"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
While a scientist like Richard Dawkins might be forgiven for not having his philosophic/aesthetic house in order, no such tolerance should be allowed for his notorious comrade-in-arms Christopher Hitchens. In spite of the fact that Hitchens regularly invokes the authority of empiricism and reason—he condemns anything that “contradicts science or outrages reason,” and he concedes something that no poet would: that “proteins and acids … constitute our nature”—he was not a scientist but a literary critic, a journalist, and a public intellectual. So, you would think that the perspective of the arts, literature, and philosophy would find a prominent place in his thought. But that is not the case. He proposes to clear away religion in the name of science and reason. Literature’s function in this brave new world is to depose the Bible and provide an opportunity to study the “eternal ethical questions.”
Hitchens’s “God Is Not Great” is an intellectually shameful book. To be intellectually shameful is to be dishonest, to tell less than you know, or ought to know, and to shape what you present in a way that misrepresents the real state of affairs. In this sense, and in Hitchens’s own term, his book lacks “decency.” (You may think that I lack decency for attacking a man so recently deceased, but I do no more than what Hitchens himself did. Speaking of Jerry Falwell, Hitchens pointedly refuses a “compassionate word” for this “departed fraud.”)
Like Hitchens, I am an atheist, if to be an atheist means not believing in a CEO God who sits outside his creation, proclaiming edicts, punishing hapless sinners, seeking vengeance on his enemies, and picking sides in times of war. This God and his hypocrite followers have been easy targets for enlightened wit since Rabelais, Molière, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and our own Mark Twain. Of course, this God and his faithful are still very much a problem politically, and Hitchens never lets us forget that unhappy fact. Our own religious right is real, and international fundamentalism is dangerous and frightening, especially for the sad people who must live with it.
As critics have observed since its publication, one enormous problem with Hitchens’s book is that it reduces religion to a series of criminal anecdotes. In the process, however, virtually all of the real history of religious thought, as well as historical and textual scholarship, is simply ignored as if it never existed. Not for Hitchens the rich cross-cultural fertilization of the Levant by Helenistic, Jewish, and Manichaean thought. Not for Hitchens the transformation of a Jewish heretic into a religion that Nietzsche called “Platonism for the masses.” Not for Hitchens the fascinating theological fissures in the New Testament between Jewish, Gnostic, and Pauline doctrines. Not for Hitchens the remarkable journey of the first Christian heresy, Arianism, spiritual origin of our own thoroughly liberal Unitarianism. (Newton was an Arian and anti-Trinitarian, which made his presence at Trinity College permanently awkward.) Not for Hitchens the sublime transformation of Christian thought into the cathartic spirituality of German Idealism/ Romanticism and American Transcendentalism. And, strangely, not for Hitchens the existential Christianity of Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Karl Jaspers, Paul Tillich, Martin Buber, and, most recently, the religious turn of poststructural thought in Jacques Derrida and Slavoj Žižek. (All of these philosophers sought what Žižek calls Christianity’s “perverse core.”) And it’s certainly not that he didn’t have the opportunity to acknowledge these intellectual and spiritual traditions. At one point he calls the story of Abraham and Isaac “mad and gloomy,” a “frightful” and “vile” “delusion,” but sees no reason to mention Kierkegaard’s complex, poetic, and deeply felt philosophical retelling of the story in “Fear and Trembling”. In this way, Hitchens is often as much a textual literalist as the fundamentalists he criticizes.
This case has been well made by others, if mostly in places far more obscure than Hitchens’s privileged position on the New York Times best-seller list. For example, William J. Hamblin wrote a thorough and admirably restrained review (“The Most Misunderstood Book: Christopher Hitchens on the Bible”) in which he held Hitchens to account for historical howlers of this kind:
In discussing the exodus, Hitchens dogmatically asserts: “There was no flight from Egypt, no wandering in the desert . . . , and no dramatic conquest of the Promised Land. It was all, quite simply and very ineptly, made up at a much later date. No Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode either, even in passing. . . . All the Mosaic myths can be safely and easily discarded.” These narratives can be “easily discarded” by Hitchens only because he has failed to do even a superficial survey of the evidence in favor of the historicity of the biblical traditions. Might we suggest that Hitchens begin with Hoffmeier’s Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai? It should be noted that Hoffmeier’s books were not published by some small evangelical theological press but by Oxford University—hardly a bastion of regressive fundamentalist apologetics. Hitchens’s claim that “no Egyptian chronicle mentions this episode [of Moses and the Israelites] either, even in passing” is simply polemical balderdash.
Hamblin is thorough, patient, relentless, but also, it seems to me, a little perplexed and saddened by Hitchens’s naked dishonesty and, in all probability, by his own feeling of impotence. You can hardly blame him. Criticism of this character would have, and surely should have, revealed Hitchens’s book for what it is … if it hadn’t been published in The FARMS Review of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. Hitchens need never have feared the dulling of his reputation for intellectual dash and brio from that source.
