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Write, Repeat

By (October 1, 2008) No Comment

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
– Archilochus

“Like many a journalist before and since, Marx was not shy about recycling his best lines,” observes journalist, essayist, and reviewer Christopher Hitchens, who could have been describing himself – or a great many writers. The tendency to reuse material might initially look like a journalist shortcut, but it’s one capable of serving a larger purpose. The practice can demonstrate an insistent, ongoing intellectual engagement with certain ideas, or a particular large one. Indeed, journalists join writers of all types in the recycling drive Hitchens sees Marx doing.

Of course, in some cases, reusing material is nothing more than simple corner-cutting. In my first publishing job, with a generator of reference works in the days before the Internet was pervasive, I had to hunt through newspapers, magazine, press releases, government documents and the like for statistics to reproduce in volumes intended for those too lazy to do their own research. While my stint at this particular house did not last long, I spent sufficient time there to notice various news outlets repeating themselves. I remember a state university annually issuing a news release about what Americans consumed over a particular holiday. Each year, a local paper would dutifully run an article on Independence Day hotdog intake. The “news” article parroted the text provided to the paper and wording in both remained virtually unchanged from one year to the next.

However, the kind of recycling that interests me has different, less cynical, motivations, and Hitchens provides examples of these in his books and essays. His writings demonstrate a longstanding interest in a definite menu of subjects and a resolute consistency in his approach to them. After September 11, 2001, after Hitchens’s decision the following year to discontinue the column he wrote for The Nation for twenty years and – especially – after he vocally supported U.S. military intervention in Iraq the year following, many of his long-time readers thought they saw a change in his thinking. He abandoned the left, former fans of his work said. Indeed, he has referred to his “leftist days” as though they were definitely in the past. However, his regular recycling reveals less of a mental and political shift than those he “betrayed” might like to believe.

Hitchens’s response to the famous furor connected with a friend’s fiction provides a revealing illustration of meaningful repetition. In 1989 – the year Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran announced a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie because of the “blasphemous” 1988 novel The Satanic Verses – Hitchens announced that he was “Siding with Rushdie,” explaining, “One must side with Salman Rushdie not because he is an underdog but because there is no other side to be on.” After making that unambiguous assertion, in a review of several books about the Rushdie affair reprinted in 1993’s For the Sake of Argument, he continued to make the case for uncompromised support for Rushdie and his rights. Summarizing the situation in 2001’s Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens puts it like this: “Here was an open incitement to murder, accompanied by the offer of a bounty and directed at a writer of fiction who wasn’t even a citizen of the said theocracy.” He makes a few adjustments when returning to the subject in 2007’s God Is Not Great: “the theocratic head of a foreign state…publicly offered money, in his own name, to suborn the murder of a novelist who was a citizen of another country.” He repeats the identical essential point, with slight variations in phrasing, to stress that there really is only one position to take, and the choice should be obvious to any thinking individual.

One aspect of the Iranian fatwa that particularly concerns Hitchens is others’ unreasonable responses to it. In his 1989 essay he notes that President George Bush demurred at making a statement about the death threat, saying his concerns were exclusively with attacks “against American interests.” He mentions this again ten years later in a review of subsequent developments called “Not Dead Yet,” which also appears in 2000’s Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere.Hitchens gives especial scrutiny to writers’ reactions, which leave him desiring much more from those who ought to recognize immediately what is at stake when religious fanatics encourage the killing of authors. In 1989 and 1999, he cites with approval Susan Sontag’s response to the first President Bush; she pointed out that protecting the rights “to write, publish, sell, buy and read books free of intimidation” and to fight terrorism historically were regarded as American interests. However, many others disappoint him:

You would think, perhaps, that when [Rushdie] was assaulted by a theocratic fatwa…, his fellow authors would have rushed to his defense…. But you would have been astonished to see the amount of muttering and hanging back that went on. Had his novel perhaps been ‘offensive’? Were the feelings of pious Muslims not to be considered? Was he not asking for trouble?

