It is rightly considered one of the great scenes in one of the greatest stories ever written. I am speaking of the dinner scene in James Joyce’s The Dead.
Terror, self-destruction, piety, despair and the dust that collects upon and within the weary joints of the soul all combine in a moment of exquisitely crafted writing.
It contains the elided truths of what goes unsaid and all the thunderous artillery of everything that one wishes had been left to wither in silence. It breaks the heart because it is the soul of a broken heart. It is the violence of tyranny and the sadness of failure. Dead kings, lost souls. Ireland.
Later of course, worse is to come. The snow. The ghosts of the dead who are at once silent but never cease to speak. Of themselves and the living.
Terrorized by jesuits, indoctrinated by Ireland Inc. Joyce emerged from the smithy with his chosen weapons honed to a razor’s edge – silence, exile, cunning. But the silence was really just a metaphor because of course he was not, and could not be silent. He had too much to say; he had everything to say that needed to be said. There could not be silence, either his own or God’s.
He was at war, of course, with everything but mostly with himself. He was at war with fear (fear of God, of home, of his family, of Ireland, provincialism, thunder, cows, women, sex, lust, failure, success, money, eternity) and courage.
So he wrote about everything. His sometime assistant Samuel Beckett overwhelmed by the master’s ability to encompass totality ran full speed in the opposite direction and became the high priest of the muffled; of the stifled negation.
One day, arriving at Joyce’s home in Paris, Beckett found the master in a deep funk. Troubled by his never-ending ocular pain, his wages of sexual sin contracted in Dublin whore houses, Joyce was again losing his ability to see and was unable to get his mojo running.
I’ve written only seventeen words today, he told Beckett.
Well now Jim, said Sam, knowing you, they were the right seventeen.
And so it goes.
Joyce’s lifelong battle with God gave us the pyrrhic victories of Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man, Dubliners, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. I hear an army charging upon the land, he wrote in what became Poems Pennyeach. The ocean, of which he was often fearful rose up as his imagination, as his words, his ideas, and washed upon the soul of the world.
He cursed religion, cursed the fearful jesuits, the dead hand of the church laying its icy touch upon the hot blood of his Ireland. And he responded with revolt and honesty laying bare every ugly truth about them about himself about the body – its wants and gasses and excretions and hypocrisies.
And if not for God, if not for the factory, the slaughter house of history, that nightmare from which he wanted to awaken, where would he have been?
It is the question no one asks. We have instead a template. And not a false one, not one devoid of complexity but a template none the less full of standard sign posts.
Joyce as a terrified young boy. Provincial bigoted Ireland. The Church. Catholicism. The Imperial smothering of England. Nora. Escape. Struggle. The smithy of the soul. Trieste. Paris. Eternity.
And yet, the scholars, the experts, the members of the cult, do not reverse engineer the question: Where would he – where would we – be without his God?
Try to imagine it. Joyce without God.
A professor of linguistics at Trinity, perhaps. Or like his father. A name lost to history.
He is not alone in this maze; this labyrinth of contradictions.
Beckett of course.
And Yeats and Brian O’Nolan, or Falnn O’Brien if you please. And even if you don’t.
And across The Sleave, South of Ireland, a riot of geniuses, a flock of wounded birds was rising into the air running screaming from God and the church. But, carrying it with them.
Picasso. Miro. Dail. Bunuel. Lorca.
Can you imagine any of them without the hot brand of the church on their souls?
Yes, they rejected it. They cursed it. They were, for the most part (with Dali your guess is as good as anyone else’s) rebels standing resolutely against the tyranny of the church. They were libertines in favor of sex and the pagan celebration of it in all of its brutalities. They were for the truth and the freedom to define it on their own terms.
And yet. Without that enemy, without that unyielding opponent, where would they be? Who would they be?
What would we have?
This is not an isolated dilemma. It is not confined to the increasingly old sepia toned images of a hundred or more years ago. Consider the Bard of Freehold. The poet laureate of the epic story we call America.
As we have mentioned elsewhere, consider for a moment, Springsteen without the terror, without the relentless beatdown of the church. Where would he be? Who would he be? As he put it himself once in a speech – imagine if he had actually gotten along with his father?
I see the most popular bartender at The Stone Pony.
