We all miss the incisive witticisms of the late Christopher Hitchens. He would be indispensable as a voice of reason in the current political situation.
Fortunately, we still have his books. The one absorbed mostly by younger readers is Letters to a Young Contrarian named after a masterpiece indited by Rilke (Rilke addressed young poets accordingly). The letters are a source of knowledge coming from a seasoned writer, traveler, and raconteur. They will change things in you.
15 Quotes From Letters To A Young Contrarian
Can you think of anyone who speaks in these terms on the current political scene?
1. Distrust any speaker who talks confidently about “we,” or speaks in the name of “us.” Distrust yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. Always ask who this “we” is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs.
Hitch never spared even the most revered figures. And that chilling observation cloaked in Greek philosophy…
2. Dr. Martin Luther King plagiarized his doctoral thesis and spent his last night on earth in some pretty rough fornication. It’s hard to blame him for the latter; he lived with the imminence of death and Rilke wasn’t the first or last to discern that Eros is the best way yet devised of warding off Thanatos.
Catch-22 is one of the best books ever and Yossarian is its ultimate survivor
3. Stay on good terms with your inner Yossarian.
My travels opened my eyes, but there’s still a long way to go
4. “What do they know of England, who only England know?” This applies, with the relevant alteration, to any country or culture. I want to urge you very strongly to travel as much as you can, and to evolve yourself as an internationalist. It’s as important a part of your education as a radical as the reading of any book.
The dazzling light of Africa
5. When I started travelling in earnest in my twenties, often to countries that had once been British colonies, I took along my socialist convictions but often had to overcome a squeamish or nervous reluctance to go into the bazaar, so to speak. (As recently as 1993, when I set off on a long tour of Africa for my magazine, not one person in Washington failed to wish me luck in “darkest Africa” “the heart of darkness” “the dark continent.” As you’ll find when you go to Africa, the first thing you notice is the dazzling light.)
Travelling and the human nature
6. In one way, travelling has narrowed my mind. What I have discovered is something very ordinary and unexciting, which is that humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight. This is of course an encouraging finding; it helps arm you against news programs back home that show seething or abject masses of either fanatical or torpid people. In another way it is a depressing finding; the sorts of things that make people quarrel and make them stupid are the same everywhere.
Adventures with “race”
7. I was grateful for the latter form, because when asked to state my “race” I always put “human” in the required box. This led to a yearly row. “Put ‘white,’” I was once told—by an African-American clerk, I might add. I explained that white was not even a color, let alone a race. I also drew his attention to the perjury provision that obliged me to state only the truth. “Put ‘Caucasian,’” I was told on another occasion. I said that I had no connection with the Caucasus and no belief in the outmoded ethnology that had produced the category.
Putting a finger on irony
8. As for the ironic, I shan’t attempt a definition here. It’s the gin in the Campari, the x-factor, the knight’s move on the chessboard, the cat’s purr, the knot in the carpet.
Times of moral crisis
9. Dante was a sectarian and a mystic but he was right to reserve one of the fieriest corners of his inferno for those who, in a time of moral crisis, try to stay neutral.
The imaginary game
10. This was the sort of thing we had read about from six decades before; some of us (including myself) had met and got to know some survivors of that period (Bosnia War). And of course, in a recess of our minds we had played the imaginary game: what would I do about the knock on the door; how would I react if the neighbors were being marched off to the station?
The owl of Minerva
11. The owl of Minerva, says Hegel, takes wing only at dusk. He meant by this that a historical era can only be evaluated as it draws to a close.
The high ambition
12. The high ambition, therefore, seems to me to be this: That one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganising it.
Pessimism combined with Stoicism
13. He thought of the awful status quo as permanent and irrevocable. As it happens, I was able to differ with both of them—Milosz in person and Kundera in print—and in time everybody lived to see the survival and renaissance of these cultures. But I did not, I hope, misunderstand the essential Stoicism that was present in their work; there were times when the cause seemed hopeless and yet they would not give it up. One way of facing this impossible position was to be as grim as possible and to treat all hopes as illusions. For those facing a long haul and a series of defeats, pessimism can be an ally. (Apart from anything else, as some American Indians have also discovered, the presentation of the bleakest and starkest possible picture can have the paradoxical effect of mobilizing the emotions and the intellect.)
14. So I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant and picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.
The Konrad’s Quote
15. Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses. . . If you don’t like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days. – George Konrad
All these bits of knowledge served me well. They inspired me to travel, read more, explore the world, be active, able to argue, and live the life, so to speak. I hope they will have the same effect on you.