Posts Tagged ‘New Yorker’

I thought my readers might enjoy a series of short critical essays I wrote during graduate school about a variety of writers and subjects.  The first one is about the article called “He Knew He was Right” by Ian Parker in which he portrays Christopher Hitchens, the infamous spokesman for atheists who has since passed away.

Be aware that my formatting seems to be lost when I post here, even though I try in various ways to keep everything in order.

I hope that you gain something from the essays, and that all is well with you as you continue your own journeys.

Shalom,

Sister Olive

Ian Parker Portrays a Man of Polarizations

In the New Yorker article He Knew He Was Right, Ian Parker brilliantly portrays the political analyst and writer Christopher Hitchens. The author raises many questions about this man of contradictions who seems to delight in controversy and keeping an air of mystery around himself.

While raising questions about “the Hitchens apostasy, which runs from revolutionary socialism to a kind of neo-conservatism (141)”, Parker artistically and visually brings Hitchens into focus for the reader:

He still writes a great deal, at a speed at which most people read. And, at fifty-seven, he still has an arrest-photograph air about him- looking like someone who, with as much dignity as possible, has smoothed his hair and straightened his collar after knocking the helmet off a policeman (137).

By contrasting the image of a mug shot photo with the man smoothing his hair and straightening his collar, the writer uses physical description to show the reader how confusing this man’s personality can be.

He then shows Hitchens transforming from one character to another, when he describes a disagreement between Hitchens and some women over former presidential candidate Howard Dean:

….His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour (139).

Parker masterfully shows how Hitchens’s facial expressions can dramatically change in a moment if something brushes up against his current opinion.

He again addresses the matter of opposing attitudes and shifting views when he writes:

…those familiar with Hitchens’s work know that he has always thrived on sectarian battles, and always looked for ‘encouraging signs of polarization,’ a phrase he borrowed from his late friend Israel Shahak, the Israeli activist (141).

He seems to be suggesting here that Hitchens merely enjoys the drama of the battle, and that he is simply a performer, who can switch roles with ease.

At other times, Parker seems to admire Hitchens as a man who simply exercises his right to change his mind or make alterations to his views as he gains more knowledge about a subject. Sometimes, he seems to present Hitchens as someone who knows too much about the inner workings and corruption in government, and is tormented by that knowledge, which causes him to drink constantly and behave in other strange ways. He shows the darker side of his subject when he says:

…I arrived just before midday, and Hitchens said that it was “time for a cocktail”; he poured a large drink. His hair flopped over his forehead, and he pushed it back using the tips of his fingers, his hand as unbending as a mannequin’s (144).

The simile of the mannequin’s hand seems to represent how cold and unyielding Hitchens can be towards people of opposing views on issues.

Parker also shows more of the complexity of Hitchens’s character when he says: “At times, Hitchens can look like a brain trying to pass as a muscle. He reads the world intellectually, but emphasizes his physical responses to it” (155). He points out that often Hitchens tries to demonstrate his masculinity in the way that he reports in physical terms, as if he is a soldier in a real war, and not just a spectator writing about a subject.

Then Parker artistically uses Hitchens’s style of writing to show how he never backs up to make concessions or compromises about his opinions even when his views have radically fluctuated over time:

…He almost never uses the backspace, delete, or cut-and-paste keys. He writes a single draft, at a speed that caused his New Statesman colleagues to place bets on how long it would take him to finish an editorial. What emerges is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he’s not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving (164).

It is very masterful how the writer uses visual scenes and incidents to show the nuances of Hitchens and his character. By juxtaposing Hitchens’s physical demeanor with his ideological inconsistencies, the author reveals how Hitchens can be such an anomaly to everyone around him. Parker cleverly leaves the reader with no answers but only more questions- the profile ends as an unsolved mystery about a man that knows he is always right.

Works Cited

Parker, Ian. “He Knew He was Right.” Best Magazine Writing 2007. (2007): 137-167.

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