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It was difficult la-okc-trip-2004-029.jpggrowing up with the name “Eric Rasmussen” for a few obvious reasons. It’s a funny name for children to say, and given children’s talent for innovation, a fun name to mock. (“Raisin Muffin” was the sobriquet the junior high kids finally settled on for me.)

My name is now a problem for a different reason: It’s not anywhere near as as rare as many people think it is. “Rasmussen” is kind of like the Scandinavian “Smith.” and “Eric” is a natural fit for it. So not only are there tons of Eric Rasmussens in New York City (I even bumped into one at a party), but tons of them working in the same fields I work in–fiction, music, film and journalism. After I began recently releasing a slate of my novels, I realized there’s another Eric Rasmussen who writes short stories. He, like me, is published in several places.

I’m a hyphenate, which makes things more confusing. I’ve been working in at least four different media for years, subjects I’ve been passionate about since my teens. I never saw a reason not to pursue all of them at once, and I dare say I’m good at some of them. But to the outside world (and definitely to a career coach) it probably looks like I have multiple personality disorder.

So now I realize it’s become necessary to tell people both who I am and who I’m not. I talk about the latter in this companion piece. But for now, I’m going to give you my CV, if for some reason you get confused about which Eric Rasmussen you’re dealing with. My name is Eric Randolph Rasmussen. I grew up in Oklahoma, went to college in Austin, Texas, and I’ve lived in New York City for over two decades. I have a fairly large amount of content on the internet in multiple media.

Journalism

I’ve been a journalist since my college days. I focused first on arts and entertainment; in 1997, I started writing about finance. The following are the publications I’ve written for (if you see my name pop up in a different newspaper or magazine, it is not I):

The Daily Texan (the University of Texas student newspaper)
The Austin Chronicle
The Alcalde (The University of Texas alumni magazine)
Io magazine
Swing
magazine
Civil Engineering
Investment Management Weekly
Financial-Planning.com
Nurseweek
Financial Advisor magazine

Film

I’ve been making short films since 2006, and created a web series with my wife from 2007 to 2009. These are my works:

S&M Queen For A Day (2006)
Scrabble Rousers (2006)
The Retributioners (web TV series, 2007-2009)
Candy Rocks Doesn’t Grow Up (a screenplay and semi-finalist for the Austin Film Festival comedy screenplay competition in 2012)

Music

I am the sole musical artist behind Salon de la Guerre, which released its 21st album in 2019. I worked on music through the 1990s, but didn’t start releasing definitive versions of my songs until 2007 on MySpace and didn’t start publishing them in album form until 2012. As of August 2019,* I had 290 songs in circulation.

I’m listing the albums here with the dates I published them on the streaming sites (these are not the copyright dates of the songs, which go back as far as 1993). My albums are:

Time-Traveling Humanist Mangled by Space Turbine (2012)
Four-Track Demons (2014)
Diasporous (2014)
The Mechanical Bean (2014)
Toe-Tapping Songs of Pain and Loss (2014)
Your Eyes Have Mystic Beams (2014)
Clam Fake (2016)
Roses Don’t Push the Car Home (2016)
Gravitas: A Life (2016)
Liberty (2016)
The Church of Low Expectations (2016)
In the Lake of Feral Mermaids (2017)
The Widowhood of Bunny (2017)
Keep Your Slut Lamp Burning (2017)
Driver, Take This Cab to the Depths of the Soul (2017)
All Else Dross (2017)
Yipano (2018)
You’re Going To Regret What You Did (2018)
Bleed (2019)
Air Is a Public Good (2019)
From Sour To Cinnamon (2019)

Fiction

I’ve been writing fiction for well over two decades; however, for many reasons, most of them banal, my seven novels sat unpublished on my computer for years. A couple of months ago, that all changed: I began releasing my novels as e-books on Amazon, with the hopes of releasing the paperback versions on the platform later in the year. As of yesterday, five of my novels are now available on the site, and I plan to release the other two (one of which has three volumes) later this year. The books are mostly comic, though they also stretch into historical fiction and absurdism.

Here’s the complete list (I’ve listed the dates I released them on Amazon, though many of these books were finished at least five years ago):

Zip Monkey (2019)
Detective J (2019)
Letters to My Imaginary Friend Leticia (2019)
Traffic Waitress (2019)
Did it End? (2019)
American Banjo (2019)
The Ghost and the Hemispheres, Vol 1-3 (planned release date: 2019)

Poetry

My big plan as a teenager was to be a poet, and oddly enough, this is the field I’m least prolific in. I have only some few dozen poems to my name, almost all of which are available on this blog. However, I did get a few bits into the college literary magazine back in the day:

Analecta 1989-1991 (the University of Texas literary and arts journal)

The Blogosphere

Beauty is Imperfection is the blog you are reading right now. I started posting these little musings on MySpace in late 2006 and switched over to WordPress in 2009, moving a lot of the MySpace content over after seeing that the latter platform was dying.

As my long-suffering readers know, even in my blogging life, I’m something of a schizophrenic. For its first few years, Beauty Is Imperfection was a comedy blog with lots of Top 10 lists and other silliness, most of which was meant to help create buzz about my web series, The Retributioners. In 2010, my mother died, and the blog took on a more somber tone, and I also started posting a lot of political material to give the world a taste of my long-stifled polemical voice. My posts have been infrequent in the last few years; occasionally I post new poetry, but otherwise I use the blog to let people know about all these many other projects I’m working on.

Hopefully, this post gives you a more complete picture of me. I rarely talk about these projects with friends and colleagues, mostly because I’m not the bragging sort, I don’t like to shove art down people’s throats and I know how much great, perhaps better art is out there that I’m competing with. I’m offering this summary of my career mostly to help people navigating the internet avoid confusion if they see a name like mine and don’t know whom they are dealing with.