In a letter to Hawthorne, Melville called Moby Dick an evil book. In it, in Ahab, he writes: and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.
Which brings us to the late and dearly missed Christopher Hitchens.
Religion he told us, has been a catastrophe combining two of humanity’s worst traits. Gross stupidity and fits of epic violence usually in conjunction or certainly first one then the other followed by a pause, a recalibration and then repetition determined to exceed what had happened previously.
It is hard to argue otherwise. The encyclopedia of excess, cruelty, sadism, hypocrisy, mendacity, corruption, perversion and slaughter puts most other efforts to shame.
No behinds left, he writes, in mocking the Catholics for their industrial scale rape of boys.
And we are not here attempting to defend the church from these accusations. The church, organized religion as a whole, is guilty as charged.
The Ink is instead after something else – as our introduction, we hope, makes clear.
Consider the title of Hitchens’ book on the subject: God is Not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything.
He means of course the aforementioned crimes – the blood-soaked history stretching from one act of barbarism to the next; he means the persecutions, the insane denials, the collaboration with tyrants as well as the assumption of the divine right to be tyrannical, and so on – he means the mountain of skulls left on every continent.
He zeros in straight away with his bill of indictment and on the face of it, as with the rest, it is irrefutable:
“There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”
He is right. And one could add that as a result of these fallacies, these institutionalized absurdities any number of crimes have been committed against people all over the planet. And Hitchens does just that.
And of course he was not a fool, exactly, and offers up a defense of anticipated criticisms. He writes of the soulful atheist:
“We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that the serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tales of the holy books. Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul. We do not believe in heaven or hell, yet no statistic will ever find that without these blandishments and threats we commit more crimes of greed or violence than the faithful.”
Again, he is not wrong but, his examples raise questions. Hitchens is targeting the totalitarian, the fascist, the religious thug who is willing, based on one absurdity after another, to burn both himself and you alive. Or to torture you or to rape you or to burn your books or is willing to set off an atom bomb all in the fervent belief that such actions are exactly, precisely what HE wants.
Again, we have no quarrel with Hitchens on this point. It is irrefutable.
But he mentions Dostoevsky and it is almost funny to imagine Hitchens trying to ignore the effort required to splice the author from the Russian Orthodox Church, from his epilepsy and his visions. And can anyone really say with certainty that Notes from Underground is less strident than any number of religious tracts? If you want a writer more saturated with religion than Dostoyevsky you’ll have to consult the likes of The Old Testament or The Upanishads.
But common sense and respect for logic require us to go on and give him the benefit of the doubt in mentioning Dostoevsky as a go-to-writer for calm analysis of ethics, as after all he also, mentions Tolstoy.
Notice that Hitchens makes a distinction between the religious bigot whose bigotry is expressed in religious terms (distinct say from the bigot who doesn’t attend a church or a mosque or a synagogue but wouldn’t rent you an apartment because your skin is the wrong color) and the religious person who is not violent. Technically it is accurate – Tolstoy, certainly in his later devout phase, only ever injured his wife and that was mostly by arguing and not by beating her over the head with a bible.
But, go further and notice what is present and thus missing in Hitchens’ description:
Ethical dilemmas, he tells us, are better handled by the likes of Tolstoy and Shakespeare because, they are not violent and devoid of the grinding totalitarian impulses and because the arts, the ars poetica and all the others do not, he suggests, demand loyalty under pain of torture and death.
Fair enough, except it brings in a circle back to where we started. Namely, we cannot have Tolstoy, gentle, thoughtful non-violent Tolstoy, without that which he came to be against. Namely, Orthodox Establishment Christianity and its excess, its violence its calamities.
In fact, it is impossible to imagine him without it just as it is impossible to imagine Joyce or Springsteen except as that cool bartender in nowhere-ville New Jersey.
And so we arrive at our first point of opposition – religion does not, in fact, poison everything and even if it did that’s not the problem because in fact, it has, in paradoxical splendor like Hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box, given us some of our greatest treasures and for this Hitchens has only a sly obfuscation in response.
But here also lies the grave danger, hypocrisy and dangerous irony of Hitchens’ proposal. He is in effect twisting Francis Fukuyama’s twist on Hegel and is declaring the end of history…for religion – that is, because it is based on the dogmatic nonsense about divine births and immaculate conceptions and assorted miracles and because it generates so much misery that no other solution is possible except dissolution and rejection as a response to its inevitable dying out.