As Hamblin’s case makes clear, even defenses of religion in the publications of university presses are not worthy of the attention of the so-called “new atheists.” But what would Dawkins or Hitchens do with a book like Robert N. Bellah’s “Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” (Harvard, 2011)? This book is a critique of Western culture operating under the one-sided influence of “theoretic” (scientific) culture, and a historical account of how the theoretic is dependent on the mythic. In a review by Linda Heuman in Tricycle Magazine (Summer 2012), she writes,
Bellah simultaneously undermines our unexamined confidence in the absolute authority of reason and increases our confidence in other kinds of truth. . . . In this view of human development, we are first embodied knowers, then storytellers, and only then analytic thinkers. Reason comes not first but last—it is the newest member of an established team, not the captain but a co-player.
Hitchens’s most egregious misrepresentations are reserved for what he calls, with a great intellectual wheeze, “Eastern religion,” as if all the varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism could be lumped together. In his chapter “There Is No ‘Eastern’ Solution” (all ten pages of it) he reduces the religious traditions of Asia to the frauds perpetrated by one famously noxious guru (Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh) and a few gratuitous slanders on the Dalai Lama. On the basis of a sign he once saw at Rajneesh’s ashram—“Shoes and minds must be left at the gate”—Hitchens concludes that Buddhism is a faith that despises the mind. Never mind that Rajneesh was no Buddhist and barely recognizable as Hindu.
God knows why Hitchens was so irate with Rajneeshism; it was a cult made for the worldly Hitch. The Sannyasa movement was interdenominational and emphasized the importance of capitalism, science, and technology over dogma. Far from being a religious fundamentalist, Rajneesh actually burned five thousand copies of a book, “The Book of Rajneeshism,” purporting to systematize his religion. His Indian critics complained not that he was a fundamentalist but that he was bourgeois. Sannyasa’s primary success was as a business enterprise with a surprisingly corporate structure. As Hugh Urban reports, “By the 1980s, the movement had evolved into a complex, interlocking network of corporations, with an astonishing number of both spiritual and secular businesses worldwide, offering everything from yoga and psychological counseling to cleaning services.”
What’s more galling for those who actually know something about Buddhism is the fact that Hitchens refuses to acknowledge its rich philosophical traditions. For example, the “Heart Sutra” and its many commentaries unite metaphysics and ethics with a profundity that the West would not begin to achieve until Spinoza. (Even Dawkins is willing to concede that Buddhism shares little with fundamentalist religion, and is instead a meditation on ethics: “There is something to be said for treating these not as religions at all but as ethical systems or philosophies of life.”) Nor did he take the trouble to learn about the secular Buddhism advocated by lay scholars like Stephen Batchelor, author of “Confession of a Buddhist Atheist.”
As you might expect, both Dawkins and Hitchens have heard this sort of complaint often. In the preface to the paperback edition of “The God Delusion,” Dawkins defends himself by saying that he was right to concern himself only with fundamentalist perspectives because they dominate contemporary world religion. (A claim he makes no case for. There are still many and large congregations of liberal Christians, even liberal evangelicals, starting with Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter. And the liberal, even radical, Jewish community is famously large, as Michael Lerner’s interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives regularly demonstrates.) But Dawkins and Hitchens miss two important points. First, their critics are not only talking about their scholarly limitations but about their errors, errors that a more informed or careful critic wouldn’t make. More importantly, not concerning themselves with the liberal or philosophic traditions of religious thought is to ignore an important source for correcting the very real shortcomings of fundamentalism. In particular, restricting the argument to what rationalism and science can claim makes irrelevant the Marx-influenced work of Paolo Freire and liberation theology. Even the papal encyclicals of the last fifty years have consistently criticized the way in which capitalism preys upon the poor (far more consistently than the lapsed Marxist Hitchens). Not to recognize this work is a shortcoming worthy of criticism, however much Dawkins wishes to deny it.
But what I am most concerned with is not Hitchens’s sloppy or altogether missing knowledge of theology. What I want to describe is how irresponsible his thinking is within his own professed area of expertise, Western literature and philosophy. I have “four irreducible objections” (Hitchens’s phrase): he does not acknowledge, and may not recognize at all, his own brand of metaphysics and magical thinking; he does not admit to the destructiveness of this metaphysic; he ignores the spiritual and anti-rational contributions of 19th-and 20th-century literature and philosophy; and his own thinking is ultimately an expression of faith.