For the record, I haven’t written any plays.

*Updated October 2019.

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I don’t know why this struck me. I was skimming a GQ article on the 30th anniversary of the TV show Cheers. The article quotes Kurt Vonnegut saying that he would have rather written that show than his own books. This is twofold funny to me for very personal reasons. One of the main reasons I gave up watching television, at age 17, was that Shelley Long left Cheers, and the other main reason was that I had discovered the book Slaughterhouse-Five, the literary masterpiece of one Kurt Vonnegut, who single-handedly launched a love affair between me and books that my father had fruitlessly tried to force on me at a much younger age.

Why did Shelley Long play such a big role in my intellectual development, forcing me away from Starsky & Hutch and into Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce? Does she really deserve such responsibility? No. It was probably just the right time in my life. My parents, big readers that they were, let me watch far too much television when I was younger … so much that I eventually burned out on it. To this day, watching regular TV for more than an hour at a time makes me a bit nauseous.  Cheers was the last TV show, for many, many years, that I watched religiously, compelled not only by its comedy but by its soap opera. Love is such a fraught topic for teenagers, that I, too, pinned some sort of  ineffable hope on two fictional characters, neither one of whom I’m like. Or perhaps I just thought Shelley Long was pretty. In any case, the show beat that dead horse of Sam and Diane’s on-again, off-again romance for so long, that by the time I was 17 I was starting to see through the pastiche and melodrama not only of television but the way it was somehow mimicked in real life. People get drunk on drama as easily as teenagers sipping cooking sherry. There’s a better life out there, and there’s better art. More timeless literature that makes you think around a subject and find affinities instead of jerking you around every Thursday night for cheap delectation.

I have been wondering recently whether to haunt the Cheers bar again on Netflix, since my impatient and image-thirsty son has sort of forced me into a compromise with TV time again. From what I can tell so far, my feelings were justified. I understand why Cheers was a good idea on paper, but many of the jokes have worn thin over time. I think it might have been an ambitious show at first, but it traded its wit for melodrama too often, traded smart gags for dumb ones and certainly reached mediocrity even before Shelley Long left. I stand behind my oft-repeated claim that if you’re going to look for a truly great sitcom from that era, you must look no further than the Cheers’ crew’s previous show: Taxi. This, in my mind, is a timeless TV show (if there is such a thing) where life’s absurdities and heartbreaks and the collisions between generations and social groups could be examined and laughed at in ways that we realized were important after the fact–and without dime store titillation. I still feel the writing on that show stands up 30 years after its own abbreviated five-year run. I’m not sure why it doesn’t get yanked onto the pages of GQ more often. Maybe another 30 years will offer us more focus. Of course, you’d have to be one of Kurt Vonnegut’s time-traveling heroes to know. In fact, I highly recommend that if you haven’t, you go read Slaughterhouse-Five right now.

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Lots of Gore

To live in an age of civilization decline sounds horrible, and yet also terribly attractive. People romanticize it all out of proportion to its actual reality, when science and history are often blind to it. But to a certain kind of writer, reveling more than he’d like to admit in Freudian death drive, it is delicious.

To Gore Vidal, a postwar literary lion who tried ever so hard to describe the world in a solipsistic idiom, decline was probably one of the most effective tools in his writer’s cassette. A winking, urbane snob who brandished wit often of the pun variety, an aristocrat who cried crocodile tears over American populism in ways mostly funny for their disingenuousness, a bitter crank who thought right wing bomber Timothy McVeigh’s and World Trade Center destroyer Osama bin Laden’s ideas deserved a day in court, a screenwriter who tried to inject transgressive ideas into Old Hollywood, Vidal left us last week, left us daring even to feel sentimental blush for his passing, since love was a frippery subject to him. For some of us, especially those with literary leanings, the news, unremarkable given his ill health, still likely caused a frisson of competitive writer’s id, the need to for one last moment perhaps feel competitive with a gilded age of public intellectuals, whose pungent, elegant sentences were something to be savored like brandy notes, not minced up on Twitter. We are hypocrites, though, as Gore Vidal realized, because in the 24 hour news cycle, few of us prize the written word so much as we crave a melodrama. It helps us feel alive.

A few hundred years ago, we forget that men could be roasted over green logs for hours over fine points of religious heresy. Gore Vidal did not live in such an age, but instead trod one of banality, of Main Street peanut crunchers meeting his manicured polemic not with fire but with puffy eyed bafflement. And so his American age, as much as he’d like to frame it in terms of Caligula and the decline of the Empire, was not full of burning corpses, but of thumb suckers. People squabbling over parochial biases and narrow ideas. It’s not surprising that Christianity and communism both find so many adherents in such an age–these philosophies both place the helpless individual into a historical narrative–communists see themselves as part of the materialist struggle on its way to revolution while Christians see themselves as soldiers in a battle for the heavens. This urge to frame one’s life in a higher context was no less tempting to Gore Vidal, who saw the decline of republicanism into imperialism as an inexorable thrust of history, and imagined himself as Cicero  standing at the pillar. He called himself a solipsist and joked that the rest of us were figments of his imagination. This kind of bold artist’s statement impresses those of us with less gusto, but only until we realize that Madonna and Tom Cruise probably see things the same way, and they sound less like cranky old farts.

The irony of such curmudgeons is how often they leave the world as beloved as Mother Teresa. Note the fawning obituaries recalling him with a sentimentality he would seldom show others. Of course, in this age of “Obit Hits,” we have a few naysayers: Here’s a savage attack on Vidal by Slate, if you like the taste of blood.