This is nowhere more on display than in Hitchens’ antagonism towards Islam as a whole and specifically what he calls Islamofascism.
His position being that claims to divinity and claims of miracles and tyrannical edicts, wars, and so – the litany of absurdities and horrors – is so vast and immense that Islam should be laughed into the dustbin of history.
As if, history had been found guilty because it had allowed something to outlive its usefulness (as if, he would no doubt say – it was ever useful except as a weapon of oppression) thus denying not only ironically the possibility of the dialectic but also denying the historical record of every other human endeavor – Capitalism (nor any other ism) has settled into a state of entropy and time’s arrow has not be arrested. It was Capitalism that in part led to the Nazis and could lead to it again.
Hitchens’ view to the contrary, is that an historical and cultural moment (a moment of centuries but is a moment nonetheless in the larger time scale of civilization in its entirety) has been arrested. Thus Islam is a spent force and unlike Christianity which fought a devastating and bloody schismatic civil war that led to both the pedophile priest scandal and…The Pieta…to Joyce and Shaw, and continues to evolve, Islam, per Hitchens can not mutate or evolve and therefore he is saying Muslims (and all the faithful all people who are Muslim) are in a state of entropy and are cast out of history. Germany, per Hitchens and by way of theoretical contrast with Islam, was Lutheran and Catholic and produced among others, Thomas Mann and Dachau; Einstein and Himmler. German Protestantism, per Hitchens, has the capacity to evolve, but Islam does not – Muslims do not.
Now, to give balance, we must ask – but what of violent acts in the name of religion generally and specifically what of Islamofascism.
Hitchens disagrees with Voltaire who famously said if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. There are plenty of reasons to distrust Voltaire and others for which one could easily hold him in contempt but, his point here is valid and underscores a fault in the logic of the antagonistic atheists.
If not for religion, they say, the world would be better off and yet any number of cults have risen to power on the basis of destroying religion, assuming the status of secular religions (the cult of the great leader) and still managed quite well in setting up and running industrial scale horrors.
But this, were it true, would mean the arts are cast out as well or that no art worth appreciating can have been or will be caused by the experience of faith. It is not religion that is the problem, but the human animal and for that there is no cure.
Here we consult an artist to rebut the journalist (emphasis added):
“Our entire sense of reality has been called into question. But I do not want to dwell on this fact any longer, since what moves me has never been reality, but a question that lies behind it [beyond; dahinter]: the question of truth. Sometimes facts so exceed our expectations—have such an unusual, bizarre power—that they seem unbelievable.
But in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort; one attains it through vision, style, and craft. In this context I see the quotation from Blaise Bascal about the collapse of the stellar universe not as a fake [“counterfeit”; Fälschung], but as a means of making possible an ecstatic experience of inner, deeper truth. Just as it’s not fakery when Michelangelo’s Pietà portrays Jesus as a 33-year-old man, and his mother, the mother of God, as a 17-year-old.”
Thus we have the contradiction in Hitchens’ view – Werner Herzog’s statement about what art can achieve: “But in the fine arts, in music, literature, and cinema, it is possible to reach a deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort…” is no different than any profession of faith and is essentially religious in nature – or if you prefer, religious statements are essentially artistic in nature. And whether Hitchens likes it or not Herzog is using a work of art that is not only inspired by faith in all its contradictions but remains a votive force of faith and it has in Herzog inspired the creation of art. Therefore the idea that art is better suited than religion is false firstly because so much art is derived from the conflicts of faith and secondly because both Hitchens as atheist and Herzog as penitent use the same language and in fact have no choice but to use language that is clearly identical to religious dogma – with its description of the soul and transcendence.
History is not done. No part of the whole can exist outside of time or memory and here, we turn to one of the great writers Hitchens would surely include in his list of ethicists:
“The past aint even hardly past…”
What has been true for all other religions – the metastasizing of divergent interpretations of the faith is inevitable in Islam and today’s violent Muslim is no more or potentially less tomorrow’s artistic genius then Mimomedies is today’s Seinfeld. Or consider the ways in which statues of Chairman Mao have come to be points of veneration as the real man fades into history and into memory and into, naturally, myth and thus is subsumed into the machinery of tales and questions of faith.
