Fooling General Washington
17 May 2016
Annie Hall, Art, Artificial Landscape, Christopher Hitchens, H.D.F. Kitto, Hitch-22, John Keats, Literature, mortality, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Poetry, Postmodernism, Romanticism, Stephen Fry, Sublime, The Greeks, The Iliad, The North American Society for the Study of Romanticism, The Odyssey, The Sheild of Achilles, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writer’s in the Public Sphere, W.H. Auden
This essay was originally published on The North American Society for the Study of Romanticism’s blog. The full essay can be read on their home page by accessing the link at the end.
I want to say it was Stephen Fry who argued that John Keats might have gone on to become the next William Shakespeare had he lived a bit longer, though it may have in fact have been Christopher Hitchens. It’s odd not knowing the origin of that quote, because I get those two mixed up rarely—then again, the accent and a general contempt for belief in any sort of divine being are traits common to both these men, so I’ll cut myself some slack. It is an interesting statement when taken from afar, because at first I’m willing to agree with it. Upon reflection, however, I feel that this is in fact a real disservice to John Keats as a poet, for while Shakespeare is a standard that I think many writers should aspire to (or at least would appreciate as a lovely comparison), I think Keats as a writer managed in his own way to attain his own identity.
Speaking of which, as of late, that idea has begun to become more and more complicated. It may be just part of the student complex, but I’ve blossomed in the academic setting because the world has provided me with a sense of structure, organization, and purpose. School has given my life direction which in turn provided me with the confidence to begin writing again, or at least push the writing I was doing in a more productive route. I’ve now spent the last six years working and writing, and with a recent acceptance for a publication I’ve gotten to the point I don’t flinch at admitting I’m a writer. School and regularly writing for this website as well as my own has given me an identity…and it’s about to be over, as I transition from graduating to starting something new.
Since this is my last essay for this organization, I struggled to figure out what I was going to actually write next. Since it’s the last essay, I felt I should end with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner since that was what my first essay for this site was about, but honestly that felt a bit kitsch and I hate sentimentality. The worst part about transitions is the way ritual so alters our reality, and rather than just pushing forward we have to stop and let the end totally consume us so that we can achieve some kind of closure and process that we’ve done something with all this time.
Don’t get me wrong, we should enjoy and relish in our achievements, but I’d rather have this last post honestly say something than be a long drawn-out goodbye.
W.H. Auden is a poet that I learned about through Christopher Hitchens, for he is cited regularly throughout Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22 (the index lists him on 16 pages, I counted), his epigrams appear in numerous essays, and he was the focus of Hitchens’ entire article The Long Littleness of Life* which was published in the New York Review of Books and my copy of Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere which I’ll be reading as soon as I finish this essay. I trust Hitchens to never disappoint (unless we’re talking about whether women are funny or not, but that’s another essay), and so when I began reading Auden here and there I was always floored. The man’s ability with language is everything one should want in a poet, and given the fact he was a postmodernist he was right up my alley. The Vintage Paperback Press W.H. Auden: Collected Poems remains on permanent reserve in my personal library.
My reader may ask what a postmodernist has to do with the Romantics; slow down, I’m getting to it. I like to talk and hear my own voice as I write and I’m also a big fan of lead-ins, don’t forget. Thinking of Stephen Fry, which might actually have been Christopher Hitchens, speaking about John Keats made me think of Auden because both Keats and Auden both have written poems involving Greek reliquary.
TO READ THE FULL ARTICLE ON THE NASSR BLOG FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW:
Argument, Atheism, Blue Shell, Christianity, Christopher Hitchens, Franz Xaver Kappus, letter, Letter to a Christian Nation, letters to a young contrarian, Letters to a Young Poet, logos, Mario Kart, pathos, questions, Rainer Maria Rilke, Ronald Reagan, Sam Harris, Sir Rowland Hill, Stamps, The Iliad, The Odyssey, United states Postal Service Did NOT pay for this Letter
What is it with atheists and letters? Seriously it’s like we don’t even know what twitter or emails are. I mean I’m just as guilty as the lot of these guys. Is it pretentiousness? Is it a fear of modern technology? Perhaps atheism is really just well hidden propaganda campaign by the United States Postal Service to get people writing real letters again. On an entirely different matter, did you know you can now buy Batman stamps for only 25 cents apiece? What a bargain! Talk to your post office today.