In “Not Dead Yet,” which first appeared in Black Book in 1999, Hitchens bemoans the “bizarre” response of several specific writers: “John Le Carré, John Berger, Roald Dahl, High Trevor-Roper, and others began a sort of auction of defamation in which they accused Rushdie variously of insulting Islam, practicing Western-style cultural colonialism and condescension, and damaging race relation.” In God Is Not Great, he combines elements of earlier arguments and refines his point: “Some public figures…, such as the Marxist writer John Berger, the Tory historian High Trevor-Roper, and the doyen of espionage authors John Le Carré, also pronounced that Rushdie was the author of his own troubles, and had brought them on himself by ‘offending’ a great monotheistic religion.” Dahl gets dropped from the wall of shame, but those questioning quotation marks remain firmly around variants of the word “offense.”

The relentless criticism of religion, far from revolving exclusively around Rushdie, forms part of an effort to encourage skeptical, critical thinking. Hitchens sees the sort of credulity he associates with religious belief as unnecessarily constraining human potential. This leads him again to a point he makes in 2002’s Why Orwell Matters: “it matters not what you think, but how you think.” This distinction reappears in God Is Not Great, where he says of various religious thinkers: “We have nothing much to learn from what they thought, but a great deal to learn from how they thought.” Giving a sense of the mental maneuvers he prefers, Hitchens often wields Occam’s razor. For instance, he mentions the principle of economy that disposes of unnecessary assumptions and needlessly convoluted explanations in Letters, in a piece in For the Sake of Argument and several times in God Is Not Great. In contrast, religion represents an “attempt to assert the literal and limited mind over the ironic and inquiring one.” He said in 1989 that the Rushdie fatwa signaled “an all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind.”

Having taken sides in this intellectual struggle and having committed to doing related mental heavy lifting, Hitchens aims to debunk miracles. The question of miracles has special importance for revealing the fraudulence of man-made religion because “exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence” and “what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence,” as he asserts in God Is Not Great. Believers reveal themselves unsatisfied with faith alone, or they wouldn’t look for signs of a god in the form of unexplainable events, which are in any case invariably explainable without the assumption of a supernatural being.

He exposed the falsehood of a particular miracle claimed in connection with a well-known religious figure long before God Is Not Great appeared. But given that work’s thesis, how could he not take another look at material included in an earlier, related book, 1995’s The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice? The Vatican invited him to testify regarding the nun’s beatification, which makes it hard for him to avoid covering some of the same ground as he did in a 2001 piece about his chance to make the case against Mother Teresa, included in 2004’s Love, Poverty, and War and revisited in Letters.

When Hitchens writes in God Is Not Great, “I have been writing this book all my life,” he does not exaggerate. Nor did he drop the subject after having laid it out in detail there. The introduction to 2007’s The Portable Atheist, an anthology he compiled of writings against belief, distills the argument he made in the book-length onslaught issued earlier the same year. Reducing the nearly 300 page attack into just a few pages, he echoes certain lines for which he clearly has a fondness. In both places he describes god as a “man-made concept” that belongs to “the infancy of the species.” Despite this, he has little hope for human beings’ ability to outgrow it. “Religious faith is, precisely because we are still-evolving creatures, ineradicable,” he explains in God Is Not Great. “It will never die out, or at least not until we get over our fear of death, and of the dark, and of the unknown, and of each other.” He presents a variant of the line, including the part about fear of death and the dark, in The Portable Atheist. In both books he contemplates religions’ paradoxical demand for submission and sacrifice of self-regard while simultaneously encouraging a self-centered belief in personal centrality to a divine plan. He contrasts religion with literature, asserting, as he does in The Portable Atheist, that “as a source of ethical reflection and as a mirror in which to see out human dilemmas reflected, the literary tradition is infinitely superior to the childish parables and morality tales, let alone the sanguinary and sectarian admonitions, of the ‘holy’ books.” He says virtually the same thing, using many of the same words, in God Is Not Great:

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.

