on April 6, 2012
While sending out review copies for my book about China, I warned readers they might find its content polemical, controversial, "politically incorrect," or whatever. Two reviewers replied `not to worry,' - they liked oppositionist perspectives and were admirers of Christopher Hitchens. I thought, `Christopher who?' Incredibly, I didn't know who Hitchens was (in 2011, no less), though I knew of his book God is Not Great, which didn't appeal to me because, pompously perhaps, I reckoned I didn't need to read an argument I already supported and a conclusion I had already arrived at. Like many, I familiarized myself with Mr. Hitchens through Youtube and found myself learning heaps about politics and history, and more than I expected to about religion (I had never thought of religion as the original tyranny, for example). And then I chanced upon a copy of his memoir.
Hitch-22 is the best memoir I've read and better than any biography I've read. From a startling account about his mother's suicide to a Socratic declaration of how little he knows (the spur which kept him learning and reflecting on his positions and beliefs), Hitchens's crisp and articulate prose courses through 400 pages, drawing you in, propelling you on, causing you to reflect, and impelling you to learn more about the many subjects, historical events, themes, and memes he scrutinizes and dissects. It also sends you to the dictionary, a healthy exercise, surely.
And it's not a conventional memoir. Apart from the section pertaining to his youth, there is little straightforward or chronological autobiography, and there is limited mention of things there should be, his wife and children for instance. Rather, after describing his upbringing (vignettes of his loving but tormented mother Yvonne, awkward chats with his kindly but conservative father "the Commander," and the bizarre rituals and norms of British public school), the volume morphs into a study of personalities, events, and subjects that shaped Hitchens's life and career as a journalist, a writer, a political commentator, a radical, an iconoclast, and a public intellectual of the first order. So, in the beginning of the book, we get chapters like "Yvonne," "the Commander," and "Fragments from an Education," and in the middle and latter portions we get ones like "Salman," "Mesopotamia from Both Sides," and "Edward Said in Light and Shade (and Saul)." The final chapter, "Decline, Mutation, or Metamorphosis?" does not, as I thought it would, speak to the writer's battle with cancer (indeed, there is no mention of the disease that took his life just two years after this book was published), but instead to the volume's overarching theme, encapsulated within its apposite title.
Hitchens, you see, far from being an absolutist (one of the charges from his reactionary and absolutist detractors), has always been acutely aware of his many contradictions. Ever since he began his rabble-rousing at Oxford (by day; by night he socialized with profs and dons) he has been cognizant of the fact he has kept two sets of books.
Like so many intellectuals, Hitchens was drawn to the Left through Marxism (he was a very active member of the International Socialists), but unlike other big thinkers, he quickly saw the contradictions of Marxist ideology, the shortcomings and failures of Communist states, and the fascist nature of anti-fascists. But Hitchens's outright rejection of the Left was the culmination of a process that occurred over decades. For anyone who has ever wondered or felt confused about just which notch on the political spectrum they occupy, Hitch-22 offers consolation. "Mutato nomine et de te fabula narrator," our Anglo-American narrator writes. "Change only the name and this story is about you."
Reading this book taught me too many things to comprehensively list, and whetted my appetite for more. Apart from Bill Clinton's Mayor Quimbyesque "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," (and Clinton, remember, was impeached for lying under oath) I wasn't fully aware of just what a lying sack of bovine fecal matter he was. I did not fully comprehend the challenge to freedom of expression (and freedom in general) that Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa on Salman Rushdie represented. I did not really understand the severity of the situation in Iraq (or precisely how evil and fanatical Saddam Hussein and his sons were). But most of all, and although I've had suspicions for a while and have been tiptoeing back to the centre of the political spectrum, I never fully realized just how utterly brainless, extreme, and absurd the Left really can be. See members of this bleeding-heart's society demonstrating against armed intervention so fascist states and military juntas can continue threatening their neighbours and torturing and murdering their citizenry; see them advocate for freedom of expression while denouncing books and points-of-view their point of view deems "offensive"; watch as people who call themselves liberal criticise all US foreign policy as crass and corrupt imperialism believing nothing the United States government does is motivated - in whole or in part - by morality; note the expression of satisfaction on Leftist faces when the planes hit the towers and thousands die. "Well, hey, America had it coming."
"If Hitchens didn't exist," Ian McEwan said, "we wouldn't be able to invent him." The cynic thinks this is overstatement: the endorsement of a friend in exchange for a mention or reciprocal endorsement. But the cynic who reads Chirstopher Hitchens should have their cynicism replaced by clarity if not perspicacity. They should come to the understanding that McEwan's statement represents the truth.
