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Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.
The precursors flood us, and our imaginations can die by drowning in them, but no imaginative life is possible if such inundation is wholly evaded.
All writers know this flood, this beautiful terrifying flood, whether we realize it or not. It is a flood of words so gloriously brilliant and so achingly gorgeous that they make us both shudder with pleasure and wince with pain. It is a double-edged sword, like that dreadfully thrilling moment when we first realize that lust and anxiety are almost indistinguishable from one another. It is like looking into the face of one whose beauty renders us speechless with both desire and fear. It is a flood of pleasure, of admiration, of love, of pain. After the flood, we are exhausted, inspired, and hurt, in love with a beauty that, try as we might, we can neither possess nor emulate.
And Bloom is right: if, reeling with desperation, confusion, awe, or pleasure, we refuse to fight against this chaotic intoxicating maelstrom, if we chose to drown, we surrender. We render ourselves incapable of engaging in the joy and the toil and the torturous thrill of writing, depriving ourselves and others, leaving too many words unsaid.
Yet, as with all maxims, there are exceptions and caveats to Bloom’s claim. There are those few writers, those glorious few, whose flood of words we cannot help but surrender to. We must let the dizzying awe and the terrifyingly ecstatic thrill that we feel in the presence of their words render us silent with admiration, with love.
In the words of Eliot, their “human voices wake us, and we drown”.
This is especially true when one such voice is extinguished too soon, a voice that refused to “go gentle into that good night“, a voice that, like a benevolent Ozymandias, towers over us, leaving us to ask ourselves what we could possibly say that would do them justice.
A voice like Christopher Hitchens’s. A voice like no other. A voice that has been silenced all too soon. A voice of staggering brilliance that has now left us with the haunting and heartbreaking question of what might have been.
Many will try, but few possess the words, the knowledge, the personal insight, or the rhetorical talent to give him the remembrances he deserves. For those of us who do not, this is a day to surrender to our awe, our admiration, and our sadness. It is a day to listen to others. It is a day to surrender to our memories of the voice of Christopher Hitchens, a human voice that woke us if ever there was one.
Today it is okay to drown, at least for a little while.
- 25 December 2011 at 1:12pm
- SEA Monthly Roundtable 3 January 2012: Christopher Hitchens – His Life and Legacy »