Thursday, November 24, 2005

And at the hour of our death

Over at The View from Elsewhere there's a post on Van Nguyen, with a salutary reminder that there is something epic about this story of twins: one who stuffs up, and the other who pays for it with his life. What it keeps reminding me of is the Greek tragedy of Antigone, who will risk anything to make sure that her dead brother is properly buried, and in the end sacrifices her life to this cause.

What it also keeps reminding me of is the tragic turning of Christopher Hitchens, who used to be my hero. There's a story that Joan Didion used to sit for hours with the essays of Ernest Hemingway, typing them out as a way of trying to work out how he did it, as part of her own self-education as a writer. I used to feel (no, damn it, still do feel) that way about Hitchens. I can remember as clearly as anything the first time I laid eyes on one of his paragraphs. I came over all shivery and queer-like. That, I thought, is how to write.

It said:

'If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. ... With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where information technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicized; where the bias is always in favor of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza.'

Hitchens, having campaigned tirelessly and noisily for the abolition of the death penalty in the US, went off a few years ago to witness a State execution for himself, on the grounds that having banged on about it so much he thought he'd better see it for himself.

The essay he wrote about this experience for Vanity Fair was a chilled, subdued, slightly shellshocked affair. He was as undramatic about it as possible. The experience made him feel small and dirty.

I thought of this essay the night I saw Dead Man Walking, the opera not the movie, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Remember that joke about the definition of opera -- 'It's when the guy gets stabbed at the end, and instead of dying, he sings'? Dead Man Walking wasn't like that. At the end he didn't sing, he just died.

What I'm wondering is this. What happens to the belief system of someone who, for whatever reason, suddenly lurches to the Right? Do they automatically take up all the correct RWDB positions, after the fashion of a dramatic religious conversion? I know someone to whom this happened a few years ago, and I mourn the loss of his friendship still; what I admired about him most of all was his independence of mind, a commodity of which he now has none left.

I wonder what Hitchens thinks about the death penalty these days.


elsewhere said...

I know this was really obscure but I was actually thinking of Nisien and Efnisien in the second branch of the Mabinogi (probably only Uncle Stephen would get that!)

Pavlov's Cat said...

Um ... yes, yes, so was I, of course.

Actually, now that you mention it, and The Dark Twin by Marion Campbell* as well.

*No no, not that one.

elsewhere said...

About RWDBs...I wondered something similar about people like Bettina Arndt and Richard Neville, why they should seem to become so much more conservative and suburban in later years, apart from the usual 'settling down' reasons. Then I decided that the thing was that they had been libertarians rather than left-wing, which set them up for a liberal philosophy centred on the rights of the individual and the family...none of this really explains Germaine Greer, whom I always thought was more correctly described as a libertarian than a feminist.