It’s been a while B—–, and I do apologize for the lateness of this letter. For whatever reason grad school decided, well, let me put it like this. There are semesters in which the gates of hell open up, and a wretched demon spawned from the loins of Beelzebub himself grabs you by the ankle and drags you down into the fiery pit…this was one of those semesters, for almost every person I met. As such I wasn’t able to continue our correspondence and offer up my support. I’m sorry it didn’t work out between you and Charlie, but by the sounds of it this new girl Kim seems like a good match for you, and the fact that she can kick your ass in Mario Kart…just get used to that, it happens.
But I wanted to address this matter of letters because it’s something I’ve noticed myself, but more importantly it’s also been observed by a friend on Facebook. The man in question is a former student, I think he’s working as a nurse right now and making me hate my body with every picture he posts of himself, but I love the guy because he’s one of my regular contester’s whenever I share these letters. I’ve spent a few nights chatting back and forth with him about Christianity and religion in general because he is a believer and also because I understand no matter how heated the conversations become there is always a mutual respect as well as the understanding between the two of us that neither is going to convert the other. When I posted the C.S. Lewis letter, the first one, his response stuck with me. I can’t remember verbatim, my genes didn’t code for an eidetic memory sad-for-me-oh-well but I do remember this remark, “these ‘letters from’ series are the most pretentious things I’ve ever read, and I can’t stop reading them.” The word pretentious got stuck in my head and whenever words or sentences stand out to you it’s usually because there’s some meaning or truth to them.
I know of at least two atheist authors that have used the “letter” format to critique religion, Joseph Harris and Christopher Hitchens, though I note moving forward that only the latter really excelled in this particular category.
Before I go any further B——-, do you like Ronald Reagan, because not long ago the united States Postal Service released the Ronald Reagan postage stamp, now only $10 for twenty of these collectables. Go in today and you can catch the Christmas times special, only $15 for forty stamps. What a bargain!
Joseph Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation is a letter, but it’s often the kind of letter one receives from a spiteful ex-girlfriend or from collections agencies hospitals hire to find the bums who can’t afford the treatment they provide. Harris’s little book, which is not a derogatory statement it’s literally only 91 pages long and I read it in an hour and a half, is a point by point assault on the institution of Christianity, specifically how it infects the political realities of the United States. In one passage he observes:
Can you prove that Zeus does not exist? Of course not. And yet, just imagine if we lived in a society where people spent tens of billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus, where the government spent billions more in tax dollars to support institutions devoted to these gods, where untold billions more in tax subsidies were given to pagan temples, where elected officials did their best to impede medical research out of deference to The Iliad and The Odyssey, and where every debate about public policy was subverted to the whims of ancient authors who wrote well, but who didn’t know enough about the nature of reality to keep their excrement out of their food. This would be a horrific misappropriation of out material, moral, and intellectual resources. And yet that is exactly the society we are living in. This is the woeful and irrational world that you and your fellow Christians are working so tirelessly to create. (56).
I recognize that the preceding passage will probably have a few Christian readers steamed, and that’s his point, but the literature major in me is kinda geeking out and picturing what that society would look like. What would Presidential debates be like? Would Republicans accuse Democrats on being soft on sacrifices to Ares, and would Democrats make snide sarcastic remarks when Republicans make wise-cracks about Apollo? Maybe instead of Christmas we would celebrate Zeusmas and read passages from The Odyssey while wearing togas. Instead of Christian rock bands we would have groups with names like Medea’s Love, Ajax’s Hammer, Hades Spawn. That would be epic right?…right?…oh whatever,, buy stamps.
