You should wear with pride the scars on your skin

19 12 2011

Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died this past weekend.

Both men were writers deeply engaged in the politics of our time; one was more in love with words than ideas, the other, the other way around.

One man engaged in politics, the other, engaged in the engagement; both are worthy pursuits, but they are not equal to each other.

One man knew that, the other didn’t.

One was a hell of a s/wordsman, and I would have loved to have had the chance to have lost (as I would have) an argument to him. Fight above your weight class, I say, and Hitchens was certainly far above mine; losing to him would have been instructive, and if I could never have hoped to have bested him in argument, I could have applied the lessons of those beatings elsewhere.

But if I wanted to learn more than verbal fisticuffs, I would rather have sat down in a smoky pub with Havel. If Hitchens had great verbal reflexes, Havel was the far better reflector. He questioned, he doubted, he admitted the possibility of error in his steadfast search for moral clarity. He lived an absurd life, and was imprisoned by an absurd regime for pointing out its absurdity.

His stint as leader of Czechoslovakia, and later, as president of the Czech Republic, was not an unqualified success, and some of us were disappointed by his support for the Iraq war. He based that support on the grounds of the threat Saddam Hussein held for the Iraqis, not the Americans, and even that support was qualified, arguing that  “the international community has the right to intervene when human rights are liquidated in such a brutal way.”

I have some sympathy for liberal interventionism—the legacy of inaction in Rwanda—but even more suspicion; still, I can extend that sympathy to someone whose country was ripped apart by Hitler, then stomped on by the Soviets in 1968. Havel’s idealism got him through prison terms and decades of oppression, and if that same idealism led him to underestimate the Hobbesian in politics, well, I can still appreciate his admonition that Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred.

Hitchens was a champion hater and, to be honest, I can take altogether too much comfort in my own contempts. I enjoy the fight, enjoy the hardness of verbal combat and in slamming back a volley aimed at my own head. I like to win—ohhhh, do I like to win.

But winning is not enough; what is the win for?

What is needed is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution.

. . . We must see the pluralism of the world, and not bind it by seeking common denominators or reducing everything to a single common equation. We must try harder to understand rather than to explain. . . . In short, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.

From a speech before the World Economic Forum, 1992

I do not share Havel’s moral idealism, Havel’s hope, but I don’t think he’s wrong to tell us to look past ourselves, our interests and our fears, and to live in the full possibility of this human world.

I might have had fun hanging out with Hitchens, and been discomfitted by Havel, but I think the discomfitting is more fitting: unease propels me more than certainty ever will.



10 responses

19 12 2011

I won’t pretend to be extremely familiar with either of these men or their work. I know more about Hitchens than Havel, but really not enough to comment on either of them directly. But from what I do know and from what I can ascertain from your post it seems only respectful and fitting that you sum up your intentions the way that you have. I can only imagine that both men would’ve preferred to “move” you than to merely entertain or pacify your intellect. Thank you for making my own revelations and future inquiries on each man seem all the more purposeful and meaningful. Take care.

19 12 2011
Pete from Baltimore

A very good article and tribute.
Pete from Baltimore

19 12 2011

while I share your dis-ease with Havel’s kind of quasi-transcendental optimism I think that he was well understood as a public intellectual while Hitchens personified the kind of off the hip debate-club repartee that makes most of what happens on the intertubes too much like cablenews for my taste.

19 12 2011
Pete from Baltimore

Since you dont comment at TNC’s blog anymore, i would just like to take this chance to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy and safe 2012.

And i do miss your comments at TNC’s blog. I hope that one day you will pay a visit there.Your well thought out and intelligent comments are defintly missed by myself.And im sure that other commenters there miss them as well
Best regards to you

19 12 2011

hey pete, thanks for the kind words and wishes, as much as i enjoy tnc’s posts and many of the good folks who comment there the general tone of the comment sections was too much given to speculation, mondaymorningquarterbacking, mind-reading, point-winning, and increasingly pc policing of thought.
luckily for me many of my favorite folks from there have their own sites, with their own specialties, and i’m always glad to run into thoughtful and generous folks like yourself in these parts. hope you are working as much as you would like in this down economy and not much more, contract work is always a bit of a ride i know. best you and yours, d.
ps does anyone have tnc’s new email @ ?

27 12 2011
Pete from Baltimore

I quite understnd your reasons.Unfortuantly, ive found that one finds these things[monday morning quarterbacking,ect] in all social situations .

I myself do not drink alcohol [ i couldnt afford it when i was young.And its silly to start drinking it this late in life].But i do go to my local corner bar to eat dinner when i can afford to. And i learned long ago, to tune out the blowhards and fools, and pay attention to the intelligent people.

