I was thinking of Christopher Hitchens on Thursday morning as I passed through Oxford train station. Coachloads of soldiers in desert colours were being deposited at the station, having arrived back in the damp wintery greyness of Bryce Norton for Christmas, on leave from service in Afghanistan. Big men made bigger by the bulk of the kit they were carrying, they were quiet and looked tired and disoriented, but at the same time walked with a certain upright bearing that further amplified their incongruous presence among the students, tourists and Christmas shoppers. It made me think about courage and morality and manliness, and the ethics of this particular conflict our soldiers have been caught in for nearly a decade, now no longer so often in the news. And, that, of course, made me think of Hitchens. He is thought of by his detractors as a cheerleader for war, but that’s a grossly unfair reputation; still, the question of war, and of soldiers, has been one he has returned to again and again in his writing, a question he has worried away at from several angles, in a serious and often profound manner, most importantly in his moving essay on Mark Daily, a young American soldier killed in Mosul, but also in one of his final pieces of writing, an extraordinary essay on Armistice Day.
I can’t remember when I first became aware of Hitchens. I suppose it was in the late 1980s; my grandparents were readers of The Nation, where Hitchens was a regular fixture. (Having lost their Jewish faith in their teens, and lapsed from their Communist faith in their middle years, The Nation was something of a religious commitment in their later years.) But it was actually through TV rather than the printed page that Hitchens made his impression on me.
There were two programmes specifically. One was a documentary he presented about Mother Teresa, puncturing the humbug of her myth so thoroughly and skilfully it was almost literally breathtaking for me. The other was a late discussion show that seems almost to good to have actually been screened that now I recall it I almost wonder if I invented it: it featured Hitchens with three other towering intellects of his generation, his friend Edward Said (now also sadly lost to us), Camille Paglia and Robert Hughes, discussing postmodernism of all things. Again, Hitchens’ lucidity eloquence presented itself to me as something to (impossibly) aspire to.
But I think it is on the page that he shines the brightest. Several of his essays could be counted, in my view, among the very finest pieces of non-fiction writing in the English language. They could keep company with the best essays of his hero Orwell, or of Irving Howe, Thomas Carlyle, or Hannah Arendt, to name some of my other favourite essayists.
At the same time, though, I found some things deeply distasteful about him. The aggressive debating society display of verbal dexterity, where besting an opponent in an intellectual fight that seems to matter more than whatever is at stake. The boozy boorish persona. The aura of confidence, privilege and entitlement bred by an expensive private school/Oxbridge education. (Some words in the attacks on him that have come out since his death that ring true: overstatement, obsessional, haughty, pugnacious, sniggering, swaggering, hectoring, self-righteous indignation.)
I also didn’t understand the viciousness with which he attacked Bill Clinton, in my view one of the least bad American presidents of my lifetime, and thought he was wrong to back Ralph Nader against Clinton’s sidekick Al Gore (especially when it looked like the Naderite vote helped give us George Bush II, one of the most bad presidents of my lifetime). But I savoured the way he expressed his viciousness. Even if you disagreed with him Mother Teresa (and I didn’t), how could you not savour this:
Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti, whose rule she praised in return, and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan.In the period I came aware of him, one of Hitchens’ particular campaigns was against identity politics, and the retreat into the narcissism of minor difference that was deflecting the left from its historic goal of achieving a fairer society for all. The embrace of identity politics was in fact one of his issues with Clinton:
The only thing that Clinton is good at, according to Hitchens, is appealing to the myriad of special-interest lobbies that make up so much of what thinks of itself as the American left: “He has manipulated images so that people in the gay movement, the feminist movement, the civil rights movement and the Hispanic lobby feel that privately he’s on their side... The left has falsely convinced itself that there are all of these individual emancipations going on, and I think it’s going to be disappointed. What’s missing in all this is any conception of citizenship or comradeship or the common good. And that’s too precious to give up for any special claim.”This line of critique against the left, rooted in both the Enlightenment values and Marxist worldview that were the originally foundations for left-wing politics, has felt more accurate as each decade has gone by.
In the last decade, I have found more and more to admire about Hitchens. The more I read his writing, the more serious I realise it is. As George Szirtes puts it:
Hitchens was essentially a moral writer who grounded his morality in literature as well as in history, philosophy, and politics. That is to say he 'heard' language for what it is, not just as a polemical tool. The morality is in the style. A moral writer remains a moral writer even if his earlier admirers turn away from him or he turns away from them. His later opinion may be different from the earlier but the moral force is the same, in fact stronger as the style in which it is asserted develops.He articulated so well the revulsion that morally decent people felt to the inanity of the mainstream left’s “chickens coming home to roost” response to the 9/11 horrors – and he was ex-communicated from the left for it, giving him an independence of position that made him even less popular with his former allies, while also allowing him to explore new intellectual avenues. This gave him a brief moment of popularity with the hawkish right, but he never gave up his harsh judgements of Republican politicians or Christian moralists, and after a while the neocons drew back.
In this period, he wrote brilliant books about Orwell, Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, all three of which should be obligatory reading for anyone interested in politics or in writing. The Orwell book is probably my favourite of his monographs (although his essay collections are both better and capture his style more perfectly). Many of his detractors found some hubris in the project, as if Hitchens wanted to claim Orwell’s mantle, but this is more true of that book than of, say, David Harvey or EJ Hobsbawm writing about Marx. (And in Hitchens’ case, although he couldn’t come close to claiming Orwell’s mantle, I can’t think of anyone who comes closer.)
In recent years, Hitchens devoted more and more time to what I think is his most tedious crusade: against religion. (See Russell Fox and Carl Packman on this issue.) In my view, Hitchens’ wit and intelligence has been wasted on this battle, to which he has added nothing but a little bit of bare knuckle entertainment.
I read his book of memoirs, Hitch-22, this year, and found sections of it – about his private schooling, his Oxford undergraduate high jinks, and his boyish adult ex-private school chums and their in-jokes – even more tedious. But the opening chapters, where he talks about his parents, are quite simply superb pieces of prose, which brought a lump to my throat a number of times in the subtle way they explore the psychodrama of family life, but also the psychodrama of the corrosive British class system and its genteel racism. Reading those chapters, I came to view him in a fundamentally different way, as a friend I never met.
Also read: Christopher Buckley, Terry Glavin, George Szirtes, Max Dunbar, Marc Tracy.
Previously: “Hitchens, with poppy and rumpled hat” (November 2010); “Old soldiers, broken promises, class prejudices” (Hitchens at 61); Carl P’s review of Christopher Hitchens’ ‘The Enemy’.