I have a few Gore Vidal novels at home, and though one can’t help but be impressed by his erudition, in many ways his desire to stand outside of history as a monitor meant he was left aside by some of the most exciting ideas in the 20th century. He thought Bob Dylan wrote terrible lyrics. He dismissed Thomas Pynchon because he thought “Gravity’s Rainbow” was unreadable (i.e., he didn’t understand it, and there’s a pathetic essay out there preserving that ignorance for posterity). At the end of the day, as he fought for the value of letters in an illiterate society, he probably didn’t know how much he sounded like the grumpy old men of the right after their declaration of culture wars. He didn’t seem to get, with his enlightenment superciliousness, that the 20th century belonged to irrationalism. Freud and Jung’s science may have had little basis in fact, but their interpretations of history offered guideposts for an age in which we found out particles’ positions and directions couldn’t be determined at the same time. When mass slaughter could be contrived by a few people with sick beliefs. The realm of the unconscious seemed to hold no guerdon for Gore, and so we are left only with his cleverness and its limitations. If Vidal had anything else in common with Christopher Hitchens, his also recently departed “dauphin,” it was that both seemed to think that the highest form of consciousness was spotting vulgarism and irony, and that those with such radar were society’s saviors. As if all the other forms of intelligence and consciousness and aesthetic barely mention a footnote.  For that reason, Vidal’s novels can feel awfully limited and contrived–more likely to cause titters than cries of “Eureka!” Gore Vidal seemed bent in impressing us and bullying us into seeing the world his way than on pursuing the humbling task more native to the great artists–discovery, with a bit of humility.

Seeing himself as a historical figure, he seemed to write about history in first person a lot. “Look, there’s me with Tennessee Williams in the late ’40s. Already, my serious mien suggests I see trouble in the postwar era.” Or, “Hey, look, there’s me blowing the lid off the Oklahoma City bombing story. Adding my stamp to your understanding because mass murder by an extremist doesn’t explain itself well enough.” “Look, there’s me with Jackie Kennedy as she explains after-sex douching.” “Look, there’s me not being liked by the Kennedys anymore.” Whether the subject was Occam’s razor or McVeigh, Vidal was ineffably gifted in starting the sentence with “I.” Historians might wrestle with each other over the Great Man Theory of history, but Gore Vidal was constantly able to show that when it comes to being a Great Man in History, 90% of success is showing up.

Did he mention that he was good looking? And that his enemies weren’t? He boasted of his sexual exploits and his lack of concern with others’ pleasure, even those he bedded. He informed us that he was not capable of sexual jealousy or love (besides the love of his long-lost school fere “Jimmy Trimble,” killed in World War II.) He claimed to have taken Jack Kerouac upstairs to one of the rooms in the Chelsea Hotel to play horses and mares and wondered if the registry would become famous. Yes, Gore Vidal helped illuminate hypocrisy, especially sexual hypocrisy in a way that was to offer pathways to liberation for homosexuals. But he didn’t embrace the gay movement so much as he insisted that everybody was secretly bisexual and just wouldn’t admit it. Why? Because he was. If we admit he helped history along, we also have to admit he did it in the way that only an unabashed narcissist could–with a Napoleonic, indefatigable belief that everything he did was right, a belief bestowed him by his patrician upbringing among the rich and powerful. (His grandfather was Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma.)

You can take his word for it, and if you were scared of him, you probably would. And yet he was surpassed on so many levels by people with a better understanding of the spirit of the age.

He also liked to attack people for their looks and once said that narcissists are just people better looking than you, i.e., him. You can trace ad hominem attacks back further than Vidal, surely, but he made it urbane and witty to attack persons (He said Will Hays looked like Mickey Mouse) and that likely inspired ferocious leftists of the current day (like those on the Daily Kos blog, whose authors do the same, albeit without the wit or elegance). You could easily say that his crankiness and flights of paranoid conspiracy mongering in his last 15 years ought to be excused because of his age. Vidal isn’t the first sharp intellect (Vonnegut is another sad example) who turned shrill, uncompromising and humorless in dotage. But he was calling his adversaries Nazis (William F. Buckely) and comparing them to Charles Manson (Norman Mailer) in the 1960s. So Vidal’s affable curmudgeon routine could also be seen as less a sad effect of age and more of a sclerotic hardening of bad qualities he’d always had. You might not notice because he was always willing to gossip about whom he’d fucked, which made him more fun than, say, Noam Chomsky.

But can I miss the writer? Yes. Sometimes. Myra Breckinridge is very funny. Not as funny or Vonnegut or Pynchon or Southern, but funny. In his cramped way, Gore Vidal illuminated sexual and political hypocrisy, albeit with reductionist obsessions. He championed numerous writers like Italo Calvino and Dawn Powell who might have been forgotten. He endured blacklisting after writing an openly gay novel (in the ’40s!) and made it his job to blast accepted history. The latter is not a fun job. It requires constantly questioning the underpinnings of your beliefs, especially about the world you live in and who was really a hero, who was foolish, and who bought their way into more acceptability. He knew. Because he had crawled around in that world himself, one he claimed he had tried, with some success, to leave. Fighting accepted history is like taking out garbage. You will be doing it forever if you do it right.

My fondest memory of Gore Vidal is, oddly, as an actor. He played a cameo role of a garrulous priest in the film Igby Goes Down, which also starred his pal Susan Sarandon. Vidal has a brief monologue in which he is giddy describing the joys of the fall leaves. Vidal, whose famous vanity surprisingly didn’t lead to an acting career, is positively ebullient in his small role talking the trivialities of a fool. Seeing him work so hard to fake warmth made me feel warm. It redeemed a lot of his literary work, which has always left me impressed, sometimes titillated, but nevertheless a little cold afterward with no one to hug. Maybe only the memory of the beloved J.T.

