Under my byline

Right on the left

Posted in Books, Profiles by Rrishi on 29 July 2010

A life in polemics

Hitch-22: A Memoir
Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books
pp x + 436



If one can be flattered by one’s mimics, what about by one’s critics? Few people are clever and stupid enough to flatter Christopher Hitchens with imitation — but he does tend to attract some of the finest critics. Partly this is because the finest critics are often left-wing; indeed are in some cases Hitchens’s former compatriots or fellow travellers of the Sixties and post-Sixties European left, or those intellectually shaped by that now-foreign planet.

Hitchens, after all, is a man of ideas, even when he leaps into action. And this is where the disjuncture begins. Eventually he escaped from the highly idealistic and internationalist, yet somehow circumscribed world of the left — that turning underlies the story he tells in this new memoir, Hitch-22 — and began to deploy the tools of forensic argument against different adversaries, including oversimplification, cynical realpolitik and oppression, wherever he may have seen them.

Hitchens has had a busy life in polemics, opposing everything from imperialism and the British upper-class monopoly on power to the Soviet clampdown in Prague, the sacralisation of leaders such as Fidel Castro and Mother Teresa, South America’s foul US-backed dictators, the Islamist reactionaries who called for the murder of Salman Rushdie (and indeed murdered other moderate and politically active Muslims), President Clinton during and since Monicagate, Saddam in the waning days of the first Gulf war and Saddam in the run-up to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…

But there is the disjuncture: not merely did Hitchens write and speak, he also acted. It appears he never quite lost the fervent, can-do spirit of les soixante-huitards — the ’68ers, or students of 1968’s revolutionary moment in Europe, among whom he proudly counts himself. When the American and European left failed to rally against the Islamists after 9/11, Hitchens turned the force of his polemics against them.

More important, Hitchens continued to go to the places in question to see with his own eyes what was going on. Thus he visited Iraq a few times, once at the outset of Saddam’s rule where he observed (but did not quite see) the corrosive effect of terror whose result was silence; and later, he travelled through the Kurdish areas which had just experienced Saddam’s chemical attacks. Admittedly there is something boyish and English about Hitchens’ reaction when his sense of fair play and decency is outraged; he certainly doesn’t write like a hard-bitten foreign correspondent. Not for him neutrality of prose and the sufficiency of hard facts.

Hitchens’ compatriots of the left, by comparison, had become (it’s probably not unfair to say) more academic and less viscerally engaged with such real and immediate questions. The clash, then, was inevitable — and I make so much of it here because the hurt assessments of Hitchens by his former fellows occupy so much space in the public sphere, encapsulate the crucial (but so rarely and poorly held) debate about the role of the intellectual in time of war or civilisational peril, and tend to focus on his supposed two-facedness. Still, why such fury? Because Hitchens’s “betrayal” turned to the benefit of the hated “imperialism” of George W Bush’s administration — in support of which Hitchens was saying, forget rationalisation and self-flagellation, we must give no quarter to illiterate and evil bigots like Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini who seek to stifle life, free thought and natural freedoms and make us captives of our fear.

Why do the critics write so scathingly about what they call Hitchens’s hypocrisy (Is he really swallowing back vomit as he shakes hands with the Argentine military dictator in this photo, as he tells us, or is he bowing servilely?), his tendency to name-drop (Why is the book full of famous names, even if most are of writers and intellectuals?), his talent for quickly making his way to the centre of events (Why is it that Hitchens always manages to slither into the circles and places of power?), his nostalgic love for silly word games with his famous literary friends (Why should we care about these puerile, unfunny, drunken trifles?) — and this is even before we get to the criticism about Hitchens’ drinking habit and the near-absence from this book of his wives and children.

Yet if these reviewers were a little less annoyed (or could it be envy?) they would allow that Hitchens defangs much of this criticism by being well aware that it will come, and not seeking to deflect it. The dominant impression is of, yes, a certain self-absorption — albeit the relatively innocent self-congratulation of the provincial boy-turned-metropolitan titan — and an occasionally grating self-deprecation, but also an undeviating commitment to the truth and a fierce loyalty to friends. When Hitchens tells the story of his mother and his father, and of his own student days (the first few chapters, essentially), one could not ask for more truthfulness. Especially the chapter on his mother, with her tragic and yet noble life story, is moving as well as revealing.

Let it also be said that this is a memoir, not an autobiography. So it need not be the kind of confessional tract that some reviewers expect. It is therefore, in the good tradition of memoirs, stuffed with memorable anecdotes and peppered with literary fragments. Hitchens has encountered many fascinating people and appears to have read everything in the English canon. Here he gives us a fine distillation; I say go buy it and enjoy it.

(Read an excerpt from Hitch-22.)


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