I was reading Christopher Hitchens last essay on G.K. Chesterton in the March issue of The Atlantic, and I was sad for two reasons:
(1) I was reading a coffee shop copy of the magazine, so I couldn’t mark up the article with my pen. When I read, I always have a pen, not so much to write in the margins as underline good sentences and phrases.
Even writing on his deathbed, Hitchens’ talent for keen and vicious put-downs never left him. Pointing out a flaw in Chesterton’s arguments, Hitchens writes: “This shows the moth-eaten fringe of absurdity that always hung around his political reflections, as it did his vastly draped and histrionic form.”
The hand holding the pen twitched when I read that. Please appreciate not only the original imagery and ad-hominem attack—Chesterton was notoriously fat—but also the perfect rhythm of “as it did his vastly draped and histrionic form.”
And (2) because I’d never read a new such sentence by Hitchens again.
In a sidebar to Hitchens’ piece, Atlantic literary editor Benjamin Schwarz describes the genesis of the essay. About halfway through, he writes “And of course there was Chesterton’s profound and complicated influence on Christopher’s hero, Orwell.”
For the past month or so, I’ve been reading the non-fiction essays of George Orwell. You don’t have to strain to see the similarities between Orwell and Hitchens. Both were primarily essayists, both were possessed of unwavering moral certitude and both were political non-conformists.
But after spending a month immersed in Orwell, the other striking similarity between the two is their love of language and their refusal to settle for stale words. Even in the midst of otherwise dry polemics, the two could never resist dropping an arresting metaphor or simile.
In “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell addresses stale phrases and at the same time offers an example of how to use fresh imagery: “When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them.”
He’s just showing off there, really.
In his essay, “Why I write,” Orwell says he discovered the “joy of mere words” in his teenage years—the “perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story.”
I decided I wanted to be “an author” when I was in first grade. I liked the word “author” because it sounded very self-important and intellectual, much more so than “writer.” Authors appeared to me then as well-dressed people who stroked their chins and sat in soft-lit dens, penning profound insights into the human condition. Writers were ink-stained scribblers—shabby, neurotic chroniclers of lurid pulp, street stories and the immediate, lesser truths of the world.
(If you ask me what I am now, I would say I’m a writer, and that’s just fine.)
So I read and wrote, but for a long time, words were just a means to a story, not a pleasure themselves. In high school I began to see words in a different way.
The way I describe it is this: I sang in choirs when I was in high school and college. I remember one day the voice coach who led us through warm-ups every morning demonstrated how to sing with proper tone. She opened her mouth and hit one note with such clear and pure tone that when she stopped, I could hear the cymbal of a nearby drumset resonating sympathetically.
Words are like that. Take the opening to Orwell’s essay, “A Hanging.” It begins: “It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains.”
Imagine the alternatives: “a sodden, rainy morning in Burma” or “in Burma, a morning during the rainy season.” Neither sounds as good, nor do they conjure the same image and mood as “a sodden morning of the rains.”
That’s what I feel for when I write – that special resonance. Sometime when I write or read, like Nabakov’s Luzhin looking at a chessboard, the words on the page come alive with energy. I can see the relationships between them, and when they’re arranged in just the right way, they all vibrate sympathetically with each other. Like a solid chess position, every piece reinforces the other.
In Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, when the characters are doing something that makes them content, Kesey describes it as their “bell ringing.” E.g. “This is Hank’s bell ringing.” Sometimes the things I write don’t resonate at all, like a dead cymbal being struck. But I know when I have written something as best I can. I sit back and read through it, and the resonance fills me with a content glow. This is my bell ringing, and for a brief moment, everything is as it should be.