Christopher Hitchens – WYSIWYG

From Auracle Newsletter, April 2012

Christopher Hitchens died in December 2011. He was widely described as a contrarian; and here he is defending the right of free speech, however unpopular, unfashionable or even offensive that free speech might be. My brief is not to defend his message any more than that of Gore, but let’s look at the speaking style.

Oh Boy! What an opening!

Most of us are familiar with Oliver Wendell Holmes’ example of where free speech becomes unacceptable; but which of us would have thought to use it in this way? – or even if we’d thought of it, would we have dared?

  • And he introduced a bit of humour into the first few seconds –
  • And he got a good laugh with it –
  • But he nevertheless threw it away, rather than debasing the coinage by trying to stoke more into the laugh.

Put a gun to my head and I will admit that he could have delivered that opening better; but had I been advising him I very much doubt that I would have wanted him to. From the very beginning he is conveying sincerity by unapologetically waving his idiosyncrasies at us. Look at the almost tmetic interruption of the Holmes quotation when Hitchens takes a sip of water at absolutely the worst place. (On reflection, I wonder whether that is water.)

Actually this emerges as a habit, almost a mannerism. Several times he pauses before the last word of a sentence, only to glue it onto the beginning of the next. In fact I’m coming round to believe it to have been an affectation, either to retain the audience’s attention or to flaunt his differentness. At any rate, one of the most stimulating aspects of my work is encountering such eccentricities and then walking the high wire that strives to preserve the best of them while maximising coherence.

He does lose some coherence at times. There are sentences with lengthy and convoluted subordinate clauses which themselves contain subordinate clauses which themselves… &c. And these get nested so deep that you find yourself becoming tense lest he lose the thread while climbing back out – a bit like counting the closing brackets in an equation – and while you are doing that you are not listening properly. There’s another consideration: if a speaker considers his audience intelligent enough to follow him down these labyrinthine corridors of argument then surely – given that these labyrinths tend to consist of parenthetic conditional and hypothetical caveats – the audience is likewise intelligent enough not to need the caveats in the first place. And that’s the sort of sentence he habitually deploys.

Oh Boy! What a closing!

So to conclude, I delight in anyone addressing his audience with such freedom of style. Here and there I’d have liked to tidy the material a little in order to strengthen the message, but the overview impression is wonderful. What You See Is What You Get; and that says sincerity. In fact it says all the right things about a speaker.

But there is one elementary error that infuriates me.

Memo to the conference technical staff – Was there not a semi-competent person around to show him how to stop ‘popping’ the microphone? His percussive consonants were creating irritating explosive pops.  All that was needed was for the mic to have been redirected to point at his eyes or his throat – anywhere but at his mouth.  Come on, guys, this is really basic!

N.B.  It later turned out that the brilliant ending wasn’t an ending at all. This posting is the first of three parts of a much longer speech. The other two parts were scattered elsewhere.  Today you can find the entire speech reassembled here.  You may like to be told that what we have studied so far has barely got him warmed to his theme.  He was not for nothing described, both by himself and by others, as a contrarian.

I still say that would have been a brilliant ending.

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