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Simon Leys on Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa & “The Empire of Ugliness”

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One of my favorite contemporary writers is Theodore Dalrymple, whose essays I first discovered in The New Criterion about 20 years ago. He wrote that one of his favorite writers, who also had a pen name, was the essayist and critic Simon Leys who died in 2014.  I would never have come across his work without Dalrymple’s recommendation. Recently I finally got around to reading some of Leys’ essays with a mix of delight and disappointment that I had not discovered his work earlier.

Simon Leys was the pen name of the Belgian Sinologist and literary and cultural critic, Pierre Ryckmans, who spent the last forty years of his life in Australia. He wrote many essays on Chinese culture, translated the Analects of Confucius , and wrote The Chairman’s New Clothes, a severe critique of Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution when most others were fawning over Mao. A 2013 collection of his essays The Hall of Uselessness is a great place to begin.  Many of the essays are on literature including a wonderful essay on G.K. Chesterton. He writes:

“In Chesterton’s experience the mere fact of being is so miraculous in itself that no subsequent misfortune could ever exempt a man from feeling a sort of cosmic thankfulness.”

Simon Leys on Christopher Hitchens and Mother Teresa

Related to the theme of the goodness of being is an essay titled “The Empire of Ugliness,” a critical review of the late Christopher Hitchens’ 1997 book, a scathing critique of Mother Theresa.  For those who don’t know, Hitchens was a leading new atheist along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Leys called the essay an “epistolary review” because it included some of the back and forth between Leys and Hitchens, two very rhetorically gifted writers.

Leys critiqued Hitchens’ portrayal of Mother Teresa in the  New York Review of Books: 

If Mr. Hitchens were to write an essay on His Holiness the Dalai Lama, being a competent journalist, he would no doubt first acquaint himself with Buddhism in general and with Tibetan Buddhism in particular.  On the subject of Mother Theresa, however, he does not seem  to have felt  the need to  acquire much information on her spiritual motivations–his book contains remarkable howlers on  elementary aspects of Christianity… 

In this respect, his strong vehement distaste for Mother Teresa reminds me of the indignation of the patron in a restaurant who, having been served caviar on toast, complained that the jam had a funny taste of fish.

Leys noted he would need a longer review to point out all the errors and within days he received a personal letter from Hitchens which included his mailing address so that Leys could send the review when it was finished.

The Destruction of Beauty

As Rene Girard explains well, it is always easy to scapegoat others for their faults or blindness, but in so doing we miss our own inclination to sin and evil.  At the end of “The Empire of Ugliness,” Leys, in his masterful way turns from Hitchens’ book to a fundamental problem that underlies not only Hitchens’ assessment of Mother Teresa, but a problem that plagues each one of us:  the desire to tear down everything that stands above us whether it is beauty, goodness, or truth, courage, nobility, self-sacrifice.  Leys described how he was writing in a cafe when this revelation hit him.

Like many lazy people, I enjoy a measure of hustle and bustle around me while I am supposed to work–it  gives me an illusion of activity and thus the surrounding din of conversations and calls did not disturb me in the least. The radio that had been blaring in a corner all morning not bother me either: pop songs, stockmarket figures, muzak, horseracing reports, more pop songs, a lecture on foot-and-mouth disease in cows–whatever: this audio-pap kept dripping like lukewarm water from a leaky faucet and nobody was listening anyway.

Suddenly a miracle occurred. For a reason that will forever remain mysterious, this vulgar broadcasting routine gave way without transition (or  if there had been one, it escaped my attention) to the most sublime music: the first bars of Mozart’s clarinet quintet began to flow and with serene authority filled the entire space of the cafe, turning it at once into an antechamber of Paradise.

[A quick aside: if I am not mistaken it is this clarinet quintet that Shinichi Suzuki wrote in Nurtured by Love that was one of his favorite piece of music and that opened him up to transcendent beauty.]

Leys relates that at the moment Mozart’s quintet began everyone stopped, “all faces turned around frowning with puzzled concern.”  Almost immediately someone got up and changed the station to some banal series of songs and chatter “which everyone could  again comfortably ignore.”

At that moment the realization hit me–and has never left me since: true Philistines are not people who are in capable of recognizing beauty. They recognize it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a flare as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete — but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness. Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light, bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste, stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence: all these are fiercely active forces, that angrily asserts themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresence rule. In every department of human endeavor inspired talent isn’t intolerable insults to mediocrity.

If this is true in the realm of aesthetics it is even more true in the world of ethics. More than artistic beauty moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species. The need to bring down two our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendor that is towering above us is probably the saddest urge of human nature.

The power of Leys’ essay was not only his critique of Hitchens, but his warning to all of us against the power of envy, sour grapes and tearing down the good because it reveals to us our own mediocrity, moral and otherwise.

 

By the way, one more note on the late Christopher Hitchens. Leys noted that the letter was “naturally most amiable and good humored.” I had the chance to meet Christopher Hitchens and while I disagreed with many of his positions, and he could be rough and provocative in a debate, he was also very kind and attentive to others. Once in the middle of a conference many years ago my elderly mother got an irritation in her throat and began to cough. Mr.  Hitchens who was speaking on a panel stopped to inquire if she was ok and needed any help.  Several years later we talked a bit before his debate with my friend Jay Richards on the existence of God. I told about the incident and thanked him. Impressively, he remembered it well.  After the debate he invited Jay and me to join him for dinner, but to my regret we had another commitment.  I would have enjoyed a dinner conversation with Mr. Hitchens. But I did have the chance in a small way to return his favor of kindness to my mother by giving his father in law a ride home.

 

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Michael Matheson Miller Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute