In one of the odder passages in his memoir, Hitch-22, the prolific Anglo-American journalist Christopher Hitchens defines a meaningful life as one that includes “friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others.” This doesn’t add up. Battling for the liberation of others is a vocation for those who are committed, unbending, and (too often) humorless; irony is the mood of the wit, the cynic, the fellow who is putting you on. For four decades, Hitchens has tried both. He writes lapidary, aphoristic, and even hilarious essays on questions that he presents as no laughing matter.
So which is the real Hitchens? The salon wag or the Jeremiah? Should we think of him primarily as a creative writer or as a logic-chopper? These questions became more pressing after Hitchens changed from a Trotskyite supporter of Third World liberation movements into the most eloquent journalistic defender of George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. While many readers awakened to the elegance of his prose and the power of his arguments, others say they always knew him for a reactionary skunk. Hitchens’s ambiguity has its roots in the upheaval of the England into which he was born in 1949. It is impressive how clearly he sees that.
Hitchens notes that his family belongs to what Orwell called the “insecure and anxious layer of old England.”
Hitchens notes that his family belongs to what Orwell called the “insecure and anxious layer of old England.” His mother, whose tragic end takes up much of the first part of the book, insisted the family scrimp to send him to public schools the family couldn’t afford. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country,” she said, “then Christopher is going to be in it.” So Hitchens was trained to join the elite of a culture that, “without my fully realizing it, was very rapidly passing away.” Victory in World War II and the retreat from Empire preoccupied his family. His father, whom he refers to as “the Commander,” was a career naval officer—stolid, yeoman-like, the son of stern Calvinists. Hitchens, whose personal motto is Zola’s Allons travailler! and who writes about 1,000 words a day, is in certain important respects the same kind of person the Commander was. He talks about word games as ways to build intellectual “muscle.” He writes that, as he developed political opinions, “I generally felt myself so much in sympathy with those who had resisted British rule that I thought it better for the Commander and myself to avoid the subject.” But both he and the Commander were at home with—and fascinated by—Empire. In a sense, Hitchens has lived the Commander’s life inside-out.
When one looks at the books that Hitchens says he devoured as a child—John Buchan, C. S. Forester, P. G. Wodehouse, and various teachers of “imperial and military values”—it is surprising that he did not start life as an outright Tory. I know Hitchens slightly, having co-edited a book with him. Having long admired his literary criticism, I found this childhood syllabus the least surprising thing in the memoir. What ought to have alerted leftists that he might not be long for their ranks is that his literary taste never changed. Some of his best essays are on Kipling. His clearest stylistic forebears are Chesterton, Belloc, and Waugh. There are few writers of whom this could be said on the New Statesman, The Nation, or the other magazines where Hitchens made his name. How did he reconcile the divergence of his political and aesthetic tastes? Twice in this memoir, he opines that “it is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think.” This is a noble attitude—but it is a literary attitude, not a political one. The surprise, perhaps, is that he was drawn to polemics, rather than poetry or novel-writing, although Hitchens believes he lacked the “stuff” for that.
Of course, if he had tried and failed, we might not know it. It was at Oxford that Hitchens became a master of sprezzatura, the art of getting a lot done while appearing to be idling. He was a wit, a bon vivant, a guest at the tables of the snobbiest literary dons, a bisexual, and, as time went on, a formidable drinker. He and Bill Clinton (then a Rhodes scholar) had mutual acquaintances. Hitchens presents himself as distracted by protesting the Vietnam war, and describes the time as having been passed in a blur. “If you are going to sleep with Thatcher’s future ministers and toy with a future president’s lesbian girlfriend,” he writes, “you will not be able to savor it fully at the time and will have to content yourself with recollecting it in some kind of tranquility.” But he cannot have been that distracted. He received a “Kitchener scholarship,” named after the hero of Omdurman and reserved for the sons of naval officers. He used it go to Cuba.
To read Hitchens is to realize how wrong we are to use the words “honesty” and “integrity” as synonyms. Hitchens is honest in the sense that, as best we can tell, he says what he believes without fear. But on page after page, using one metaphor after another, he describes his personality as not whole, not integral. “I use the words ‘double life’ without any shame,” he writes towards the beginning of the book. Somewhat later he notes that he “was drawn to the Janus-faced mode of life” and had acquired “the protective habit of keeping two sets of books.” He notes near the end: “I have a meretricious, want-it-both-ways side.” He believes journalism was the perfect vocation for him, since it “allowed one to become a version of John Bunyan’s ‘Mr. Facing-Both-Ways.’”
Hitchens had a lot of adventures as a foreign correspondent. He met the terrorist Abu Nidal in Iraq in the 1970s. In Argentina, he read to the blind Borges, who in turn recited to him a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but disappointed Hitchens by professing his enthusiasm for the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in neighboring Chile. (“He is a true gentleman,” Borges said. “He was recently kind enough to award me a literary prize.”) Just two years ago, Hitchens was beaten bloody by a gang of toughs for defacing a poster of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party that had a swastika on it.