The problem I have with Harris is that his approach lacks a real eloquence. The man is far more concerned it seems with knowing more than his reader than actually arranging out a real criticism and his “letter” suffers for it. Looking back at this passage if he had simply ended with “and yet that is exactly…” then his argument would have been a solid sting to the influence of Christianity in American politics. But Harris can’t just leave a good paragraph be, and the final line “This is the woeful and irrational world…” comes across as the minister pointing his finger at the crowd and shouting “shame.” I have expected Johnathan Edwards to appear telling Harris to “tone it down bro” before copying so notes down for his next sermon.
I won’t shit on Harris completely B——–, and isn’t that a lovely image (someone should put that on a stamp, no they shouldn’t actually), because within his book is an important passage. Earlier in the book he refutes the idea atheism as a kind of religion by explaining the identity outright:
The entirety of atheism is contained in this response. Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one ever needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and their cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people male in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs. An atheist is simply a person who believes that the 260 Americans (87% of the population) claiming to “never doubt the existence of God” should be obliged to present evidence for his existence—and, indeed, for his benevolence, given the relentless destruction of innocent human beings we witness in the world each day. (51-2).
I’ll tell you B—–, when I read that passage I was incredibly happy and sad. I was happy because at that moment Harris had explained perfectly my stance whenever people ask me why I am an atheist. It’s not out of anger, or some pompous elitism driven by my desire to prove I’m better than everyone else (*cough cough*David Silverman*cough cough*), it’s because I recognize that whenever the matter of “proof of existence” occurs in our society it comes down to the person asserting the existence to provide evidence. That’s the reality of any philosophic question, and when it comes to the existence of god you cannot get more philosophical. Whether god exists is the ultimate question because it determines the foundation of our understanding of our reality and that’s probably why Christians and Atheists can become so cross when having this debate with one another. We’re not arguing just about whether a god exists, we’re arguing about the narrative of our reality and all of the sub-narratives found within each. Along with this Harris is able to nail the most important point which leads me to why I was sad when I read this passage.
Harris’s paragraph here actually comes after a lead-in to this point. Think about kittens, or the fact that the new STAR WARS movie has Han Solo and Chewbacca for a moment. Or think about stamps, stamps are cool, and CHEAP. Boy are they cheap. Okay. Here’s what came before this:
Somewhere in the world a man has abducted a little girl. Soon he will rape, torture, and kill her. If an atrocity of this kind is not occurring at precisely this moment, it will happen in a few hours, or days at most. Such is the confidence we can draw from the statistical laws that govern the lives of six billion human beings. The same statistics also suggest that this girl’s parents believe—as you believe—that an all-powerful and all-loving God is watching over them and their family. Are they right to believe this? Is it good that they believe this? (50-1).
Imagine my heartbreak B—— at reading the following passage after this one. Harris talks a great game about the logic and reason of atheism and then slings pathos ridden passages like this at his reader. It’s not so much the situation that disturbs me however, because I recognize this shit actually happens. No matter how much we want to believe about the good in people we should never forget that fuckers live amongst the, for-the-most-part, benevolent masses and pretending like rape, pedophilia, and torture doesn’t exist is just foolish. But Harris uses a fictional and hypothetical example, all the while pointing his finger at the Christian reader, and his argument becomes pathos, pathetic emotional diatribe that could have been substantiated by researching for a real instance rather than letting his reader simply imagine an event. Tragedy is not novel and this example leads me to the more successful example of the “letter” model.
