Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Find Your Own Voice (As Hitchens Is Losing His)

Of course I know that Christopher Hitchens is an atheist. I don't find his version of atheism persuasive. He is, however, an excellent speaker and writer. One could learn a lot by listening closely to Hitchens on such things.

Hitchens is losing his voice. He writes about this in the June 2011 issue of Vanity Fair ("Unspoken Truths").

Hitchens credits his writing ability to Simon Hoggart of The Guardian, "who 35 years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write “more like the way that you talk.” At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence."

Hitchens would tell his writing students that anyone who could talk could also write. Then he hit them with the question: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” "If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice."

Excellent writing leaves you with the feeling that you are being personally addressed. "Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engage you, often at first without your noticing it. A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful."

Philosophy was spoken before it was written down. Literary giants "Henry James and Joseph Conrad actually dictated their later novels—which must count as one of the greatest vocal achievements of all time, even though they might have benefited from hearing some passages read back to them—and Saul Bellow dictated much of Humboldt’s Gift. Without our corresponding feeling for the idiolect, the stamp on the way an individual actually talks, and therefore writes, we would be deprived of a whole continent of human sympathy, and of its minor-key pleasures such as mimicry and parody."

Hitchens is dying of throat cancer. He is losing his physical voice. I feel sad about this. Will he have much of a "voice" beyond the grave? I doubt it, while admitting his will likely be stronger than mine.  At least it seems certain that in philosophy (his attempts at debunking religion) the impact of his writing will be null and void. But even there, while lacking in substance, his writing is clever and creative, being quite like when he converses.
I am still in pursuit of my own voice.