You would be surprised at how many extremly intelligent people that ive met from all walks of life, at my local bar.From construction laborers to top people at Johns Hopkins [Baltimore’s bars often have a wierd mix of people].

So i try to treat blogs the same way.And try to tune out the bad and useless , and listen to the thoughtful and intelligent.And while it is annoying to read those that are blowhards or closeminded, its often the only way to discover those that arent

I hope that you have a great 2012!

20 12 2011

Hi trinzic! Thanks for stopping by. I hope I don’t disappoint you.

And Pete! Always nice to talk to you at TNC’s joint, so I’m doubly glad that you followed the link here.

(And hi dmf! Sorry I haven’t responded to earlier comments. Flood o’ work. I’ll get to ’em, I will.)

Anyway, y’all should know that my initial inklings for a post on Hitchens was much tougher, but juxtaposing his death to that of Havel’s led me to focus more on Havel, and to consider my own complicity in [what I would have derided as Hitchens’s] glib pronunciamentos.

It has been decades since I was earnest, but I retain the capacity to be abashed by the earnestness of others.

27 12 2011
Pete from Baltimore

I just wanted to wish you a belated Christmas. And wish you a Happy New Year.

I enjoyed your post on Havel

At the risk of being off-topic, i noticed that you have an interest in the Middle Ages. My own reading level is not that high.My book tastes are fairly low-brow.But i hope that you dont mind me listing some books about the Medieval Period A from my personal book collection that i have enjoyed
1″The Medieval Machine”

2 “The Cathedral Builders .” Both 1&2 are by Jean Gimple.A French historian. His books are translated from French.But have been translated fairly well. The “Medieval Machine” is a great book that makes the point that the first “Industrial Revolution” occoured during the Middle Ages. And that a lot more scientific and industrial achievments occoured int hat period then are given credit for

3 “Cathedral,Forge and Waterwheel” by Frances and Joseph Gies
4-“Life in a Medieval Villiage “Also by the same authors

5And “Life in a Medieval City”. Also by Frances and Joseph Gies. Two French historians that write rather good books

6 “The Year 1000″ by Robert Lacey and Danny Danzinger. In my opinion, a very interesting look at how people lived back then

7″The Time Travelers Guide to Medieval England” by Ian Mortimer. A silly title.But an interesting look at how people lived back then

8 “English Social History ” by GM Trevelyan. GM Trevelyan , is of course, one of the first great writers to write about Social History.And this classic book starts around 1300 and covers the years leading up to 1900.So the early parts of the book might interest you[ if you havent read it already]. Trevelyan also wrote other books on that time period

9 “Everyday Things in England From 1066-1499” byMarjorie and C.H.B. Quennell. They also wrote “Everyday Life in Anglo- Saxon ,Viking and Norman Times”.

Thier ” Everyday Life” series [There are several of them] was actually meant for school children around 10-14 years of age.But they were written around 100 years ago.So nowdays they would be considered High School or Freshman college level. They really are great books .With detailed drawings of what people wore back then.And drawings of the tools they used and the type of dwellings that they lived in. I know it sounds silly to recomend what basicly is a book written for children.But i cant recomend thier books enough. My Father[who is a fairly intelligent man] had a few of thier books on his book shelves

As you might have guessed, my interests tend to be about Social History. So if that sort of doesnt interest you, then i apologies . But i think that at least a few of the books that i listed might interest you.

Best regards to you and i wish you a Happy 2012

27 12 2011
Pete from Baltimore

I just reread your Medeival section.And just realised that you tend not to like Social History. My apologies.But it should be noted that GM Trevelyan did write many books about the politics of that period For instance , he wrote “England in the Age of Wycliffe 1368-1520″.

And Jean Gimple is a fairly revisionist historian[i believe that he was a Marxist Historian”. So his books about the technology during that time period, do have politcal implications[He talks a lot of the economic power of the Monastaries for instance]

Anyways, i hope that you see at least one or two books from my list that pique your interest. im sorry that my list doesnt have many politcal books.And im sorry if my list has too many books that tend to be low-middle brow.

Once again, best regards to you

29 12 2011

@dmf Huh, I checked his site, but no, I didn’t find his new e-mail. I wonder if you could send something to the Atlantic and ask them to pass it along.

@pete Thank you for your well-wishes, pete; I hope you had a Merry Christmas as well.

And thank you for the reading suggestions. As I note in a later post, the boundaries I set up to begin with are rarely intact by the time I end a project. I may have one of the Gimple books, but if not, I think it’s on my hard-copy list (I’ve added to it since I put up the blog page). Thanks as well for the tip on “Life in a Medieval City”: I’ve seen it at the Strand (a used bookstore), but haven’t yet picked it up. Now maybe I will.

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