Breaking Free From Constraints, A Lesson I Learned From Two Aficionados

There are inevitably going to be moments in life where you will be repressed, moments when your behaviour will be subject to external control and you will occasionally lack direction of your own life. Whether it’s as a child or as an adult, you will be subject to coercive manipulation one point in your life. I have suffered from this for far too long and I shall no longer accept it anymore.

There comes a point, a fine line, where one’s limits will be crossed and it will lead to a catharsis of sorts. A relieving sense of accomplishment that you have discovered your boundary and a line will have to be drawn. A positive reaffirming desire to defend yourself borne out of a lack of other options.

I suffered from this on countless occasions and admittedly different people will suffer to varying degrees and this does not diminish mine or anybody else’s struggles. Having said so my experiences further spurred me on to become more independent-minded and to think freely for myself, not to think according to what and how another people wanted me to think. I was always–maybe idealistically–striving towards independence of the mind; to think rationally and logically free from the restrictions of tradition, family, religion and societal norms. It was not just having a desire to think freely but it was also a desire to feel comfortable and at ease in my decisions to, for lack of a better word, rebel.

To feel confident in the opinions I held and to trust my own senses without having to feel pressured to conform to the majority. I had always struggled to remain true to my own beliefs and opinions because there was always another opinion round the corner that would force me to question my stance and ultimately change my opinion. I would often struggle to stick with my own opinions because I was fickle, gullible and credulous. For instance, a few years ago, I remember reading a book that was an introduction to the major philosophical ideas, and I noticed that I would believe and support whatever idea I was reading at that time. I questioned whether this was due to the broad nature of philosophical theory, whether it was the fact that they all believed in a general concept and that philosophers’ own ideas were another niche form of a broader consensus.

It was from then on that I was aware of my own indecisiveness and being conscious of a flaw is the first stage of self-improvement. The matter of my family was a more precarious one because of the difficulty in identify whether or not it was actually an issue. It became quite obvious it was an issue, a major one, after I went through a vile conflict with them in which there was a difference of opinion regarding one of my own life choices. Since that experience I suffered–at their hands–I pledged to myself that I was no longer going to be a “mental serf” and I kept true to my pledge. I discovered Camus [before Hitchens] and I had accidentally stumbled my way to him. I came across a post on Poking Smot’s Facebook feed which was a picture of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book cover for Nausea.

Through Sartre I found Camus. I believe it was for the best that this occurred rather than vice versa because when I first read Sartre I immediately searched for another writer. I found Sartre too convoluted and dry–at the time I read his work–and I shared a similar opinion like that of Michel Gondry, whose depiction of Sartre in his film Mood Indigo was a criticism of sorts, but I digress.

Camus was a revelation–as The Guardian writes Camus’ The Outsider came out top in a survey of men’s “watershed” novel–because he wrote simplistically and concisely enough for even a novice reader like myself to follow. My admiration for him was not based on just his writing style, it was also a combination of his reputation and–I’m unabashedly proud to say this–his rugged handsomeness. He looked and dressed like a Hollywood actor from its Golden Age; his slicked back hair, the collars of his trench coat turned up, a cigarette delicately resting between his thin lips. He resembled Humphrey Bogart but more handsome and warmer. Not to mention the aura that he left us with, almost like a precursor to James Dean. His legend was that of the ‘outsider’, the man that was not only distant from society but he was content with the distance. He was the man who was far too advanced for society to fully comprehend and it wasn’t his fault but it was society’s fault. He was an individualist and more than that, he is my hero. The Rebel impressed me but not to the degree that Letters did. I echo Sartre’s opinion of the book that it was too abstract and idealistic but it was a starting platform that began to answer my questions regarding rebellion and dissent.

It was only natural that I progressed to a more contemporary figure of literature, after all I had been criticised, in the past, for inflicting myself with the Golden Age syndrome–which was largely untrue. Goodreads had recommended me Letters to a Young Contrarian, because I read The Rebel, and I vaguely recognised the name Christopher Hitchens but was unfamiliar with it. From his pictures he looked like a stranger to me and truth be told he was, which was to my own regret. It wasn’t soon after that I searched for his videos on YouTube and I was astounded at how eloquent he was and how lovely he spoke. It was worthy of much more than just my admiration. He spoke with an indescribable ease and he was incredibly articulate, to me far more than any other intellectual I have come across, and I was embarrassed at my own ignorance; ignorant that this man was alive during my teenage years and I completely missed him, and after discovering him I was rather quick to yearn for him. I, without an ounce of hesitance or second thoughts, purchased Letters and eagerly waited for it. I had pushed my reading list– one which included To Kill a Mockingbird, The Second Sex, and The Catcher in the Rye–aside and made Hitch my number one priority. And my outlook on individualism had been altered for the good.


