Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hitchens on Waugh

This week's New York Times Book Review includes a review of Fathers and Sons: An Autobiography of a Family by Alexander Waugh, the grandson of Evelyn Waugh. When American editors want somebody to review Waugh or Greene, they seem to seek out Hitchens because a) he's smart b) he's English. But he's also virulently anti-religious, and particularly hostile towards Catholicism, so he's generally dismissive of central facets of Waugh's and Greene's work. He simply cannot see religion as anything other than a dangerous or foolish influence.

In a review from a few years ago [subscription needed for access to the full article], Hitchens said of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh's most explicitly Catholic novel and perhaps his greatest work: "the narrative is made ridiculous by a sentimental and credulous approach to miracles or the supernatural." He uses this shortcoming to support Orwell's claim that "One cannot really be Catholic and grown-up." Yes, it's true that at the end of Brideshead, Charles Ryder seems to have become Catholic; and the novel is certainly sentimental, a sort of elegy for English pre-war nobility. But to say that the book's approach to the supernatural is "credulous" is just nonsense. The novel's characters constantly doubt or challenge their faith, and those who don't doubt are made to look ridiculous. But Hitchens either doesn't remember this, or he associates all religious belief with gullibility.

This week's book review also shows this blind spot. Hitchens presents this passage that Arthur Waugh wrote his son Alec:

“The nails that pierce the Son’s hands pierce the Father’s also: the thorn-crowned head of the Dying Savior is seen to be lying upon the Father’s bosom. And it is always so with you and me. Every wound that touches you pierces my own soul also: every thorn in your crown of life tears my tired head as well. Be sure of that, as you are also sure (for you must be that) that when your hour of redemption comes, the first to share it will be the father who has never doubted or given way. ... With deep love and unfaltering trust, still and always, your ever devoted and hopeful Daddy.”


Somebody with any level of sympathy for Christian theology or symbolism would be moved at least a little by this admittedly dramatic expression of love. Not Hitchens: "One notes here not just the absence of stiff upper lip but something verging on the creepy: it is almost as if the man believes himself to be his boy’s mother." Eh?

I don't doubt that Hitchens is very, very smart. But his aversion to religion often damages his interpretations and reviews. Yes, religious belief can regress into superstition and credulity -- but the excessive skepticism and prejudice of Hitchens's atheism is just as foolish and limiting.

(But at least Hitchens uses the term "Wavian," which is almost as good as "Mahwahvian." And the similarity is a happy one, because most Mahwahvians are Wavians.)

8 comments:

Scott said...

Hitchens is actually quite a terrible literary critic: his pieces are usually a combination of paraphrase and remarkably illiterature, meaningless observations (see, for instance, his inaccurate and pointless discussions of metrics in any of his essays).

He got a Third at Oxford, in PPE.

He's an amateur, with an occasional good line in nice-ish phrasing.

Scott said...

Amusingly, I spelt illiterate illiterately. Ho-hum. It's early.

Markus said...

He got this degree more than 30 years ago.

Since then he has been working as a journalist, columnist, book author and literary critic for many of the most prestigious papers and magazines of the English-speaking world.

Did I mention that he has been doing that for 30 years?

So don't call him an amateur. Disagree with him, if you like, but accept the fact that he is one of the best-known and acclaimed political writers alive today and that his recent book on religion is only outsold by Harry Potter.

Yes, I admit that I am biased :) I am obviously a huge fan of his.

C. Seamus said...

I don't know who you are, Scott, but you look a LOT like The Author of Waverley, so you're okay by me!

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