Thursday, May 31, 2007

The book is not great

The New Statesman has a satisfyingly trenchant review by Chris Hedges of Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great (and an amusing caricature of the author too). It's welcome even if it has always seemed clear to me that Reason as endorsed by Hitchens, Clive James and other media favourites, is also a dangerously false god. End of. But I was particularly taken with a paragraph in which Hedges suggests the problem is far more subtle:
The problem is not religion but religious orthodoxy and the form it takes in human institutions. Throughout history, most moral thinkers - from Socrates to Christ to Francis of Assisi - eschewed the written word. Once moral teachings are written down they become, in the wrong hands, codified and used to enforce conformity, subservience and repression. Writing, as George Steiner has recognised, freezes speech. The moment the writers of the gospels recorded Jesus's teachings, they began to kill their message. There is no room for prophets within religious institutions - indeed within any human institution. Tribal societies persecute prophets; open societies tolerate them at their fringes. Today, our prophets are usually found not within the church but among artists, poets and writers who follow, as Socrates or Jesus did, their inner authority, an authentic religious impulse.
When, the other day, I asked, rather vaguely: "what does an excessive concern for words and sentences mean for novels?", I suppose the answer is that novels must try very hard not to be written.


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