Many writers take on a curatorial function, preserving not only their own highly regarded sentences but those of others as well. Hitchens is not shy about regularly reusing other writers’ lines (with proper attribution, of course). In a 1988 review of a Noam Chomsky book, Hitchens quotes Ian McEwan’s description of observing daytime television audience behavior as “the democrat’s pornography” from The Child in Time, which was first published the year before. Hitchens finds use for the line again in a 1994 review of an H.L. Mencken biography reprinted in Unacknowledged Legislation and yet again in Letters to a Young Contrarian. Since the credulous spectators witnessed by the narrator of McEwan’s novel allow themselves to be humiliated and manipulated, just as many religious believers do, Hitchens invokes the line again in God Is Not Great. (I confess to having previously written about Hitchens and to having quoted some of his solidly carpentered lines. Doing so strikes me as more worthwhile than preserving unappetizing sausage statistics.)

I did not compile these examples to suggest that Hitchens has dined out on the same material for decades. Rather, by returning to certain vital concepts, and episodes illustrating them, he does what he regards as the job of a journalist. As he put it in 1999: “I sometimes can’t believe my own good fortune: to have had the chance to defend civilization’s essential principle (no more than payback time, really, for someone who makes a living from free speech)….” The right to unhindered expression and the need to combat those who aim to curtail it have been constants during his career. After Rushdie spent the night at Hitchens’s apartment, the State Department called Hitchens, informing that he might now be a target of revenge. Thus, when he says, “The theocratic and absolutist side in this war hopes to win it by exporting it here, which in turn means that we have no expectation of staying out of the war, and no right to be neutral in it,” he could have been discussing the possibility of terrorists attacking his residence because of Rushdie’s visit to it. Instead, he’s referring to the need to takes sides against those who would crash airplanes into the Pentagon (not far from his home) and the World Trade Center. The line appeared in his final Nation column in the fall of 2002. When he argues, as he does in God Is Not Great, that religion is “a menace to civilization” as well as “a threat to human survival” and that “the true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee,” it would be hard to find a better supporting example than Rushdie’s ordeal.

Besides, it’s not as if only the author of Midnight’s Children and The Moor’s Last Sigh was affected. When Hitchens writes, with questionable tact, that September 11, 2001, caused him to feel “exhilaration” at the prospect of directly confronting “theocratic barbarism,” he echoes the point he made about the journalist’s job a dozen years before and has been making for decades. In the same late 2001 Nation piece just quoted, he writes: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.” In doing so, he essentially repeats himself, and illustrates the sincerity of the statement: it’s what he’s been saying all along.

Hitchens begins the review of Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx which I cite at the opening by disputing the notion that journalism lacks literary merit. He notes some of the celebrated authors who also were a part of the supposedly disreputable profession, including Charles Dickens, Orwell, Mark Twain and Émile Zola. He does not point out that recycling is not confined to journalistic writing. The type of writers he holds in high esteem also engage in the practice. Novelists, poets, literary critics, academics – they all do it. While Hitchens points out that many fine novelists also wrote journalism, he could have also shown how journalists who generate lines good enough to warrant reconfiguring and repeating do something that oft-heralded literary artists and other writers also do. The realms are connected even among writers without journalistic experience.

Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, and Martin Amis in Paris in the 1970s

Writers of fiction, poetry, criticism – virtually any genre or style – provide countless examples of what Hitchens remarks on in journalism. In a letter touching on his authorial method, P.G. Wodehouse recounts taking the middle of one of his short stories and using it in a novel featuring his Jeeves character. He then devised a replacement section and sold the story with the old beginning and end. Later still, he fashioned another story using the more recent middle part and a new opening and closing.

