Sully And Hitch: “That Great Avian Demagogue, Saint Francis”

A few years ago, I taped a long conversation into the night with the late Christopher Hitchens. We’ve been running excerpts this month and you can read all of it from the beginning here. Here’s the latest new installment:

H: [Jihadism] is motivated by a hatred for not just America’s hedonism, but for its existence, not for its policy but for its existence in the world.

Now at that stage, I began to realize that many of the criticisms I had myself made of the United States — none of which I would take back — or of its policies or many of its statesmen, were no less valid than they have been but were to be considered in this light. And I think that’s the lesson, successively, of what happened in the Balkans, in the Gulf, in the Hindu Kush and beyond. Because these ideologies, especially the latter one, are potentially toxic everywhere. I mean by that the Islamic Jihad ideology. It doesn’t exist in absolutely every country in the world, but it is a threat in a large number of countries beyond the zone of historical Islam itself. Including in our country of birth.

A: Yes. More so, it seems, almost. I read this Pew poll about the attitudes of Muslims in Europe and in Britain; they seem to be more hostile to Western pluralism in Britain than they were even in Germany or France.

H: Yeah, I believe I have an explanation for that, too, though I could well be wrong. There’s a wonderful essay by Sigmund Freud called, “The Narcissism of the Small Difference,” and it has to do with they way in which divisions that are invisible to the outsider — as between, say Sinhala and Tamil in Sri Lanka, or Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland — are everything to the people who live there. The least thing is the one that divides them. If you were a Zulu, say, or Han Chinese and you go to Belfast…”what are they fighting about? This seems preposterous!” But to them it’s everything, in many ways it’s all they know, it’s what gives them identity.

A: Right, it’s like when someone asks me, “Why don’t you become an Episcopalian?” and I say, “You have no idea.”

H: (Laughs.)

A: “I could sooner become a Muslim.”

H: Yes, and this translates, I think — I’m only translating fairly roughly in the present state — that those who are far from the action, as say is a Muslim in Belgium or Norway…

A: Or Coventry.

H: Or Coventry. He feels he has a great deal more to prove. He doesn’t live in Chechnya, he only reads about it. He doesn’t live in Kashmir. He has to be more affirmative the further he is from the field.

A: There is a dynamic between modernity itself and the primordial resistance too it, right? I mean, some of what we’re talking about in terms of this religious fundamentalism and its political ambitions seems to Qutbhave intensified in modernity. The hijackers were — it’s not as if bin Laden had no knowledge of the United States, it’s not as if Mohammad Atta was not aware of what this was like. The closer they get to it, the more they’re repelled, the more they have to force it out of their consciousness and destroy it.

H: This is famously true of Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders, who appears to have been, it’s actually very fascinating, drawn to the United States precisely by the magnetic elements that draw everybody to it. But when he got there he was appalled by its immorality, and its amorality as well, and its hedonism. And when you look up the events he attended and the scenes that he witnessed you find that it’s some university in the Midwest, I forget where it was: he was invited to a party where women mingled openly and I think perhaps smoked cigarettes and wore what he thought was provocative apparel.

When one goes back to check what that party was like…it was a sort of mixer on some rather dull campus where I don’t believe anyone was showing any cleavage and there was no alcohol served, even! It was one of those, sort of fruit juice, “maybe we’ll be really daring and put a disc-sized record on a gramophone and maybe someone will dance” — a pretty deadly evening. For him, profanity to the utmost extent.

I mention it for two reasons:

1) anecdotally I think it’s very important, 2) it shows that there isn’t a way of being that one could adopt that would be less provocative. Many are saying “we are offending them, we’ve upset them, we disrespected them,” and so on. Well, exactly what would you have to do to not to incur their wrath? This man, Sayyid Qutb, was no mild critic of the United States; he came back having seen this profane campus mixer, that neither of us would’ve bothered to go to, determined to destroy the United States and as far as he could the whole concept of “Western civilization” as we know it, whatever cliché you like.

It was no mild critique he was making of this Babylon. What I object to the most I think, at present, in our culture is the masochism of people who say, “well if only we hadn’t upset them.” They have no idea of how strenuous a condition this is.

