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Something approaching awe
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.