Versus how Hitchens on the one hand tells us, we (the thoughtful we of Hitchens and those who agree with him) have the arts. And the arts are, he says, best suited to the contemplation of ethical dilemmas because they do not advocate violence (though that is demonstrably not always the case – like it or not Mishima was an artist and a powerful writer and he was also a fascist and so was Celine and it was T.S. Eliot who in After Strange Gods said the safety of society depends on Jews being locked up – and yes, Eliot never burned anyone at the stake but, he did write lovely odes to the people who did and of course were it not for that toxic fascist Ezra Pound any number of great artists would have been without one of the great public relations men of history) but then, towards the end of this brilliantly contradictory paragraph he offers this:
“Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and—since there is no other metaphor—also the soul.”
With the exceptions of course for, among others, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and…good grief, what a list we would have.
Were this gem of weak-construction to have been written by some mentally inebriated preacher deep in the pretense of his self-proclaimed sophistication, we would have a good laugh at their expense. Were it from an intelligent but religious scholar or author Hitchens would invalidate it. He would eviscerate it. But this is from one of the crown princes of the erudite – a man whose wit and knowledge of all things refined was lauded even by people who in general (think Fox news) loathed him.
But what are we to say? For surely, Hitchens knew that it was scripture that provided countless artists with the template from which their creations both great and otherwise sprang.
The mind reels at the sheers number of such examples from A Moveable Feast to The Demoiselle D’Avignon which sprang from among other sources Picasso’s confrontation with El Greco’s sense of his own christian faith. What shall we say of Shusaku Endo or Graham Greene? What are we to do with Hesse? We may quarrel with their faith, we may critique their style but the idea that they are to be counted out from their faith, or their faith from them, fails in the instant it is declared as a given that faith is for the foolish and the violent and art is somehow magically both separate from it and wholly within it.
Again, so there is no mistake, we are aware that in theory Hitchens is targeting the vile bombast of the holy rollers who denounce freedom and proclaim violence and ignorance as virtues. But we are targeting his chain of evidence and the spurious logic he is employing in the service of that argument. Consider, in his defense, that he allows for the essential necessity of faith, that the fear of death and of strangers compels the generation of faith in the face of the terrifying unknown but – and it is a serious pause – he is aghast at the inevitable violence that comes with it and laments the delay in evolving to a point where we no longer need it.
And his list, his bill of indictment is lengthy. Time and time again, the proclamation of the word brings with it death and misery.
And this is the problem. Sadly, we cannot have one without the other and not only because people are often stupid, but because to again make reference to a contemporary example – you can’t have Born to Run unless you also take on and digest the post industrial desiccated existentially tormented world of a tortured, neurotic, lapsed catholic, who quells his inner demons by offering four hour testimonials to the faithful. And no, he doesn’t demand obedience, he doesn’t preach violence but he is the product of those who do and, it’s hard to be a saint in the city.
The number of artists who were motivated by their faith is immense. The number motivated by their rejection of that faith and thus defined by that central argument is equally immense. But more than that, Hitchens’ splicing of the artistic genome is a miscalculation and in the hands of a lesser intelligence could be dismissed as the distortion it is. In the hands of the great wit, it is, tawdry. It is propaganda masquerading as erudition but propaganda it is and as such, it becomes upon closer inspection, too clever by half.
Simply put – without the idea of god, we would be lost. Thus, Voltaire was (is) correct and Hitchens was (is) wrong to contradict him. We would not be who we are and while we would be ipso facto other than we are (and capable of – one hesitates to be too cute or precious yet – God only knows what), we submit that this – this totality of the human experience, is in all its defects and catastrophes, not to be condemned as an illogical response because of its inescapable corollaries of sadistic mayhem any more than a sane person would put out their eyes because they are having a bad hair day.
Writing a review of Roberto Calasso’s book, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Italo Calvino said: This book is about two things. First, it is about the ancient Greek Myth, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. And secondly, it is about everything else.
And so on to Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. Or rather, Hitchens on Rushdie and the Ayatollah and everything else.
