Joan Smith: No hugs for the Hitchens brothers

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The Independent Online

It was a pure Jerry Springer moment: two brothers, estranged for years, brought together in front of a live audience to answer personal questions. Why had they quarrelled? How had sibling rivalry affected them? And, finally, an appeal from a member of the audience who wanted them to put their differences aside and give each other a lovely, big cuddle - sorry, look each other in the eye. This wasn't daytime TV, you understand, but a serious event sponsored by The Guardian at the Hay literary festival. So no hug, just a brief shared glance and a sour observation from one of the brothers that members of the audience "want a happy ending - that's their problem".

It was a pure Jerry Springer moment: two brothers, estranged for years, brought together in front of a live audience to answer personal questions. Why had they quarrelled? How had sibling rivalry affected them? And, finally, an appeal from a member of the audience who wanted them to put their differences aside and give each other a lovely, big cuddle - sorry, look each other in the eye. This wasn't daytime TV, you understand, but a serious event sponsored by The Guardian at the Hay literary festival. So no hug, just a brief shared glance and a sour observation from one of the brothers that members of the audience "want a happy ending - that's their problem".

Up to a point, Lord Copper. The terms of celebrity culture - star billing in return for surrendering your privacy - are as brutal as they are unequivocal. So naturally the Hitchens frères, trenchant polemicists of the right (Peter) and I'm not sure what (Christopher), were expected to reveal all, from details of their falling-out to their feelings about their mother's suicide.

The suicide question was couched in shrink-speak, at once tentative and intrusive, and amazingly failed to elicit a kick in the balls. Anyone who can ask "how formative an experience was that?" deserves a response that readers of this newspaper would not, I'm sure, like to contemplate over Sunday breakfast.

The domain of confessional culture is emotion, in a debased on-the-couch kind of way, and the premise is that it's better to let it all out, whatever it happens to be. This theory may have been right in the repressed upper-middle-class circles inhabited by Freud and his followers in fin de siècle Vienna, but that was before the arrival of Hello! magazine; you can't turn on the TV or open a newspaper these days without encountering someone's inner child, raging or weeping over something or other. Freud expected his patients to reveal their innermost feelings in confidence and it's not as if he took their revelations at face value - that's why it's called psychoanalysis, for God's sake. Has everyone forgotten the existence of the unconscious?

In this instance, The Guardian only just stopped short of introducing the Hitchens debate with a Springer headline along the lines of "I haven't spoken to my brother for four years". There seemed to be an underlying assumption that it's odd for two members of the same family to hold opposing political views, which makes sense only if you take the naive view that everyone's politics are genetically determined. The clue that it wasn't a trash-TV debate lay in the revelation that the ostensible cause of their falling out was a joke about Stalinism. (I don't suppose many of Springer's participants have got into a state of no-speakers after discussing the 1936 constitution of the Soviet Union.)

Maybe there isn't a good reason why intellectuals should be excused from taking part in the dominant discourse of our time, although I would have thought they were even less well equipped to handle it than the blue-collar participants in daytime TV shows. Intellectual men, in my experience, are not renowned for being in touch with their feelings, encouraging each other in the illusion that they inhabit a world of pure reason. In reality, they are just as prone to poisonous feuds and rivalries as anyone else, and conduct them as viciously, but under the cloak of politics or literature.

So why did the Hitchens brothers do it? Perhaps the answer lies in Peter's remark that Christopher should have been willing to debate with him long before now "and then we would have reached this position much earlier". I like Peter, who is one of the kindest men I know, but just reading the edited version that appeared in The Guardian made me feel as though I was eavesdropping on a conversation that should have taken place behind closed doors. I've no idea what the audience made of it, but some of them must have realised they were watching an upmarket version of Big Brother.

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