Friday, May 20, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Unspoken Truths.

Hitchens is undergoing treatment for throat cancer. If it overcomes him, it will be a great loss to the world of writers. This essay is a simple, fine example of that. I don't mean that statement to be a pre-emptive eulogy, either; it'll be a damned bloody loss if the cancer takes him. We do not have enough Hitchenses to replace him.

In this essay, Hitchens's topics range from the painful mundanity of radiation therapy to the friendship of Heraclitus and Callimachus; and of course that's the range, because Hitchens is learned and mindful. But the idea of voice goes farther than that. Here's a quote that I, as a former college writing instructor, identified with:

"To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice."

Italics are Hitchens's. Unbeknownst to me that Hitchens used these ideas to harangue his students, I was doing the same thing when teaching. I'd even have my students read their essays aloud in small groups so that they could hear the flaws and correct them (and they did, scratching out swaths and making margin notes). Funny how good ideas survive through movement among persons, not the stasis of pages and screens. At any rate, Hitchens's essay is a reminder that voice, a voice worth hearing, is not simply sound.

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