Over the years Hitchens, to his everlasting credit was an indefatigable defender of Rushdie’s right to write and publish anything he wanted and thus a defender of the right of anyone to read anything they wanted to and thus to speak freely or, conversely to keep their opinions to themselves and not be forced to confess anything. Equally to his credit is the corollary – the indictment of the fascists who sentenced Rushdie to death and the Chamberlain-esque equivocators who blamed Rushdie for his dilemma. An odious tactic used by rapists the world over.
But again, Hitchens creates a problem in logic. Yes, sentencing a writer to death for blasphemy is both hilarious and terrifying and the people who did it, and the people who tried to carry out the punishment, and the people who defend it or excused it or in any way justified it all belong in the same historical cul de sac.
But the book was about, two things. First it was about Rushdie’s gloss of the contradictions inherent in religion, and secondly, it was about everything else. And there is the rub for Hitchens. Again.
Imagine the Koran had never existed. Imagine there were no Ayatollahs. Yes, it’s easy if you try…but then what? Yes, obviously Rushdie could have written another book. But, those things do exist and he did write that book and we are again confronted with, and by what seems to be an inescapable paradox and symbiosis that no amount of wit, and erudition will eliminate. Simply, you can’t have one without the other. To borrow a phrase: “There are then two positions available to us: either crime, which renders us happy, or the noose, which prevents us from being unhappy…”
Which brings us to another question.
What is the nature of God?
Hitchens lays out his case with the expertise of a well-seasoned prosecutor. He offers up expert testimony from preachers who are buffoons who ask him simplistic questions that require binary responses in the same way that advertisements offer sophisticated morons the choice between Coke and Pepsi, republican or democrat. This is a fairly typical stra-tee-gery employed by goons like Bill O’Reilly who once foolishly (sic) tried to trap the far more mentally agile David Letterman in the thicket of yes/no knuckle dragging mouth breathing atavism by asking him if he wanted American to win the war in Iraq. Unable to contain his pleasure at having, he thought, trapped Letterman, he pounced and said: It’s a simple question!
To which Letterman said: Not for me it isn’t.
Asked for a yes or no to the question – would he feel safe if he saw a group of men walking towards him just after evening prayer Hitchens, being thoughtful also sidestepped the obvious come-on and proceeds in his God is Not Great to list the multitude of instances in which he felt, rightly, unsafe when confronted by such people precisely because of their consistent habit of taking the word and using it as a pretext to murder people.
Hitchens gives us a tour of such encounters in many of the world’s garden spots for gold medals in religious insanity – Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, etcetera. He prefaces these examples of brutality with a well-established list of seemingly absurd fables about virgin births and their ubiquity – which, given their wide usage, one is of course left to snicker at the increasingly fraught and hysterical claims to divinely inspired originality and having the market cornered on integrity – and each one is replete with examples of the usual suspects engaged in the usual mayhem. Again, there’s no arguing with it, exactly, but there remains a central problem.
Not only, as we have established do we seem stuck with a buy one get one free dilemma, in which if you want Sgt. Pepper you also have to take post war England – which of course means that if you want The Beatles then you have to also take the matrix that produced them which includes everything from British Imperialism to the Gulag Archipelago, that is, The War in its entirety and not only those portions cherry-picked – but, this paradox, is essentially the same argument put forward by the religious for millennia.
For example, in Job we get this: Where were you, says God, or rather God’s PR man, when I created…everything!?! Obviously Hitchens would demolish this as an example of the absurd lengths to which the fabulists will go to illogically deny the logic of doubt.
Or, to cite another example, consider Highway 61 Revisited, in which Abe, sounding more like a dude inclined to listen to the Grateful Dead than a patriarch of religion, says to God – man, you must be puttin me on – and in keeping with Hitchens’ I told you so tone about the propensity for arbitrary and insane violence inherent in religion, God tells Dylan’s Abe – you can do what you want Abe but…the next time you see me comin you better run…and of course, Dylan’s Abe gives in because, as Hitchens would rightly point out, giving in is often preferable to getting your head cut off by a gang of religious thugs. And Dylan’s God, at least this early iteration, is the violent, paranoid, arbitrary thug for whom Hitchens rightly has contempt.
But it is not, once we think about it, quite so simple. Putting aside the obvious point that without the sinister symbiosis between poet and violence we would be deprived of one of the great meditations on religion and everything else we arrive again at the larger question: Is this paradox inherently a depiction of the nature of God?
