"autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness"; should it always be so?

One of our post-graduation presents for Hanna, one which I also get to enjoy the benefits of, was a subscription to the London Review of Books. The most recent issue includes a review of Christopher Hitchin's latest book, Hitch 22, a memoir. Hitchins, like other public personalities who trade in sensationalism and putting other people down, is easy to dislike for his self-absorption and snobbery. When the memoir first came out, John Crace @ The Guardian crafted a "digested read" version that played on this propensity and had Hanna and I falling off our chairs with mirth.

I find I have written nothing of my wives, save that they are fortunate to have been married to me, and nothing of my emotional life. That is because I don't have one. The only feeling I have is of being right, and that has been with me all my life. I would also like to point out that drinking half a bottle of scotch and a bottle of wine a day does not make me an alcoholic. I drink to make other people seem less tedious; something you might consider when reading this.

David Runciman, whose review of Hitch 22 has been made available at the LRB website, offers much the same analysis -- though in much more analytical a tone. He observes that Hitchins appears to have cultivated the personality of a "political romantic, as described by early-twentieth-century author Carl Schmitt.

For Schmitt, political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls "the occasion". They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.

The problem with this, morally speaking, is that a romantic whose raison d'etre is not his ideals but "the occasion," the question of values is irrelavent. Say what you will about the political idealist (and, living with an historian of Northern Irish nationalism I know there's plenty to say!), at least someone who acts violently for the sake of their convictions is a person who is clear about where they stand. They are willing to claim allegiance to a set of values, and to work (at times to the death) to see those values put into action.

Now there are (to a person of my proclivities towards nonviolent political change) better and worse ways of trying to live out one's beliefs. But I also believe there is some intrinsic value in having beliefs: in having enough self-awareness that you feel comfortable owning your beliefs, saying "this is where I stand and why."

You might think that a person who has written, among others, a book titled Why God is Not Great is not shy about taking a personal stand, even a highly controversial one. But being provocative, rhetorically and otherwise, is not necessarily the same thing as being self-revelatory. One can speak highly-charged words while never allowing anyone to see the emotionally-complex human being behind those words. I find other peoples' interior lives fascinating; my obsession with understanding how other people understand the world around them -- how they make meaning of their lives -- is what led me to history as a scholarly pursuit. Runciman's argument about Hitchins, however, is that he has no interior life, or at least not one of which he himself is very aware or willing to share with his readers.

It certainly sounds like it has all been a lot of fun. His has been an enviable life: not just all the drink and the sex and the travel and the comradeship and the minor fame (surely the preferable kind), but also the endless round of excitements and controversies, the feuding and falling-out and grudge-bearing and score-settling, the chat-show put-downs, the dinner party walk-outs, the stand-up rows. Christopher Hitchens has clearly had a great time being Christopher Hitchens. But – and I don’t want to sound too po-faced about this – should anyone’s life be quite so much fun, especially when it is meant to be a kind of political life? Hitchens admits to some regrets, including that he has not been a better father to his children (and by implication a better husband to his wives, though he doesn’t actually say that), but he doesn’t seem to have agonised about it much. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have agonised much about anything. He doesn’t rationalise his political shifts so much as acquiesce in them: if it feels like he has no choice, then he has no choice but to follow his feelings. He has seen his fair share of misery and despair, and may have caused a certain amount of it himself, but it is entirely unclear what this has cost him.

I believe in extending compassion and possibly forgiveness towards oneself in equal measure as toward other human beings -- being kind to yourself as you are kind to others is, truly, one of the ways in which we can make the world a more kind, generous, compassionate place. Yet when "autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness" (to borrow a phrase Runciman quotes toward the end of his essay) while the autobiographer neglects to extend all but highly conditional forgiveness to anyone else, such self-adoration seems a shallow, fragile thing indeed.

Go enjoy the rest of Runciman's review, It's Been a Lot of Fun, over at the London Review.

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