I have felt this since I read The Rebel and Letters to a Young Contrarian. Two books from two writers whose style and written prose I will endeavour to emulate. Albert Camus and Christopher Hitchens were two writers that shared quite a few similarities; both were masters of the pen; both men were compelled in what they believed in regardless of the opposition they faced; both men encouraged rebellious behaviour amid wrongdoing and both men described feeling the need–not a want–to write. The two provided us with a framework to rebel and to defend what is moral; Camus provided us with the meaning and historical origins of rebellion whilst Hitchens provided us with anecdotes and encouragements pushing us in a similar direction.
It can become, rather quickly, quite reductionist and irreverent to constantly rank works of great literature solely based on how it moves the reader but seldom has such an issue become of greater importance to me since I finished reading Letters. Rarely does a work of non-fiction dissuade me from finishing it because it would mean having to come to come to an amicable end with it. But it did end and I cannot part company with it until I rain down praise upon it.
Written in a serious of missives—or so we’re led to believe—between Hitchens and an unnamed budding contrarian, ‘X’, forming part of a series inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Published 13 years ago and despite it being one of Hitch’s lesser known works, it has moved me in an indescribable manner. It was only fitting that Hitchens was the one to write this book and he was not one without his fair share of criticisms, a defector of sorts, he “abandoned” the left in favour of neo-conservatism– most evident through his support for Blair, the Iraq war, and the Afghan conflict. He was famous for his ruthless indictments of Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa and Slobodan Milosevic, and going as far as calling Mother Theresa a “thieving Albanian dwarf”. One must respect the cajones on the man to condemn the reputation of the holiest of holy saints that ever saint’ed.
Despite the context and the background to which he wrote this book, what is quite obvious is that Hitchens was remarkably well read and extremely intelligent. His stylish writing style and charming wit was on full display as he quotes a host of intellectuals, cites a number of essays and books and refers to an endless amount of historical events. It becomes quite apparent, very early on, that Christopher is extremely well read and that in and of itself is admirable. Scroll through pictures of him on Google and you shall occasionally come across a picture of him in his house, and you shall notice the multiple towers of books lined across his walls.

 

He quotes and refers to obscure bits of fiction and non-fiction that would allude normal intellectual persons, but in doing so, he not only builds the reader’s knowledge and cultural references, but he also breaks down a formality. He doesn’t just refer to them and leave it at that but he provides us with an explanation and educational context behind acts of rebellion. He advises us as if we were listening to a sermon, describing, in detail, Emile Zola’s efforts in helping to acquit Dreyfus, a case that Hitchens regards at the best example of one person unreservedly supporting another in the name of justice.

Although Hitchens himself understand that there’s an element of a master-student complex behind the concept of the book, he reserves his right to indulge in his own successes as he writes, ‘I shall pretend that I am a stranger to all forms of modesty, including the false’. He’s aware of the opportunity and the self-righteousness of painting himself as the quintessential role model for being a contrarian and I believe he avoids it. He instead chooses to hammer in vital life lessons, such as the idea that the true mark of an independent mind is not in what it thinks, but rather in how it thinks. Another lesson is not to be disheartened if one becomes isolated and ostracised for holding such opinions and that one should expect it because the life of a contrarian is not easy. This all seemed so obvious to me but I never came to realise it for myself, and this is where Hitchens shined, he was the voice of rationality for a way of life that receives nothing but irrational thoughts, hate and criticism from irrational, hateful and critical people.

Hitchens was physically unable to write simple sentences and it was this flair that makes Letters such an entertaining and rewarding read. I recommend all young men and women to purchase both books and to revel in what is quite clearly a testament to humanism and individualism. A categorical call to defy authority when they are wrong and to criticise those who think incorrectly. Both men should be every young person’s role models and I know, for myself, that they have helped shape my mind and outlook to resemble that of a young independent-minded contrarian. A young contrarian whom I actively strove to become and I would like to hope that I have succeeded.

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