That is, yes Hitchens is right about the stupidity, and he’s right about the violence, and he’s right about the threat posed by both but, given the extent to which one (religion) informs the other (human action – specifically but not limited to the arts) not only might we ask, what are we to do instead, but can we not also ask, is Hitchens missing the point and scoring on his own goal?
Here let us take a look at one of Hitchens’ main themes and indeed one which he shares with many others – namely the idea that precisely because so much of religious dogma is so demonstrably ridiculous, it stands to reason that either God is a moron (full of arbitrary rules and no mercy as Joseph Campbell put it) or can not exist.
After all, how could an entity be sublime and powerful enough to create black holes and whales but be such an asshole that it cares if you work on one day versus another?
It stands to reason…
Except, what if the point is the very unreasonableness of it? As Hitchens says:
“Credo quia absurdum, as the “church father” Tertullian put it, either disarmingly or annoyingly according to your taste. “I believe it because it is absurd.”
In other words, while Hitchens scoffs, we say: the Godless universe of the Existentialists or the Absurdists, is still absurd but precisely because God exists not because God is an illusion.
That is, as the tortured Catholic genius Grahame Greene said:
“You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.”
This from an opium smoking hedonist who from time to time in his youth enjoyed (if that is the right word) playing Russian roulette. But, what of it?
This: Faith is the embracing of the ridiculous, the absurd, the unanswerable and unknowable. And thus, is a definition of the nature of God.
If we posit the existence of a transcendent consciousness, then by definition, the question, the age old question – does God exist – is revealed to be without foundation not only because it is ultimately unanswerable but because it cannot be asked.
Not in the sense that you or I are proscribed from asking but in the sense that there is no logical foundation for the question. In a sense it is not any different than the militantly secular physicists who, when confronted quite rightly by the reasonable objections to the Big Bang theory and all the ways in which it sounds exactly like a religious explanation for the creation of the universe sigh, shrug their shoulders and say: well, you have to accept it on faith because whatever existed prior to The Big Bang was a reality that existed prior to the advent of the physics we understand.
In other words – it isn’t logical, it is absurd, and you should believe it because some people speaking a language you don’t understand say it’s true.
And so it is reasonable to say – if God is God – that is a consciousness that transcends human understanding – if it is both Ahab’s principal and agent and unknowable – then surely, by definition, it is capable of choosing to not exist and capable of choosing to both exist and not exist in the same instant. Hitchens’ chief complaint then, other than his righteous indignation at unjust violence and corruption, ignorance and mendacity, is with God itself – with a being who if its followers are correct – is an insufferable psychopathic thug.
It’s hard as long as one isn’t a psychopathic thug as well, not to have sympathy for his position. One need only consider the vile things people have done both in the name of religion and in the name of their own secular desires to want to shout to the heavens – you have got to be fucking kidding me with this bullshit!
Hitchens’ argument here is that God cannot be both all powerful and illogical or all knowing and all contradictions that defy the nature of omnipotence. And here we are reminded of the argument between Einstein and Niels Bohr about whether or not the universe was inherently random or obeyed laws of regularity.
God, said Einstein, does not shoot craps with the universe.
To which Bohr responded: Stop telling God what to do.
And so, we return again to the paradox. For example, I think Picasso’s Guernica is a sublime masterpiece. So do a lot of other people. Thus, I, like those others, am guilty of a type of decadence.
Concerning this there is a story, perhaps apocryphal, in which a German officer visits Picasso at his studio in Paris during the occupation. Used to these not infrequent visits Picasso would stand his ground impassively waiting for the inspection to end. So the story goes, one such visit resulted in the officer picking up a postcard that depicted the great painting. After several minutes the officer looked at Picasso and, holding the postcard loosely in his hands said: Did you do this?
To which Picasso is alleged to have said: No, you did.
The story ends there usually with wry self-congratulation all around. The artist supreme has, without recourse to violence vanquished the barbarian.
Except, it raises a troubling dilemma. While any sane person would rather the city had not been destroyed, and we all can recognize that it’s unlikely Picasso wouldn’t have had any trouble finding other subjects to paint, the fact is, the city was destroyed and its destruction gave one of the greatest artists the inspiration to create a masterpiece which we, in our masochism, in our need to touch the face of a capricious God, enjoy.