Wodehouse has plenty of company. Performing a cross-genre hat trick, professor Stephen Greenblatt gave a lecture filled with self-quotations which in turn was published as a magazine article. In his Gordon Gray Lecture on the Craft of Scholarly Writing, which later appeared in Harvard Magazine, he included a complete, previously published essay as well as the opening passages of several others; the talk also incorporated passages from a series of others he was in the midst of preparing at the time he spoke. George Oppen reproduces sizeable chunks of his “A Language of New York” from 1965’s This in Which in “Of Being Numerous” from the 1968 collection sharing that poem’s title. With these pieces, he does not recycle; he reuses: Lines are identical (or almost, having only slight differences in punctuation and spelling). New Yorker scribe A.J. Liebling’s line about boxing being “joined onto the past like a man’s arm to his shoulder” shows up in both of his collections of essays on the sport. He used it in the conclusion to a 1955 piece later republished in A Neutral Corner and also worked it into the introduction to The Sweet Science, which came out the following year. (And I admit to having found multiple opportunities to use his line on pugilistic history.) E.L. Doctorow’s 1984 book of short stories, Lives of the Poets, includes one called “The Water Works,” which reappears in modified but easily recognizable form as the twenty-fourth chapter of a novel published ten years later. He called that book The Waterworks.

Writerly recycling not only plays a part in the process of creating fiction; it also appears in fiction. A writer’s repurposing of his own work is one of the causes of Frederick “Bootie” Tubb’s disillusionment with his uncle in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. When Tubb questions Murray Thwaite about his “plagiarism” of earlier articles, the celebrated journalist replies: “Can one plagiarize oneself? Plunder, yes; recycle, certainly; but plagiarize?” He goes further: “If you’ve worked to find the right words for what you want to say, then surely it would be foolhardy to discard them merely because of some sense of etiquette – some sense that it was rather shabby to repeat yourself.” Messud’s character essentially restates the sentiment that uninhibited Hitchens expresses.

Clearly, continually circling back to certain subjects, even using similar phrases, need not signal a shortage of intellectual initiative. Any writer with output as prodigious as Wodehouse – he published more than ninety books – would have a hard time not returning to familiar storylines, setting or characters. Not coincidentally, writing itself was the subject of Greenblatt’s lecture at Harvard. Whether The Waterworks grew out of the similarly named short story predating it or the story struck Doctorow as a detachable part of a then-work-in-progress, or if some other relations exists between the pieces, the author obviously found New York City fertile ground for his imagination throughout his career. It could very well be the case that after penning the earlier sketch he decided that he had still more work to with the dreamscape he’d set down.

Just like Hitchens with McEwan, many wordsmiths of a literary bent repeat others’ lines. Virtually every essay Liebling wrote about boxing quotes Boxiana by the 19th century writer Pierce Egan, whom Liebling dubs “the Edward Gibbon and Sir Thomas Mallory of the old London Prize ring.” One of Edward Said’s late essay collections, Reflections on Exile, demonstrates the expansive range of his interests and the depth of his knowledge. It contains pieces on literature, history, philosophy, politics, film and music. Despite this variety, Said repeatedly cites the same passage from Aimé Césaire: “no race has a monopoly on beauty, or intelligence, or strength, and there is room for everyone at the convocation of conquest.” He quotes or paraphrases it half a dozen times in the book, or roughly once every 100 pages. The poet captures his commitment to the struggle against oppression in the named of shared humanity. That guiding idea animates his work and connects his literary and more overtly political essays. Even with the considerable scope of his experience and intellectual concerns, what really mattered could be encapsulated in lines from a single poem, which he returns to with regularity.

Hitchens may cover an extensive array of subjects, but certain core principles govern how he approaches them, and abiding concern for those ideas lends to their recurrence. Whether he writes about hated politicians like Henry Kissinger or the Clintons or admired authors such as McEwan and Rushdie, Hitchens continually displays a dedication to independent critical thinking. In this respect, he praises Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in God Is Not Great and The Portable Atheist. Hitchens also wrote books about both of those men. Recycling, then, reveals not a shortage of ideas but which ones concern the writer most. (Although when, in Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man: A Biography, Hitchens begins two consecutive paragraphs with the words “Paine went on,” the effect is clumsy, giving the impression of work completed in a rush.)