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When I was new to New York in the 1990s, I often trolled about Lower Manhattan looking for interesting encounters and odd adventures. I was a single person in my 20s, impetuous for the first time in my life and trying to overcome my shyness. I  knew only I wanted to be a writer, but I needed stuff to fill my head with. One night, I found myself at a rather loud clamorous bar on 9th Street called Solas, where the music was loud and the yawping patrons louder. It was a little too hip to be a sports bar, but also too loud a place to talk about things like, say, Samuel Beckett’s work.

I had learned a few things as a journalist, though, one of which is to look for incongruities in a picture. The incongruity in that splashy bar on that night was an old man in his 70s sitting in the corner watching the young people caper with the disinterest and mien (and even the glasses) of Jean-Paul Sartre. I did something I rarely do now–overcame my shyness and approached him, knowing somehow only that this must be a guy with a story.

Boy, did he have one. I’m not sure how we got to talking after I asked him what he was doing in a loud bar full of hardbodies, but eventually I got it out of him that he, as I, was interested in literature. Usually, a person must be skeptical when the old guy at the bar starts talking shortly thereafter about being on a first-name basis with the author of “Waiting for Godot,” and that he’s named his son Beckett after him as a favor. And yet after I talked more with this guy, I could no longer deny after a short time that I had not just stumbled upon an old guy interested in 20th century literature–but in fact had stumbled upon an honest-to-God 20th century literary figure. Sitting drinking at a bar by himself, ready for a conversation with an amiable dunce.

Barney Rosset, the man I found myself speaking to, was in fact the man who helmed Grove Press during the mid-century American literary Renaissance and brought literary greats like Beckett and Jean Genet to America using a cushion of family money and a famously lush caprice. He fought indecency laws by publishing “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” by D.H. Lawrence and “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller for the first time in the U.S. with all their ebullient filthiness intact. Before there was a Larry Flynt or a 2 Live Crew, there was Rosset. He championed beat writers. And communists. And Malcolm X. The postmaster general tried to shut him down for “Lady Chatterly,” but an appeals court made the breakthrough announcement: sometimes smut can be redeeming.

That seems like a quaint notion today when South Park makes jokes about little boys licking each other’s balls. Look at that sentence again. If it sounds harsher in print than it does when you’re watching the actual show (where that actually happened), then maybe you have some idea of what Barney Rosset was up against. Ideas are scary.

So that I could hold up my end of the conversation with a guy who had seen everything, I remember talking a bit about a book I had set in Nicaragua (that’s a long story). Rosset was not only interested in my ideas, but he said he had a son that had gone down to witness the Sandinista era himself and was able to give me lots of color about the early hope and later disillusion of the young revolutionaries in their Marxist-Leninist government. (I didn’t know until later that Rosset, like a lot of radicals of his generation, was a former disillusioned communist). He was one of the only leftists I ever met who suggested genuine support for the anti-Sandinista UNO party at the end.

In his heyday, he not only published works by Jack Kerouac and Tom Stoppard and Malcolm X but even Che Guevara. For his trouble, his office was bombed in 1968 (when, luckily, nobody was in it). He later suffered a backlash from feminists in the late 60s and early 70s who said that the writings he championed mainly degraded women. And in 1985, he sold the Grove Press under a contractual obligation that he remain in charge. He was fired within a year. He spent time in court, settled, and seemed to dabble too much in too many ventures, bad radical films seemingly being a big one.

When I went home, I had to delve more deeply into the man I met. Though he didn’t tell me at the time, he’d been married, to Joan Mitchell–one of my favorite abstract expressionist painters (whose work I’d seen at the University of Texas at Austin in the James Michener collection). “Well shit!” I thought. I probably could have spent the whole evening talking about her alone, but I realize in retrospect that Barney Rosset collected a few wives along the way and perhaps wouldn’t have wanted to go there. But who knew. He was open about a lot of things, including the degradations of a close family member at Riker’s Island.

What struck me more than anything is that he seemed piqued about the literary projects I was working on … and hinted that I could perhaps send them to him at the Evergreen Review. As if! I knew then that even if my work was ready (it wasn’t) that it probably wasn’t radical enough for the tradition he was carrying on. What he brought was not only the seeds of sexual revolution but a freedom of sensual language in a world that is often depressingly literal. The intellect’s revenge on art, as Susan Sontag put it. Every writer I know owes some debt to that period, even if they don’t like all the work or think some of it is indulgent. Liberation is messy. It has no time for cuteness or the coyness that we’ve since come up with as an antidote to the Aquarian age of sexual Rousseauism. Even Camille Paglia, a supposed sexual radical, regularly craps on the seditionaries of this period for their back-to-nature naivete.

I personally felt ridiculous talking about my own work in the context Barney Rosset championed and shaped. But I marveled that this great man had not only encouraged me but showed me enough respect that we could have a two-way conversation. He had a great open mind even in his 70s and what I had to offer him, that night anyway, seemed important enough for him to listen to.

I never met him again, but kept up with him and his endeavors and told everyone I knew, “You know there’s an honest to God American literary legend walking around Lower Manhattan who sits in bars and occasionally has to remind people who he is.”