Hitchens refers to this as the thinking of a slave and he may very well be right. Who but a slave would conceive of a God so bent, so committed to punishment for the slightest transgression? But, a world without this terror is a world without Picasso, or Springsteen, Joyce, or The Blues. Or Picasso as we know him. Or think of it like this: In an article in the New Yorker, a critic wrote that Miles Davis’ masterpiece, Kind of Blue was ultimately a moral disaster. You can, said the critic, hear the heroin in it.
To which we would say: yes, and your point is?
What shall we do with this paradox? Consider that the great artists of The Renaissance, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, were all employed by thugs. Thugs not only guilty of every perversion and sadistic resort imaginable – murder, rape, incest, bribery, genocide – but that they all did it – as Hitchens would say – in the name of God! And, he’s right it was in the name of God – the God of the awful, the sadistic, the outrageous, that he condemns and yet the awful God’s agents, its thugs, have given us the sublime.
Consider the murdering, rapist and pimp, Caravaggio, whose Dormition of the Virgin, (a painting for which he used as a model the body of a dead whore) rightly hangs in The Louvre. To denounce him as a slave of religious insanity is to condemn ourselves to a nihilism from which there can be no escape. To embrace him is to surrender to a faith in a state of paradox from which there may be no escape though the theme songs and advertisements certainly are beautiful. That is as the Divine Marquis put it – you can have either crime which is unethical but makes us happy, or the noose, which prevents us from being unhappy and thus, devoid of the razor’s edge of life.
But to follow Hitchens, imagine a world devoid of the terrible. (I am here reminded of Woody Allen: “I feel life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like…terminal cases and blind people…I don’t know how they get through life…and the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable…”) Without the terrible, without the awful, the list of things we value that we would lose is like cutting off your arms and legs because we hate clothes.
Such a world hardly seems worth living in and yet surely neither you nor I want to live in a world where we are subject to the sadistic control of fanatics.
As Hitchens says:
“Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.”
And surely it does.
One imagines that Dr. King was conflicted by this.* And Gandhi. And the monks who immolated themselves to protest the tyranny of the South Vietnamese government.
And of course, one might say, thank God they were troubled by it. Along with everything else that disturbed their sleep. And, of course, there’s the troubling fact that all three, Dr.King, Gandhi and those monks, were products of and belonged to…organized religions.
Of course Hitchens is correct to point out the scientific basis for things that religion consistently claims to explain by what amounts to nothing more or less than different types of magic. Intelligent Design being just another of these versions of the same old three card monty.
And no, we don’t think he’s wrong, exactly.
But we are struck by this: Heaven in a wild flower, the universe in a grain of sand.
I will not assume anything on behalf of Blake – neither faith or delusions from too much lead and opium. I will only say that no better and many worse statements have been made in the name of the experience of God or the sublime or the transcendent.
I will not be so generous with Hitchens who says:
“Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it (religion) no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”
This of course renders Blake moldy and past his sell-by date. It renders all literature that is based upon religion or is itself religious, or devotional, out of date. Or it requires us to splice one from the other – to say, yes there is beautiful devotional art, but that which created it, that from which it sprang either in fealty or rebellion, is cast out.
Which of course, renders Hitchens not much better than many of the religious bigots he condemns and worse then some he finds contemptuous.
Yes, it is not religion that will cure cancer though it is possible that it is a religious person who will. But more importantly it is necessary to call out Hitchens for painting the case with too wide a brush.
He says, towards the conclusion of God is Not Great:
“The study of literature and poetry, both for its own sake and for the eternal ethical questions with which it deals, can now easily depose the scrutiny of sacred texts that have been found to be corrupt and confected.”
And how are we to distinguish one from the other – the dancer from the dance? Sacred? Not Sacred? Yeats, or the Gitta? Rimbaud or The Song of Solomon? (and one need not work very hard to remember Ginsberg’s experiencing what either was a religious awakening or a psychotic break or both when he heard Blake speak to him resulting ultimately in other religious episodes like Howl, Kaddish and Wichita Vortex Sutra and in a sense the engine of the Beat Rebellion).
I consider literature and the arts in general to be too fragile an enterprise to be subjected to dictates of any kind. Not fragile in the sense that they will not withstand and endure assaults as they have time and time again but, fragile in the sense that I will not propose a litmus test or a line of demarcation that says here and no further may you write about…God…or your faith.