Once settled in journalism, Hitchens had a hard time figuring out whether he was first a writer or a revolutionary. His approach to politics was itself Janus-faced. He credits the International Socialists, the Trotskyite tendency he joined, with being “in and yet not of the ‘Left’ as it was generally understood,” with belonging to the “revolution within the revolution.” A skeptical kind of Marxism led him to visit Poland in the very earliest days of the Solidarity movement and to make contact with Jacek Kuronï, Adam Michnik, and other leaders. Hitchens had a gift for doubt, and he came to suspect, on that first trip to Havana, that the citizens of Cuba didn’t particularly like their revolution. “Certainly when you have had your European features greeted by little showers of pebbles and dogshit and the taunt ‘Sovietico’ from the street urchins of Havana,” he writes, “you have been granted a glimpse or a hint of that very useful thing, an unscripted public opinion.”
Yet, the political engagements to which Hitchens devoted the bulk of his life are the least interesting things about him. Dissident leftists who saw through Stalinism seem to be the only people in the world who don’t realize that everyone else saw through Stalinism, too. Thus, Hitchens applauds Susan Sontag for urging opposition to Soviet repression in Poland in 1982. He notices in socialist Portugal after the fall of the dictatorship in 1974 that, “behind all the spontaneity and eroticism and generalized ‘festival of the oppressed’ merrymaking, a grim-faced Communist apparat was making preparations for an end to the revels and a serious seizure of the state.” Non-Trotskyites at the time would have considered this an empirical confirmation of common sense.
Hitchens soon began to dissent in a more profound way.
Hitchens soon began to dissent in a more profound way. Having written against the Argentine dictatorship, he was dismayed to see the alacrity with which his comrades rallied to it once Argentina attacked the British Falkland Islands in 1982, thus placing itself on the “anti-imperialist” side of the ledger. He backed Margaret Thatcher’s decision to send an expeditionary force to take the islands back. “The worst of ‘Thatcherism,’” he writes, “was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.”
If Hitchens’s impatience with the left was building, the left’s hospitality to him was being withdrawn, too. As the doctrine that “the personal is political” came into vogue, Hitchens registered not so much dissent as disgust: “At the instant I first heard this deadly expression, I knew as one does from the utterance of any sinister bullshit that it was—cliché is arguably forgivable here—very bad news. From now on, it would be enough to be a member of a sex or gender, or epidermal subdivision, or even erotic ‘preference,’ to qualify as a revolutionary.”
One could go further and say that this personal-is-political business is a cease-and-desist order for the irony that Hitchens prizes. Hitchens’s sense of humor, like his literary tastes, has always clashed with his politics. He is delighted by the poet Craig Raine’s idea “that there is a design flaw in the female form, and that the breasts and the buttocks really ought to be on the same side.” Rooting out utterances like these has, for almost a half-century now, been a considerably higher priority for the left than building any sort of socialism. That is what leftism is. In that light, Hitchens’s abandonment of the left was only a matter of time, and it is surprising how long it took. First they came for the Men’s Club, but I said nothing. Then, when they came for the comic novel …
Anti-clericalism of the sort that made his 2007 book God Is Not Great a bestseller is the only thing that still tethers him to what some would consider the left. He calls the Bosnian wars a “Christian destruction of the continent’s oldest Muslim population,” Martin Buber a “pious old hypocrite,” and settlers in the West Bank “Torah-based land thieves.” If this is liberalism, it is of a rather eighteenth-century, Voltairean kind.
Hitchens moved to the America in 1981, drawn by a romantic sense that “the United States [is] at once the most conservative and commercial and the most revolutionary society on Earth.” (A Janus-faced place for Janus-faced people.) It was there that he broke almost all his past alliances. His frequent arguments on behalf of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 are too recent to need recapitulating here. He rehashes them at length—at excessive length for a memoir. They are still so hot in Hitchens’s mind that he is not so much reminiscing as settling scores with ex-allies.
Gore Vidal’s views on September 11 echoed those of “the most dismal, ignorant paranoids,” he writes, and the late Edward Said “could only condemn Islamism if it could somehow be blamed either on Israel or the United States or the West.” It is interesting to discover how close he was to Paul Wolfowitz in the run-up to the war, and there is an affecting chapter on the Daily family of Orange County, California, whose son Mark had volunteered to fight in Iraq and was killed near Mosul. Hitchens contacted the family when a friend sent him Daily’s obituary, including the passage: “Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him.”
It is natural that something like that will occasion a good deal of moral self-examination on the part of someone who long professed to desire a Janus-faced existence. That is not the sort of effect one wants to have if one often speaks in a spirit of irony. And in this memoir the irony wanes by the page: “As the Iraq debate became more intense, it became suddenly obvious to me that I couldn’t any longer remain where I was on the political ‘spectrum.’” Nowhere in this book does Hitchens describe himself as a conservative. And yet who said this? “Multiculturalism and multiethnicity . . . is now one of the disguises for a uniculturalism, based on moral relativism and moral blackmail.” Or this? “I shall never understand how the keepers and trustees of the King James Version threw away such a treasure.” It was not the Commander.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 10, on page 72
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