In 1837 Sir Rowland Hill, the British Postmaster General, introduced the “Post Office Reforms” whereby the mail could go anywhere in the British Isles at the same rate (a penny a half-ounce); the postage was to be paid by the sender — not the addressee; and payment was receipted by placing a small piece of colored paper on the outside of the letter — THE STAMP! Of course Hill’s proposal was heavily debated for a few years, but after serious discussion the change was enacted and instituted in 1840. Thus on May 6, 1840 (first date of valid use) the first government-printed postage stamps were born (The American Philatelic Society, follow this link to learn more about stamps http://stamps.org/Stamp-History)
I’ve written a fair amount about letters to a young contrarian before B——, at least three times now, and each time I’m reminded why Hitchens was such a force and nightmare to people of faith. The man was, to quote a friend of mine, a beast. For me it is the inspiration for his book that demonstrates the superior rhetoric of Hitchens, for his book was partly inspired by several of the students that he taught at The New School in New York, as well as a the book Letters to a Young Poet. It should be noted that this book is a slim collection of only ten letters from Rainer Maria Rilke to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus who was serving in the Thereiasn Military Academy in Austria at the time and was sending Rilke his work between the years 1902 to 1908. Typical Hitchens, the reference was vague, European in origin, and something only two or three people probably read in their lifetime, but the fact remains that the man decided he would follow the pattern set by a literary tradition, as well as a correspondence to encourage and guide young writers rather than preaching at them.
Midway through letters he begins his criticism of religion, for the book is in fact more designed to discuss being a public contrarian (someone who works against the grain of society for the purposes of education of the larger populace). After noting his obvious atheism he remarks:
You write to remind me that many exemplary people have been sustained by their faith. (Actually if I may be slightly strict with you, you don’t remind me of the fact. I was already quite aware of it. And I have read, and read of, Dr. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and many others whom you mention). But let me ask you in turn: Are you saying that they’re religious belief was sufficient or a necessary condition for their moral actions? In other words, that without such faith they would not have opposed racism or Nazisim? (61).
This argument would come to be Hitchens’s mantra and ultimate rhetorical weapon when he was debating on his book tour for his later work god is not Great, and it remained a consistent strategy because there were few that ever attempted, or at least successfully, to answer this question. But more important B——- than the lack of a solid answer is the actual question itself. While Harris talked at his reader Hitchens asked a question of the faithful, and asking question is always a superior strategy. A friend and I discussed the current level of discourse and we both agreed the problem with religious, sexual, and political discussions is always the assault upon the “other.” People like to place themselves above others immediately and then try to change somebody’s mind and the problem is if you call someone an idiot and then try to change their mind you’ll just be met with emotion and ego.
I know you’re immediate challenge B——-: Doesn’t Hitchens talk down to his reader?
Hitchens from the very beginning of his book, much as Rilke did in his, establishes his letters as challenges designed to get his young writer/reader to think. Rather than employing pathos simply to attack his reader he employs real examples to get his young reader to question their perceptions. Take a later passage:
As the great Eugene Debs used to tell his socialist voters in the 1912 election campaign, he would not lead them into the Promised Land even if he could, because if they were trusting enough to be led in, they would be trusting enough to be led out again. He urged them, in other words, to do their own thinking. (63).
This of course is followed by my favorite line, and probably the best sentence Hitchens ever wrote during his life:
I repeat: What really matters about any individual is not what he thinks, but how he thinks. (63).
This has been a long letter be, which means I’ll have to spend more money on postage, but hey the Post Office is offering great holiday rates on their Christmas Time #343 Christmas stamps so it won’t be too bad. But I wanted to make up for the long gap and also to understand why atheists are always writing letters, whether or not that format is really affective in establishing real challenges to religion, and whether the trend is really, to quote my Christian friend, pretentious. As so often happens in life, the hippie English teacher from high school who drove a Chevy nova with only half a paintjob was right: it just depends on the situation.
I read Harris and I realize his concern is not so much to challenge religion, but to call people idiots and enjoy being the “smart one.” I read Hitchens and I am engaged in a real conversation, and while he demonstrates knowledge and asks tough questions, there is still the understanding that the reader is allowed to make up their own mind, and it’s this model that I’ve tried to fashion in our own correspondence B——. Your mind is your own and you need to figure out for yourself what you believe. As for how to keep your girlfriend from using a blue tortoise shell against you when playing Mario-kart…there is the struggle of man in the twenty-first century my friend.
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
P.S. I was just kidding about the whole United States Postal service secretly paying atheists for promotion, and I definitely, DEFINITELY, am not receiving kickbacks for promoting the Charlie Brown Christmas Forever stamps, now only 49 cents apiece. Just put that out of your mind. Follow the link below.