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I was going to let Christopher Hitchens rest (lest he is in heaven chafing at the sound of me typing) but then got a nose-full of this warm, cuddly obit, for him by The New York Times‘ boy conservative Ross Douthat.  I’ve written here before that Douthat as a thinker gets everything backward, not looking at the world with true inquisitiveness so much as constantly articulating an a priori conservative identity for himself that the world and facts conform to later. (We start with a love of Ronald Reagan and then try to figure things out from there.) Now he fondly teases another dead man. He cites Hitchens’ bluster about godlessness and says it tacitly reveals what must have been some sort of basic belief in a deity–that Hitchens was constantly saying “no” to a non-entity and was thus not atheist but rebel (Like Job!) So, really, could his anti-theist polemic have happened in a vacuum? Wasn’t there some entity there to argue with? Or, as Descartes argued, isn’t the ability to grasp a perfect being proof that that being is real?

Actually, Hitchens spent a great deal of time trying to find an antidote for this age-old fallacy, one that in one form or another has befallen many Christian intellectuals, that the very concept of a God (or the fight against the concept) is proof he exists. This 1,000-year-old plus ontological hard sell, pushed by Descartes most famously, has been flushed down the toilet often, by Kant most memorably, who said that this reasoning boils down to a maddening tautology, “We know God is because God is.” Hitchens himself took to task the similar logic of C.S. Lewis: Anybody who came up with the idea of a God would have to be mad … so the fact that somebody came up with it despite it all that means God’s existence must be true!

It would have been a really funny, ironic article if Douthat had merely said Christians loved Hitchens because he was a really smart and charming atheist and just too damn irresistible to hate and because love is (or ought to be) the Christian tool with the most reach. It’s another thing to try to indoctrinate a dead man after the fact into a silly cosmology, try to make a net wide enough for Hitchens’ clear-eyed rationalism to be somehow folded into Douthat’s fairy tale and made whole with it. If I were Hitchens, I’d prefer it if somebody told me I was going to rot in hell while fox hounds snacked on my intestines.

The end of the article is simply an insult to everybody who thinks: “Rigorous atheism casts a wasting shadow over every human hope and endeavor,” says Douthat. OK. If I am not allowed to call Douthat stupid (after all, he went to better colleges than I did), then I can at least call this sentence infuriatingly patronizing. If you see off to the right of my page here, there are some 34 pieces of music. I want to testify that every one of them was made while I was drunk on the pernicious wine of rigorous atheism–the knowledge that there is no God (and perhaps even no listeners). I’ll be harsher. I’ve lost relatives, some of them as close to me as my heart, that I have no hope of being reunited with ever. That sad fact is made warm by the knowledge that loving them was a process, that I loved them first with the selfish love of an infant, then that of an adult with some understanding. That love was born, grew, matured. And all processes come to an end, something children come to understand, at least seemingly until they turn into adults. I don’t need a “God” to make those relationships meaningful or the false idea of perpetual life to give them a perspective they don’t require or deserve.

Douthat, who has in the past arrogantly imposed rigidity in the thinking about international affairs (in Libya, for instance) as a cold slap at inchoate humanitarian aims, suddenly falls short in sangfroid when it comes time to attack the most horrible idea: hope is no excuse for illusion.

Perhaps we should turn to Spinoza, who did talk a lot about God, but tended to see “him” as process, as nature in motion, unfolding in mind, which was inseparable from the imperfections of the wasting body, and not as a white bearded celestial mountain man watching over us. All humans are blessed with intuition, and feeling the presence of a greater power is part of that particular spiritual talent. I guess you could make the sensual argument: just because we perceive the color red on a tomato doesn’t mean the color red doesn’t exist, and thus if we feel a God there must be something to that. But intuition might also lead you to a plethora of Gods, goddesses, voodoo rituals, wiccan love spells, space aliens and other ideas your intellect cannot be accountable for and reason won’t accommodate. It leads you to abdicate your responsibility to your here and now.

I don’t think Ross Douthat is dumb; I just find him, for lack of a better word, incomplete. But we’re all a lot more incomplete without people like Hitchens. So maybe I’m not so much angry at the article as sad, because now Hitch is gone and all of us incomplete people are running around free of his delimiting logic to continue chattering our incomplete ideas thinking we’ve been made, by some abstract god, whole.

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When cultural critic, pundit, polemicist and essayist Christopher Hitchens announced he was dying last year, it’s likely a number of people wished they could stuff their own viaticum down his throat for any number of his sins. Christians likely hoped for a deathbed conversion from this, one of the most famous contemporary atheists, or as he would have called himself, “anti-theist.” Liberal pacifists who for so long considered Hitchens one of their own likely wanted him to recant his support for the Iraq War, a conflict he considered a humanitarian rescue of a failing nation rather than a corporatist, imperialist incursion by a rogue United States president. Still others might have hoped he’d say he was sorry for the perfectly manicured anathema he cast at Mother Teresa, Garrison Keillor, Gunter Grass, Michael Bloomberg, Valerie Plame, Juan Cole, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Fallwell, David Mamet, Henry Kissinger, the state of Israel, Bill Clinton, George Galloway, Sidney Bluementhal   …  I’m sorry. Such a list of his targets would be so Pynchonesque in length that it would have to postponed indefinitely. Hitchens was willing to pick fights with anybody.

In fact, the fawning obits already pouring in from all over the world would likely be richly ironic to a man who never respected the dead. When Reagan died, the Hitchens eulogized him as being dumb as a stump. When Fallwell died, Hitchens said if you gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox. Today we remember Hitchens the Orwell fan, the former Trotskyist (not Trotskyite, which is diminutive), the unregenerate drunk and flirt, the party animal with an unparalleled wit who could drink 8 vodkas and then write a perfect 1,000 essay in a half hour. The guy who loved to lord it over the hot co-eds, who brandished the words “moral” and “irony” as if they were his own guns taken out of packing oil nobody else was allowed to touch.