At the risk of stating the obvious or sounding hagiographic, what a pity Christopher Hitchens is no longer with us. He did what the media so often fails to do. Not only did he use reason and logic to point the way toward what to think, but how to think. He got us to question what we knew or thought we knew. And now that he's gone, who's going to replace him? I reckon someone of Hitchen's intellect and drive comes along once every twenty or thirty years. Or maybe longer. There was Socrates.... There was Orwell.... The feeling I got while reading Hitchens's commentary was something approaching awe, and I felt foolish for not having known who he was. Without question, I will read his massive book, Arguably (reviewed opposite my own book in the San Francisco Book Review). I'm sure the pages will practically turn by themselves. Will I agree with everything Hitchens says? Of course not, and I doubt he would have wanted it any other way.
Troy Parfitt is the author of Why China Will Never Rule the World.
on July 21, 2010
This is kind of a response to the rather rebarbative and fatuous review by R.I. Dacre. Hitch 22 is a very interesting, brilliantly written and seemingly honest memoir of Christopher HItchens, a British intellectual, journalist, debater and of course Author amongst other things. For any rational minded human being concerned about our future his previous book, God is not Great ' How religion poisons everything, is essential.
One of the many admirable traits of Mr. Hitchens is that he is, if anything, mostly very noble about those who disagree with him, even if in some cases they can be quite nasty about him in their opposition. As for those for whom he is particularly scathing about, I would opine that they deserve it (Jerry Falwell springs to mind).
I always find his talks, his articles, his books and now this book, an enormously educational experience. I would say that even when you do not agree with his standpoint, his case for his point of view is meticulously laid out, researched and backed up with fact and/or empirical evidence. It's a greatly admirable trait as a writer to be able to be able to pull this off with such élan.
Hitch 22 covers many areas of his life and my only criticism is that I wish that the book could have been longer. The stories vary from making you want to laugh out loud in places to feelings of fury at the horrors that Hitchens has witnessed or wrote about in his career.
He writes about how youthful exuberance may have cast a pall of glamour over situations and people he now sees in a different light, something the previous reviewer certainly failed to grasp or understand, Hitchens explains it best when he quotes John Maynard Keyne's "When the facts change then my opinion changes, and you sir?"
The book is interesting to see an insight into an individual that has been accused of being many things regarding his ideological position, it may not set the record straight for those who need an adequate label but it does dispel the 'neo-con' tag which certainly concerned me prior to getting a vaster knowledge of his written work. HItchens influences are varied and
fascinating as a writer.
There are too many terrific chapters to single out in Hitch 22, I would heartily recommend this engrossing memoir certainly to anyone familiar with his work but for sure to those who are not as a springboard to discover some of his previous works.
I have a deep regard for the forceful way in which Hitchens often makes his arguments, even though I may not always agree with their substance. That is probably due in large respect to the Voltairian streak in me that allows me to tolerate though not always accept the views of my fellow humans. Hitchens's autobiography is an expose of who he is as an intellectual fighting for decency in a world fast succumbing to evil and stupidity. As he shares his story, the reader comes to recognize that this in no petulant knight of the British aristocracy given to sounding off at a legion of imagined ills. Rather, Hitchen is a creature of humble and unclear origins, equipped with a razor sharp mind that includes a gift for words, a strong social conscience and a desire to seek out and understand his destiny. The hurdles he has to overcome are both fascinating and monumental. There is an early childhood dealing with parents who are consumed by their own personal issues and prejudices, followed by a less-than-inspiring stint in a public school, followed by a break-out period at Oxford, to be consumated by a career as a lead journalist for such publications as the New Statesman and Vanity Fair. As a contrarian, Hitchens always seems to position himself on the side of reason and truth when it comes to doing verbal battle with his opponents. As a member of the international Socialist movement, Hitchens plainly does not suffer fools, liars, hypocrites, or demigods gladly. The two parts of the book supporting this observation involve his efforts to support Rushdie during the Ayatollah Khomeini's issuing of a fatwa against him for writing the "The Satanic Verses" and his very visible media campaign in support the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein. In both cases, Hitchens exposed himself to a lot of danger and unpopularity. There are humorous and witty moments on this journey of discovery that takes him into university lecture halls, royal palaces, war zones, prisons, and worthy lives such as Martin Amis, James Fenton, and his brother, Peter. While his prose is heavy at times and his arguments in defence of reasonable causes complex, there is everything charming and engaging about the man. Like his brother, Peter, a Christian writer, Christopher loves the cut and thrust of a good argument, especially against opponents who in his opinion are often dead wrong or inconsistent in their views. Since politics is such a shifty and often dodgy business, Hitchens would likely not be adverse to the idea that it is often best to leave one's options open when facing an uncertain future. Into his sixties, Hitchens will be the first to admit the need for some guiding light in his life though he is not sure what it would look like. Until that happens, he is a man content to be left alone to think and argue his way through whatever remarkable dilemmas come his way. There are some surprises coming your way with this most engrossing and entertaining of books. It will cause you to pause and think about your beliefs.