#79: QUESTIONING AUTHORITY. I find it a pleasure that Christopher Hitchens writes as eloquently in praise (his books on Orwell and Thomas Paine) as he does in damnation (everything else). His book Letters to a Young Contrarian (Basic Books, 2001), with its open allusion to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (which passes under Hitchens’s eye with a few but relatively light scorch marks) is a discussion of the role of contrarian or, as the cynics might have it, professional nay-sayer: “A disposition for resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence….To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, not something you do.” The role has its temptations and dangers, of which Hitchens is gratifyingly aware—the book serves as an assurance, if you are thrown by consistent nay-sayers, that Hitchens writes in skeptic good faith. And it presents, in brief and effectively restrained form, Hitchens’s objections to religious thought. These are questions, if you pretend to faith, that you have to answer, but in form beside which Hitchens’s much-discussed God Is Not Great is a slack and over-insistent piece of writing. Being Hitchens, the book is full of questions you should be answering (this is the twenty-first century, if you had not noticed) and plenty of humor; one story is offered “as part of my recommendation that one acts bloody-minded as often as the odds are favorable and even sometimes when they are not; it’s good exercise.” Letters is a spirited and enlivening book that delivers the bad news with a maximum of precision and zest.
Precision and zest are two pretty good defining terms for any writing Margaret Atwood lays her hand to. And irony, and intelligence: those virtues, as Hitchens remarks, we are so much warned against. Irony layers her language: one of her poem collections is called You AreHappy; one of her most moving poems is called “Last Day”. The quick vitality, her points that form themselves a shade faster than we expect, her boomerang use of current phrases—all these give Atwood’s artistry a contrarian side. In Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (Anansi, 2008), the topic leaps off the ledger page and Atwood demonstrates its fiscal, emotional, sacrificial and literary facets as one of the conditions of our lives, as our great imaginary construct and as a recurring topic of our imaginative writing. It’s an ideal subject for Atwood to raise her eyebrow over, and in two hundred rapid pages we get Euripides, Eric Berne, Madame Defarge, Solon, the daughter of Jephthah, gelada monkeys, the Bedoneby sisters, Shylock (of course), Faustus (of course) and Scrooge (Original, Lite and Nouveau)—and an exceedingly interesting bibliography of current ecology websites. How much more shadowy can you get, Atwood has her reader ask, four chapters in: “Quite a lot more, because it’s shadowiest just before it gets even shadowier. But never mind, I’m saving the hopeful stuff for the end of the book. Just like Pandora.” Atwood as contrarian? In the fifth and final chapter: “I’ll try to make this as painless as possible. No, on second thought, I won’t do that: because if it were painless, it wouldn’t be about payback, would it?” Brava.