A: No, no, well they don’t understand the fundamentalist psyche. Well, the fundamentalist psyche is rather like the totalitarian psyche; it cannot tolerate any deviation at all. And therefore the very concept of a society that’s constructed upon a constitution and the pursuit of happiness as its declared object, is itself anathema, right?

H: Well of course it is, because who doesn’t know that happiness is available to you by opening one book, The Recitation, the Qu’ran? Who doesn’t know that? Isn’t it obvious that all you need is one book? One book itself is there to tell you it’s the only book you need. And that it’s the literal word of God, and not only that — because there’ve been other books that claim to be that — but the final, unalterable word of God. With this book, inquiry and anxiety end, you have everything you need. How could anyone be so wretched and so ungrateful as to reject this gift? It’s like adding to the misery of Calvary –

A: It is translating neutrality towards it as hostility towards it, which is what I mean by the fundamentalist-totalitarian link. It was impossible under Stalin to be neutral, you know?

H: Hannah Arendt made a brilliant remark about Stalinism and she said that its great success among the intellectuals — and not just the Russian ones, I mean, among its intellectual adherents around the world — was that it had replaced all questions of validity or testability or objectivity with the question of motive. In other words, “comrade x has written this attack on our collectivization policy and says it’s not working—“

A: “Why would he do such a thing?”

H: “And why now? Why would he do it, and who put him up to it?” And that mentality you can find still strongly exemplified.

A: And what is the origin of that mentality?

H: The origin of that mentality is religious.

A: Yes, so what is religion, in your view — ?

H: That’s the inquisitional mentality: if you can’t find heresy, you must go and look for it.

A: Right. But what — leaving me out of this for a minute — in your view, is the human need that mentality is fulfilling that you seem to have no use for?

H: The need for certainty. And therefore security.

A: Which means that they are insecure. Which means that they are afraid. I mean I do think there is a connection between a sense of dislocation, a sense of beleaguerment, a sense of loss, and an attempt to repair it with absolute certainty. I think there is a relationship between those two things.

H: Common to all such systems, including the secular ones — I would exempt fascism because it had no canonical texts, besides the turgid garbage of Mein Kampf —

A: Right. Or some crazy 19th century racial eugenics.

H: Or with Gobineau, Rosenberg, ethnic theorists and crackpots, people measuring bumps in people’s skulls. Phrenologists. Crackpots. I mean, fascism is unbelievable intellectual degradation. But certainly with communism, with the Catholic Church — well, the Christian Church to begin with, before the schism — any revisiting of the canonical texts makes people extremely nervous. Great attempts are made to either bury things in libraries or to burn them.

A: Except I think you are ignoring large sections of — I’ll speak about Christians — in which this is not: for example, the monastic life, in which one can see people having no interest in controlling the world whatsoever, and in withdrawing from the world to pursue what they think is God’s will. Or, a figure like St. Francis, who one cannot even begin to accuse of seeking power, or even to control anybody else’s life. And, similarly, Jesus, I mean, you have to concede there are two forces. I completely agree with you that this element in religion is integral to it, it’s part of it, it’s a constant — but I don’t think it exhausts the entire arsenal of religious activity or thought.

H: I’ve no knowledge of the real existence either of Jesus of Nazareth or of St. Francis of Assisi, who may very well have been a great avian demagogue —

A: (Laughs.)

H: But I do know that it would be quite false to say that the Franciscan order sought no influence over the world, along with all the other orders: First, in the accumulation of property, second in the administration of local government and third in the promulgation and proselytization of the faith. I don’t think they at all renounced the world. I believe it may have been their ambition, but in point of fact, the world cannot be renounced. The world is as it is.

A: Yes, but insofar as it can be, many have tried. And to dismiss them as not religious, or to conflate all of them with the Grand Inquisitor seems to me to miss a very large swath of religious experience.

