I actually enjoyed this essay so much I do not want to say a lot and ruin it for those who have not read it.  But I really enjoyed his portrayal in this essay and his awareness of how his greatness may not always translate.  I just really grew to like this guy as I read about his responses to the video of the performance.

If the goal of this week is to think about structuring a narrative, and if E. M. Forster says that a story is successful if the reader keeps reading to find out what happens next, then "Pearls Before Breakfast" is the greatest success of these three for me.  I convert the readings to PDFs so I can read them off-line, highlight, and annotate.  That essay was twenty-five pages long, but I kept feeling the pull to read more.  The other two came out to around six pages each, and I'm not sure I would have finished either one.

That's not to say I was thrilled with Weingarten's writing.  His audience clearly does not include me.  He had a few snide things to say about some of the people waiting in line at a busy kiosk buying lottery tickets.  He writes, "the people waiting in the lottery line looking for a long shot would get a lucky break -- a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world's most famous musicians -- but only if they were of a mind to take note."  Reading the rest of the essay and its ruminations on Kant and beauty, I can't help but wonder if "of a mind" means "smart enough" or "culturally-aware enough."  Well, I never heard of Bell before this and would have never guessed that he was the street musician on the subway platform.  If Weingarten looks down on us who are not in the class that recognizes and celebrates Bell, so be it.  Along with that, I have to note the extensive parenthetical comment Hitchens makes in his essay, which is longer than many of his paragraphs.  He describes being interviewed on the radio in "deepest Dixie."  As I read that section over and over, I do not know why it is in the essay except as a dig about those of us from deepest Dixie (though many of us born and raised there do not refer to our homes as being in Dixie, what with those pesky racist connotations to which Hitchens seems to be directing his wry smile).  The phrase "passive-aggressive parenthetical" comes to mind; maybe "arrogance" is the word to use.

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