Try sometime to imagine you’re Christopher Hitchens, roaming around in rooms of people who talk slower than you do, who are not as quick, that you have an intellectual hammer to swing in rooms where everything looks like a nail. It helps not just that you’re smart but that you value ideas in the first place, of course. Many people, despite Susan Sontag’s Eeyore-like wail to the contrary, love big ideas. Few of us are given such a mind as Hitchens’ to articulate them. And yet to go into Hitchens’ universe is to not simply think differently but also to indulge several obsessions and even predictable modes, some of them as Homeric as science (we live in a world stamped by primitive monkey DNA), some of them crashingly idiotic (women aren’t funny). He made pet obsessions out of anti-Zionism, the misuse of language (he’d quibble about your word usage even if you largely respected the dicationary) the creeping dangers of radical Islam, the dangers of ethnic nationalism, petty demagogues like Al Sharpton and tinhorn dictators like Slobodan Milosevic. His idea fixes about fascism caused him to see it everywhere in sometimes annoying, reductionist fashion (everywhere from North Korea to heaven to Harry Potter’s Ministry of Magic.) He abhorred terrorism, but said it was morally defensible against oppressive states. Nobody was allowed to use the word “irony” but him.

He was skeptical of those who were quick to shout charges of racism or anti-Semitism. But he was quick to defend his friends in disingenuous ways. He attacked those who said Noam Chomsky supported repressive or murderous Marxist regimes, but wouldn’t admit Chomsky was skeptical of independent reports of Sandinista oppression and Khmer Rouge genocide because he couldn’t stand any idea that would make the U.S. look morally acceptable by comparison. And of course Hitchens’ defense of and friendship with Holocaust-denier David Irving embarrassed him repeatedly and made easy fodder for Hitchens’ critics no matter what the subject. Even Henry Kissinger, when confronted by Hitchens’ charge that he was a war criminal for various activities in Southeast Asia and South America, simply pulled the “Hitchens is a Holocaust denier” defense, which, stupid as it was, tended to get repeated–later on, by liberals during the Iraq War.

Hitchens called himself disputative, not contrarian, but it’s not hard to locate him in the school of dialectic that Hegel devised and Marx made crude–every thing, whether it’s an idea or a people, will eventually come in conflict with its opposite. But Hitchens was an innovator of the process. It’s not enough to say God doesn’t exist (a banal idea by now, even for people who have come to realize it through ontological reasoning or, even simpler, through total lack of proof). Hitchens took it further and imagined how horrific a God as Christians imagined him would be–just like a North Korean dictator who saw all, knew all, forced you to worship him under threat of eternal sulfurous burning, and never let you roam free of his purview. As Hitchens famously put it remarking on heaven, “At least you could leave North Korea.”

But it also takes a certain arrogance to hold every supposition up for scrutiny, and then believe your own antithesis with such utter conviction. It’s a lonely world for those who ask, What if our sitting president is a criminal? What if giving a dying soldier his last rites violated the Hippocratic oath of “First do no harm” because you were lying to that soldier? What if evil American imperialism could be used to stop a more evil genocide? What if pacifism is just not moral but a moral abdication when you see someone suffering? Why doesn’t someone simply call the police on some of these Catholic priests accused of child sexual abuse rather than leave it to the church? What if Jerry Fallwell made everything up? What if smoking is a good thing?

To be a thinker doesn’t mean espousing each contrary idea, but at least confronting it. It’s that due diligence of thinking that makes it hardest, even for those who value it as a rich experience of life, not to mention those who don’t have time for it. For Hitchens, belligerence was not just an end, but the only way to work through consciousness and illuminate the things we value to find out if they are deserving. As a literary critic, he could not just respond to your ideas but locate them in the work of people who came before, find out what tradition you were thinking in even if you yourself didn’t know. He probably knew you were paraphrasing Flaubert or Locke or Spinoza or Plato before you did. (Bet you didn’t know “Dumb and Dumber” has roots in Flaubert, didja?)

His own drift from socialism allowed him to break from the left over the course of the ’90s. He disavowed Bill Clinton for his behavior during the Monica Lewinsky wars (and even snitched on a Clinton underling to investigators) and questioned the left’s feeble moral response to the evils and growing puissance of radical Islam. For a few months after 9/11, he seemed like the most reasonable leftist on Earth–saying that the past sins of the United States did not bear tolerance of a religious leader willing to kill thousands and revive a medieval caliphate, from safe within the bosom of countries where raped women are stoned to death  for adultery.

Unfortunately, that magical lucidity escaped Hitchens, quickly and tragically, as he embraced the America-led Iraq invasion, one of stances he was probably best known for at the time of his death (if not his vitriolic screeds against all religions, Jew, Christian and Muslim) and for which he showed no remorse  to the end. It’s likely that Iraq will be written on his Hitchens’ heart as surely as Calais was written on Bloody Mary’s or the swastika on Heidegger’s. Hitchens, a man who had always been best at thinking through an issue to the end, reducing it and then reducing it some more from its inconsistencies, we were shocked to find agreed with George Bush’s policy of pre-emptive war. His reasoning at the beginning seemed sound. As U.S. power had saved Bosnians from violent revanchism in the 1990s, so too could it save Iraqis in a state liquefying between the clumsy palms of a tyrant. More to the point, he said it was America’s responsibility to clean up its mistake in empowering Saddam Hussein in the past.