H: I don’t conflate all of them with the Grand Inquisitor but if Christianity wants to be identified with St. Simeon of Stylite — the site of whose supposed pillar I once visited in the original territories of early Christianity, eastern Christianity, which is the real original one, in northern Syria — who decided to mortify himself and withdraw from the world by standing on top of a pillar for forty years … It doesn’t bother me, it seems like a waste of life and a waste of mind and a terrible waste of energy.

A: But why would you care? Why would you even go that far?

H: Well, exactly. If that’s what it was, it’s fine, let him go do that just as I don’t mind if some hippie goes off to start some commune and live entirely on nature and have his wife have the baby on a wooden table. It doesn’t bother me at all. But Christianity does not give me that option! It wants to save my soul; it wants to tell me that my children must be taught garbage in the schools in the 21st century, in the United States; it wants to tell people that condoms are worse than AIDS —

A: Some of them do. Not all of them.

H: I’m sorry, the authoritative ones do, the leadership does. The others who’ve become, I have to say, I’ll agree with you — Church of England, for example, has become more or less a humanist, bleating organization that stands for nothing. Fine!

A: No I think that’s way too dismissive.

H: I think it’s way too lenient.

A: It’s perfectly possible to say that one believes in the teachings of Jesus; that one attempts to inculcate them in oneself; that one appreciates and has come to terms with the mystery of his incarnation; one wishes to commemorate it through the sacraments…

H: I’m not hearing this for the first time.

A: I’m sure you’re not — without attempting to control anybody else, without attempting to impose it on a single other soul, and without even…I mean, for example, I think of many of my lay-Catholic peers or friends or family and I do not think that the fact they’re not running around trying to convert every single human being they meet — and they’re not, Christopher, they’re just not — to them, their faith is for themselves and the people they love, and for them it is the truth, but it’s held with much less certainty and much less intolerance than some other people.

Now, I think that comes, to some extent, from being able to live with doubt. The psychological and spiritual reserves that allow one to live in the middle of confusion, and yet not to abandon faith. It is a sign of weakness that one has to translate religious experience into a set of inviolable doctrines which must, by necessity — and I understand the point you’re making, by logic — be required to be applied to everybody else with whom one comes into contact. But it’s not the only form of Christianity. It’s not the only form of faith.

H: But just to respond to those in reverse order: It would very surprising if Christians were not assailed with constant doubt because the worldview of their church has been repeatedly challenged and overthrown ever since Galileo and extending to our own day with Stephen Hawking. And including—

A: And of course, Darwin.

H: To say nothing of Darwin—and including matters that are not to do with the magisterium of the spiritual at all, that are to do with actual questions, such as whether the sun goes round the Earth or not, whether we live in a man-centered or an Earth-centered universe. These things have been decided. Christianity could not now, I think, be invented. So, that they’re doubtful is to their credit, and furthermore, their attempts to evangelize their world have failed, I think rightly and I also think inevitably. They were cruel, most of them, and additionally ineffective.

A: They’re succeeding very well right now in Africa as we speak.

H: The attempt will never stop, but I thought you said that one should consider Christianity as a skeptical movement, you can’t have that both ways.

A: No, I’m not having that both ways.

H: Of course they’re never going to give it up because there’s no point to them if they do, but just to finish my reverse: the other reason without which we would’ve never heard about Christianity is that it happened to be adopted as the official state ideology of the Roman Empire in a rather great stroke of luck.

A: Right.

H: Which made it semi-compulsory for people, well, entirely compulsory for many. Going back to your view about the transcendent refulgence of the Nazarene: I don’t believe a word of that. He quite plainly though the world was going to end quite soon, rather looked forward to the prospect, thought that he would be a big feature of that event, and inculcated this belief in other people. That is…

A: No, we do not know that. Christopher, we know that the people who wrote the Gospels attributed that to him.

H: Well, look, you’re not gonna trap me into saying the Gospels are true. I don’t think they’re true at all, I don’t think there’s a word of truth in them.

A: You think it was entirely made up. He didn’t even exist.

H: I think the entire thing—the Gospel account of his life is of course an absolute fiction—

A: Absolute?

(Photo: Sayyid Qutb, 1965, via Wiki.)