THE SNAKE IN THE GARDEN
Christopher Hitchens is an English author and journalist whose work spans 40-years. Currently he’s put the promotion of his memoir, “Hitch-22,” on hold as he struggles with a virulent form of esophageal cancer. In the June edition of “Vanity Fair” his article, “Unspoken Truths” describes his struggles against the disease and how he feels about losing his voice:
“To a great degree, in public and in private, I ‘was’ my voice.”
Hitchens goes on to speculate about the relationship of voice to writing, reminding us that storytelling began as an oral presentation. “Anyone who can speak can write,” he used to tell his students, providing… and this is a very big “providing,” the speaker or writer can make his audience feel “personally addressed.” He calls that proviso the “snake in the garden” as it is a skill not easily won. A person’s idiolect, his vocabulary and unique way of using language, constitutes voice and Hitchens considers it so important that he writes, “Indeed, I don’t know any really good writer who is deaf.”
I thought about Helen Keller, a writer who was deaf and blind, and wondered about the truth of Hitchens’ statement. Does the music of language require verbalization? On consideration, I think it helps. While making revisions to my work, I admit I read my manuscripts aloud, even though a reader will never do so. The ear, I suspect, is an important weapon for dealing with the snake in the garden. The voice in my head is not the same as the voice in my ears. Each time I give my words air, I’m surprised by the difference the spoken word makes. Hearing the thought as well a reading it is like having two critics review my work.
I am deeply sorry for Hitchens’ struggle against cancer. He is a brilliant writer. The only comfort I can give is to say that, voiceless or not, he is capable of stirring the mind.