But in hindsight, it seemed that Hitchens, like other formerly wishy-washy liberals, had found a war he could like, an enemy he could hate enough to remove with violence. A lot of the little problems with his reasoning that seemed so small in 2003 would become big later: Saddam Hussein’s fascism, repugnant as it was, was a bulwark against the kind of Islamism Hitchens hated, not an example of it, and the invasion was more an opportunity to settle scores with enemies than confront the big idea. That made a foggy war foggier. Lumping Islam and fascism together into a sloganeering portmanteau word “Islamofascism” was the kind of activity Orwell might tell us to watch out for, since it robs each concept of their nuances and allows its audience (victims?) to become tools of the word’s creator. As for our adventure in Iraq, it didn’t seem to matter to Hitchens and the hawks that the people we were invading might understand our revenge motivation better than we did and therefore find us worth blowing up with roadside bombs. It didn’t seem to matter that we were fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq only because Al Qaeda knew we were coming there, not because Iraq posed a threat in the first place. It didn’t matter to Hitchens that the invasion would likely spark a civil war, even though the war’s architects had predicted it themselves. It didn’t matter that George Bush was in such a hurry to seize the political moment after 9/11 to garner support the war that there was no post-war planning for the conquered, obstreperous mess Iraq would become.

And the biggest fallacy of all, one that as far as I know Hitchens never had addressed to him, was that you can’t solve a humanitarian crisis by replacing it with a much bigger one.

We all know how it ended. On the same day Hitchens died, America snapped closed its military bases in Iraq, and The New York Times began running brand new information about American atrocities committed there, including the Haditha massacre. The bloodletting against civilians in Anbar Province shows again that all wars, no matter what they start for, usually turn into something else, and their meanings become subducted under larger ones. The good intentions of soldiers, if we take them for granted, eventually turn into a desire for self-preservation and revenge, amorality and moral perversion. After this became apparent and the war started to fall apart in 2004, Hitchens the humanitarian turned into Hitchens the propagandist, moving from critic, a role which he was born to play, to advocate, on the other side of the dialectical divide most often inhabited by liars and obfuscators. In his new role, he became a right-wing Sphinx, dangling tantalizing paradoxes and half truths about the war and insulting people who came back with disturbing facts. He continued to offer teasing admonitions that weapons of mass destruction were indeed found in Iraq when most investigators had debunked that myth. He suggested that an Al Qaeda terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi had been in Iraq as a guest of Saddam Hussein, even though he was mainly operating under an assumed name in a part of the country not under Saddam’s direct control. There is some question about whether Iraq intelligence agencies knew he was there and did nothing. But then again, George Bush had a chance to kill Zarqawi in Iraq early, but chose to do nothing because he needed extra reasons to invade. Zarqawi was being used by both sides. The Granada-invasion-era Hitchens saw through such casuistry; the Iraq-era Hitchens practiced it.

When documents emerged from Italy showing Iraq had tried to purchase enriched uranium from Niger and turned out later to be forged, Hitchens saw a conspiracy and suggested that the forgers were trying to embarrass the U.S. and obscure real proof. In other words: Fake proof is proof in lieu of real proof. Try running that by Karl Popper.

Hitchens would always remind you that he was in Iraqi and he saw Iraqis throw roses at the feet of invading Americans. True enough as it may be, a rose, as Yeats knew, is a symbol invested with millions of meanings, and in this case could well have meant “Don’t kill us, Yankee.”

This is the Hitchens many of us came to know in the 2000s–dishonest with a horrible case of bluster. He tried to put an elegant classy spin on what was actually name calling–“moral idiots,” in the case of Iraq War opponents or “bitch,” in the case of Richard Armitage. He used violent imagery including strangulation to describe what he’d like to do to “fake” pacifists on the “left.” A lot of us who hadn’t read him seriously yet (me included) likely took this personally. Meanwhile, he was buddying up with the architects of the war like Paul Wolfowitz and demanding journalists apologize to them for what was, to most of us, honest reporting that Iraq was going down in a frisson of anarchy. If you called it anarchy, he’d tell you you’re not allowed to use the word without reading Mikhail Bakunin. This wasn’t a contrarian but a person who seemed to have stood too close to power and caught its cold.

But what he was more known for as the war waned was his resumed religion line, attacking Israel, Islam, Hasidic jewish practices, Roman Catholic encyclicals with a wit remarkable for its endless serrations. But his bluster was intact. He once actually implied that things would have been different for famous murder victim Kitty Genovese if he had been there, ready with knife in hand to save the day. After Hitchens found out he was Jewish in the late 80s (his mother had committed suicide in the early 1970s but concealed her religion), he proudly waved the flag of Jewish anti-Zionist, but eventually conceded that Israel was a status quo power and therefore worthy of defending against a saber-rattling Iran. It’s another way to follow Hitchens’ thought process–take one hatred and then let it be subsumed by a bigger hatred.

If he wasn’t easy to pin down, it’s probably because his thought process looked inconsistent. But then, whenever you picked up his articles after a while, you sort of found the rhythm. The ethnic nationalism of Israel or Serbia were repugnant to him, the self-governing instinct of Iraqis and Palestinians were worth fighting for. Socialism still requires the strong to help the weak and Marxism requires that these self-governing impulses will flourish in any case. If the U.S. is helping a democratic impulse along, isn’t that sort of Marxist?

Of late, Hitchens seemed to have become acceptable to leftists again. He endorsed Obama and called the McCain-Palin ticket “appalling.” He explained his position to conservative super-witch Laura Ingraham with a little bit of reason and a lot of flirting during her talk show, a gambit that embarrassed the silly woman no end (something most good lefties would be too politically correct to try). Lately, he reviewed David Mamet’s book about his conservative conversion and very easily cut through most of the dumb reasoning. In a word, Mamet’s book was “irritating” and Hitchens believes the playwright didn’t really understand Friedrich Hayek, that dubious Austrian butt of wine that present day conservatives purple their lips on.

People talk of his charm and his loyalty to friends. But Hitchens turned on many of them after 9/11. Katha Pollitt of “The Nation,” Hitchens’ former stomping grounds until 9/11, damned him with faint praise in her obit while moving through a list of objections to his sexism, his bullying and his ability to finesse imbecilic ideas and black and white reasoning with airtight sentences that sounded a lot like logic. (Say, his take on humor, which in Hitchens view serves only the biological imperative to get laid, and is thus only the vouchsafe of males–a pretty interesting idea until you remember that guys tell jokes to each other, too, as do women.)

But Pollitt, now in the rare position of having the last word with her old frere, can for her closeness to him do much more harm with a smaller blade. Which do you think is worse: Some online Christian zealot insisting that Hitchens is hellbound for his beliefs, or this Pollitt disavowal of her colleague and friend: “I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones.”

In a word: Ouch! She’s right. Everybody remembers George Orwell. Nobody remembers Leslie Fiedler. But the line is more delicious because Pollitt is a scorned friend. Her comment limns underlying hurt, pettiness and jealousy. She seems smart enough to know that, but didn’t care.

I remember Hitchens’ obit for his own pal, Susan Sontag, and in his introduction how he said the private mind has its own life, its own joys, but that the best intellectuals must sally out of the library and bring their ideas to bear on public discourse, lest they (or their work) become timorous curios in a library; perhaps this was a subtle dig at his compeer, who was probably more famous but nowhere near as prolific as Hitchens. As such things go, this memory of Sontag sounded an awful lot like it was about Hitchens himself. This was a guy drawn to Bosnia, Iraq, Lebanon, civil war-torn Cyprus and other hot spots, a guy who didn’t seem to like being alone, who needed the opinions of others, perhaps even dolts, to whet his observations, sharpen the life of his mind. He wrote about his death a lot, saying he’d entered the land of malady, but that the topic of death bores even him and offers no irony. He reported on it dutifully, explaining the awful food and the chemo, but his last real ideological conflict was the prosaic insistence that he would not get religion at the 11th hour. His comfort was fighting against those who would offer him comfort. But think of how that offers no solace. If he–if none of us rationalists–had Christians to fight with, what would be the truth to explore here? Is it that death is a stupid, not remotely illuminating? Should death even be part of a person’s narrative when it offers no clue to how they lived? Maybe it’s simply the end of the fight, which is why Hitchens seemed to keep writing prodigiously in the face of it and not giving in. Is it only to rage against the dying of the light?

I’m not arguing for Christianity here. But Hitchens’ last demand, that death should be illuminated only in its awfulness, seems to be a continuation of his black and white thinking, his lack of empathy at the expense of reason. He said that it would be humane to tell people on their deathbeds there was no God, because it would be the truth. It’s admirable to deny your own pain. It’s a little arrogant to deny others’ pain for them.

Pollitt was right in one sense: If Hitchens had had a 1984 in him, he’d stand a better chance of being remembered. People who create are always remembered more than people who disassemble. You can wave that off as jealousy or curtness. But if you take a broader view, you could also disavow Hitchens as little more than a professional opinion-haver. He said that his business was irony, and he used the word as if he had patented it, allowing none of the looser forms available. I’ll try to approximate what he meant by it through his repeated denials of what it wasn’t: Irony to him meant living in two realities, one belonging to people who think they know what’s going on and one belonging to people who actually do.

But his real career was simple polemics. And people who make this their business are always selling half a reality–the thesis without antithesis. Even those of us who call ourselves liberal and define ourselves by nothing else live in half-knowledge–live for an argument that like Caliban runs about looking for its reflection and never finds it. It’s artists who actually have bragging rights when it comes to synthesizing reality, which is why Hitchens prized literature so much. It might also be why he was so deliciously waspish: He wasn’t an artist and perhaps he was simply bitter about it (as many critics are). Susan Sontag called intepretation the intellect’s revenge on art, and though Hitchens likely agreed with her, his job was to murder the sensual and erotic every day with Enlightenment cutlery. You could, if you see things with the black and white chauvinism he did, see him simply as a jealous non-artist who used his great mind to live a well-lubricated life winning petty arguments, mostly by quibbling with tiny semantic points. He left us no great reporting, like “All the President’s Men.” He left us no great novel, like “Moby Dick.” He is not better than Jim Carrey for having discovered Flaubert seeds in “Dumb and Dumber.” You could say he taught us how to think, but Steve Jobs also died recently, and the fruit of his different thinking is so ubiquitous that I can’t process these words without it.

If he left me anything–a writer who never met the man or saw him in public–it’s the idea that thinking is a process that must be constantly honed, that assumptions must be constantly questioned. This is a way of life as joyous as discovering a new kind of butterfly and as tedious as continuously taking out garbage. If we get too comfortable with the way we think–something that’s easier to do as we get older and our minds are less dynamic–then we’re doing it wrong.

That I’ve learned by confronting the man’s ideas. And for that, I’ve got to thank him.

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(Originally posted Sunday, October 26, 2008 )

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–*The Adventures of Track, Piper, Willow, Trig, Bristol Vol. 5. In this episode, the five children outsmart the evil, smug and self-righteous Nurse Vegan.

–*Miffy and Fleady Survive the Irish “Troubles”: In this episode, Miffy and Fleady find out that parades aren’t always fun. In fact, sometimes they are an incendiary political act with fatal repercussions.

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–*The Funny Pig Who Thought He Was A Sheepdog (But Was Instead Classified as an Enemy Combatant and Thus Was No Longer Subject to the Geneva Convention in the Eyes of the Bush Administration and Was Thus Water-Boarded and Told To Dig His own Grave)

–*The Sad Story of Mr. Depreciated Dollar Bill

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