If Hitchens wished to do so that’s his choice but I don’t have to be quiet about it.
In the episode of Shameless, Requiem for a Slut, Fiona finds a book her mother had apparently been reading. It’s Siddhartha by, Hermann Hesse. A retelling of the origin story of The Buddha the novel was popular at various times with divergent groups of people who for different yet similar reasons, felt themselves to be lost – cut off from having any reason to live or a sense of purpose.
Say what you will about Hesse’s style, or his philosophies, his appeal to Hippies or spiritual seekers, but at the end of the book, when Siddhartha has found his place as the ferryman transporting pilgrims and others across the river, he is reunited with his childhood friend Govinda.
They have a conversation as old friends separated by years typically do – catching up and then getting down to the business of where they ended up. Govinda as a wandering Buddhist monk, Siddhartha as…well, what exactly it is hard to say except that he is a man who ferries people across a river.
Govinda is unsatisfied with his friends answers to questions. They argue. At last Siddhartha answers him: You see, he says, we are again, within the trap of words.
They part company and Govinda goes on. Siddhartha stays to tend the crossing.
The river as always, endures.
Postscript: For more discussion of Hitchens on Art and religion see his debate (available on youtube) with Tony Blair around the 1:15.00 mark. Note that while Hitchens accepts the transcendent and sublime qualities of art that rhyme with the religious at no point does he address the essential paradox – that even if it were just one artist inspired by their experience of faith, let alone thousands, many who we revere, we have no choice but to reconcile ourselves to religion, terror and all.
Additionally and without wanting to rub salt in the wound, one must surely both enjoy and feel a slight pang at the embarrassment caused by the following lines from Hitchens’ True North, Orwell. Here in his essay, Inside The Whale, Orwell lays out a mostly accurate but consistently interesting exegesis of Henry Miller and the literary scene from just before the First World War until the beginning of the Second. Here, he gives a description of the engine of Joyce’s creativity and the underlying forge of Ulysses:
“But ULYSSES could not have been written by someone who was merely dabbling with word-patterns; it is the product of a special vision of life, the vision of a Catholic who has lost his faith. What Joyce is saying is ‘Here is life without God. Just look at it!’ and his technical innovations, important though they are, are primarily to serve this purpose.”
We are uncertain if there is a better indictment of the central flaw in Hitchens’ argument but even if there are others, the fact that it’s Orwell is especially damning. But even stripping away the source, we are left with the facts – if you want Joyce, qua Joyce, then you buy the whole package – fire and brimstone barbarian Jesuits, pedophile priests, and the whole shaking, jittery mess of Ireland. And for that, Hitchens can offer nothing but words. QED, the case is closed.
*In a speech sponsored by Google, Hitchens mentions the frequent use of Dr.King by those with whom he argues regarding the relative merits of faith-based action. Hitchens’ rebuttal is based on the fact that King often made use of Exodus as a metaphor to be used in defense and advocacy of Civil Rights. Hitchens says that King is suspect in this because he did not also mention that Exodus while clearly concerned with the immorality of slavery, and the trials of exile, is also about mass murder and obedience under penalty of death, to the previously discussed feckless psychopathic thug. And, he’s right, but what he is implying is that King (or anyone else) was not allowed to choose freely, to construct his vision, based on his selection of parts from the whole, whereas, to cite one example of many, Hitchens might, one can reasonably assume, insist on the right to assume one piece of the whole in utilizing some aspects of Trotskyism and Trotsky himself versus being shackled by the totality of the Left – and thus responsible for its failures, guilty by association with all aspects of its crimes, and prevented, by polemical writ, from saying or doing anything that deviates from…the official word. Thus in Hitchens’ logic Trotsky is either damned because Stalin or religion is a free agent because Exodus.
Update (7/20/17): In a conversation with Sam Harris Hitchens allows that had he been writing about Catholicism in the 1930s, he would have held Catholicism as the most dangerous.*
Of course the very fact of allowing for change along the historical continuum invalidates the premise that Islam represents what the pols and the professional talkers now refer to as an existential threat.
*Joyce probably would have agreed.*
*As Robin Williams said: In the dictionary, under irony, see irony.