The example Hitchens gives of Marx’s journalistic recycling relates to the famous line about historical events occurring first as tragedy and than as farce. Marx rehearsed the line, which he adapted from Hegel, during his days as a newspaperman. Since he sought to discern and describe laws governing historical processes, it should not surprise that he would ceaselessly return to and further hone his statements on the subject.

Similarly, given Hitchens’s proclivities and enthusiasms, his polemics against weak-mindedness and his celebrations of exemplary thinkers have a reliable predictability. Someone joyfully aware of the “infinite splendors of literature and poetry,” as he puts it in The Portable Atheist, can be expected to return to those who, for him, best represent such wonders. A relentless critic angered by foolishness and unethical behavior will surely point to instances of it over and over. A Nation article from the late 1980s contains a line that could easily have fit into Hitchens’s writing nearly 20 years later. Indeed, it could operate as his personal motto: “One should never miss an opportunity to celebrate the Enlightenment or to mock priestcraft and the worship of mediocre princes and tycoons.” His detractors might argue that he became unduly forgiving of certain mediocrities involved in planning and implementing George W. Bush’s foreign policies, but the sentence still does encapsulate his technique, even if it can be argued that he grew less skeptical of the use of American military power than he once had been.

Hitchens of course knows that journalists are not the only serial repeaters among writers. He reviewed the collections of Wodehouse’s letters where the novelist boasts of selling several variants of the same work. (His review of Marx’s New York Tribune articles also refers to Wodehouse’s Psmith, Journalist, a novel about a newspaper characterized by unimaginative repetitiveness and dull familiarity until the protagonist mixes things up.) In a 2003 Atlantic article he mentions Evelyn Waugh’s tendency to repeat himself, arguing that Waugh’s later works do not compare favorably with the earlier ones. The novelist returns to matters addressed previously but does less with them. (Alexander Waugh in Fathers and Sons, his “autobiography” of a family of writers, casually mention’s his grandfather reusing a published short story as the concluding portion of a later novel.) After charting several similarities between a work from the 1950s and others written before it, Hitchens notes that in most instances cited, “the preceding books phrased it better.” He goes on to lament: “Many literary careers are doomed to go on slightly longer than they should, and to outlive the author’s original talent.”

Foes more concerned with his political positions that the quality of his prose would like to trace a similar sort of decline in his writing, especially if they could contend, as Hitchens does, that inferior writing reflects wrong-headedness. Reflecting on late Waugh (in light of commentary by Orwell), Hitchens sees a direct link between “suspect politics” and “bad writing.”Regardless of whether this is demonstrably true (in connection with either Waugh or Hitchens), the fact of repetition itself cannot be taken as proof of diminishment. Indeed, the example of recycling Alexander Waugh gives concerns a story published in the early 1930s and grafted onto one of Evelyn Waugh’s most celebrated efforts, A Handful of Dust, which was only the fourth of his many novels. (Conclusively demonstrating my observations about writers’ reuse of both their and others’ lines, Hitchens reports in both The Atlantic Monthly and in an introduction to another novel by the same author that Waugh took the title of this one from a T.S. Eliot poem.)

Instead, authorial recycling suggests that even the foxiest of writers may have something of the hedgehog about them. Some who appear to seize “upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences,” as Isaiah Berlin says the fox figuratively does in Archilochus’s famous line, might also display hedgehog-like tendencies, subscribing to an “organizing principle” despite the apparent disunity of their multiple pursuits. Having a great deal to say, as the prolific writers discussed above uniformly do, does not necessarily translate into continually saying entirely new things. Ultimately, it might not be so easy to distinguish between the two kinds of “intellectual and artistic” personalities Berlin defines. Further, a propensity to recycle – or plunder – one’s own writing is not confined to journalism. The widespread practice brings journalism into the circle of other sorts of writing more readily regarded as art.

John G. Rodwan, Jr.’s writing has appeared in Spot Literary Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, American Writer, Free Inquiry, the Humanist and elsewhere.

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