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‘Well, that’s just snobbery, isn’t it?’

Edith Pretty says this to the hilariously uppity archeologist, who disdains self-taught Basil Brown, in the film The Dig — and I gotta tell you, this film was MADE for UD. She has watched it three times already, and it’s clear she’s not done with it. A fictionalized account of the staggering Sutton Hoo discovery, it’s got everything UD: archeology, architecture, reading, philosophy, music, British accents (UD loves British accents), moody landscapes, true dark skies (Brown brings his telescope to Pretty’s rural firmament)… And UD ain’t alone! A just-released film she figured would attract an audience of a few dozen already ranks third on Netflix.

UD’s preferences here are exactly those of UD‘s mother – the trowel doesn’t fall far from the tree. A student of Wilhelmina Jashemski’s at the University of Maryland, UD‘s mother accompanied Jashemski on several digs at Pompeii … And UD‘s mother dragged wee UD herself, one hot summer, through all that site’s ins and outs (her mother’s association with Jashemski meant we got access to off-limits human casts and villas), which was wonderful but exhausting.

All those moment-of-death human bodies, all that vast charred living landscape – it was a morbid treat, in the way powerful unburied ruinous settings tend to be; and The Dig is exactly the sort of extended memento mori one would like, with Pretty’s impending death – and the possible death of Europe itself in the impending war – haunting the narrative. “What’s left of us?” “We die. We rot.” The film’s characters, gazing into the faint outline of a submerged sixth-century ship in the Sussex dirt, fall into this grubby nihilism all the time in the film; but they are always lifted out by friends and lovers, who voice a soulful faith in the human story of which we are imperishably a part.


But snobbery, now. What got me going on that?

Easy. The letter Christopher Hitchens’ widow and agent just sent to his friends and associates commanding them not to cooperate with a biography of him that’s in the works. So at odds, rhetorically, with Hitchens’ own relaxed and democratic voice, the letter was jarring to UD, a huge Hitchens fan.

We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher. We read his proposal and are dismayed by the coarse and reductive approach. We have no confidence in this attempt at the man in full. We are not cooperating and we urge you to refuse all entreaties by Mr. Phillips or his publisher, W.W. Norton. In solidarity…

I found the “in solidarity” particularly jarring, drawing as it does on a political tradition dear to Hitchens – that of the social justice left, as in his oft-expressed solidarity with democratic forces like the Kurds. It seems cheap of these authors to assume that mantle when the rest of the note locates them clearly in the trivial and off-putting realm (“dismayed,” “one,” “self-appointed”) of the literary mandarin.

They make no effort, for instance, to explain what in the manuscript is likely to be coarse and reductive; they simply high-handedly invoke these terms and let it go at that. Coarse is particularly problematic, since anyone who has read gobs of Hitchens and watched virtually all of the Hitch YouTubes knows he had no problem with coarseness – he exhibited it often, and made its relative absence in women one of the main bases of their inability (most of them) to be funny. Was it coarse for Hitch and Martin Amis to go trolling whores in New York City? I guess so. I mean, Hitch thought it was. Is his biographer supposed to overlook it, or somehow snob it up?

As David Nasaw writes:

Blue-Hitchens and [Steve] Wasserman are well within their rights to refuse to cooperate with this particular biographer, but by reaching out, as they have done, to so wide a universe of individuals who might have something to say on the subject, they are engaging in a sort of preemptive censorship, intended to frighten away not just this one writer but any others who might not, for one reason or another, pass muster with them.

Margaret Soltan, February 4, 2021 11:08AM
Posted in: great writing

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2 Responses to “‘Well, that’s just snobbery, isn’t it?’”

  1. Matthew McKeon Says:

    The Dig had it all: class conflict, tweed, longing looks, and the occasional Spitfire roaring overhead to remind us that they were on the brink. I loved it.

    My kid was on a dig the last summer before covid. She was surprised at what was still the same: follow your nose, color of soil, trowels, screening, and some guy sitting in a chair “directing” while everyone else grubbed in the dirt.

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Matt: So glad you loved it too. Aside from what you mention, there’s the minimalism of the piece – the very simple music, the restriction to very few locations – the glorious interior of her rich-person’s country house, and the fields around the house – the tweedy, wheaty color of everything

    And I like the way they took a risk and dropped all the restraint and did full-tilt romanticism with the final scene when mother and child lie down in the boat at night (just before the boat is covered up again forever) and look at the stars and the son has a chance to – as B. Brown says – “show her” that he will be okay after she dies. The lack of intensity preceding this scene makes its intensity … intense…

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