I’ll begin with Hitchens’s metaphysics. Of course, a large part of his book is devoted to denouncing the stupidity of religious metaphysics, especially the idea that God is an entity outside of the ordinary workings of nature. But Hitchens has his own metaphysical claims, claims for which he seems not to feel any need to create arguments. In opposition to religion he proposes Enlightenment reason. What is “reason” for Hitchens? Your guess is as good as mine. Is it the rules of logic? Is it the scientific method? Is it Thomas Paine’s common sense? Some combination of the above? Hitchens seems to feel that, of course, everyone already knows what reason is and there is no need to elaborate its function or its virtues. But this “of course” is the marker of ideology, and the ideologist resists examining his own assumptions because to do so would be to make vulnerable his claims to authority. So eager is Hitchens to get on to the next item in his concatenation of religious insults to reason that he can’t be bothered to say what he means by the term. The one thing that he does seem to be sure of is that reason is something that shouldn’t be “outraged.” Nevertheless, there is no real difference between Hitchens’s outrage to reason and an evangelical’s outrage to God.
Hitchens’s second metaphysical claim has to do with conscience. He counters the claim that without religion we would have no ethics by saying that conscience is innate. He writes, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”
Well, as Hitchens likes to say, this is “piffle.” After all, what is a conscience? Does it light up on a brain scan when we think virtuous thoughts? And if it is innate (and just what exactly does it mean to be innate?) why was Crassus’s crucifixion of six thousand Spartacans lined up along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua in 71 BCE thought by the people of Rome to be an expression of Roman vertù and a very good reason to honor Crassus with a full triumphal procession back into the city? Are we to imagine that the citizens of Rome threw garlands in the path of the conquering hero against their better judgment? Are we to imagine that after the celebration the citizens were stung by conscience and were unable to sleep at night? Or did Crassus merely confirm for Rome that it was what it thought it was, a race of masters?
To bring the case closer to home, is our own passionate approval of the most massively destructive social system in human history—capitalism and capitalist militarism—an expression of conscience? Even though our Predator missiles may occasionally (or regularly) fall on children, are we sorry that we have them? Or are we proud of our high-tech ordnance? If you were to go to an air show—the fighter jets and bombers ripping through the suburban sky— and suggest that we’d feel very differently if these machines were bearing down on our town and that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves for allowing them to bear down upon others, how many in that crowd would agree? You’d be labeled anti-American and led to the nearest exit for your own safety. For the rest of the crowd, dissolved in oohs and aahs, our military power, as with Rome’s, is merely the brutal (and “beautiful”) confirmation of our superiority.
Finally, isn’t Hitchens’s own book testimony against his superficial claim that there is something called conscience? He claims that religion is “poison,” but is he suggesting that religion made men cruel in spite of themselves? All of them? Millions upon millions of people over thousands of years zealously and destructively defending the faith … in spite of their own innate sense of good and evil? Isn’t it more likely that killing the heathens and the heretics and the free thinkers was always something that could be done in perfectly good conscience insofar as it was done for Yahweh, Allah, or Mother Church? If it weren’t for the Predators circling overhead, I think the Taliban would sleep quite soundly, never mind that they’ll get up the next day and cut off someone’s ear for listening to an iPod.
To say that we are innately creatures of conscience is the same as saying that, as Tom Waits sings in “Misery Is the River of the World,” “there’s one thing you can say about mankind, there’s nothing kind about man.” In short, both claims are no better than a prejudice. (If told this, Hitchens would get in a huff and move into debating posture, not unlike the “crane” stance in “The Karate Kid,” while Waits would grin that sly, slightly inebriated grin of his and say, “Yeah….”) As Wallace Stevens wrote about truth claims of this variety, “The world is ugly, /And the people are sad. /… / Have it your way.” (“Gubbinal”) For Stevens, the good and bad of things was not to be determined by religion, or science, or reason, or by a hispid Marxist-cum-neo-con like Hitchens, but by poetry, which at least has the honesty to acknowledge it is making it all up. Making it all up and yet offering itself with the assumption that if others like its peculiar brand of the good and beautiful they’ll follow and leave behind the self-interested culture of virtuous violence they were born in.
And what of Hitchens himself? Where is his conscience when he knowingly falsifies the history of religious and philosophical ideas? Is he not himself an example of how conscience is about what suits one’s purposes? Personal ethics tend to reflect cultural ethics, and cultural ethics usually follow tribal interests. For Hitchens, too, has a tribe: the “reasonable,” the clean, the well-spoken, the “right sort,” the Oxford men, the ones who know and revel in their difference from the ignorant, the slaves, the Baptist rubes, the ones who don’t go to Cambridge and don’t eat good lunches. Hitchens was of the oligarchs and shared their most intense privilege: the right not to have to take seriously their own lies and misdeeds.
This is all debatable, of course, and a worthy debate it would be. What’s appalling is that none of this seems important to Hitchens. Our sense of “decency” is innate. Period. Have it your way, but I thought the truths you were interested in were based on evidence, and you have none.
As Nietzsche wrote in “Beyond Good and Evil,” “No one is such a liar as an indignant man.”
Excerpted from “The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers” by Curtis White. Published by Melville House Books. Copyright 2013 by Curtis White. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)