Christopher Hitchens – the view through his last book Hitch-22

Christopher Hitchens is fascinating to me not just because he constantly criticised to the point where ‘critic’ no longer seemed adequate, but also because of the parallels of his life with mine which he often developed down avenues that wouldn’t tempt me, and to extremes way beyond mine. As a beneficent critic myself I can’t help asking whether Hitchens used whim to select his causes, and then mere rhetoric to attack or support them.

First of all, he was a bizarre mixture of extremely knowledgeable and of course educated, yet not technical in anything except perhaps English literature and rhetoric. He studied the ‘notorious’ PPE – philosophy, politics and economics – the course of choice for politicians, and at Oxford, the university of choice for prime ministers. We can take it that he lapped up the politics since unlike most people the details turned him on even when they didn’t impact on himself. The other two I don’t think were suited to his mentality and when he tells us he usually diverted his attentions away from his studies we don’t doubt that these were the two he was gladdest to turn away from.

Many pages of Hitchens' last book Hitch-22 deserve to have their corners bent over!

His main power just due to the style of his argumentation was the use of obscure words and arcane historical or literary detail. You’d soon learn that from hearing or reading him, but he says anyway in Hitch-22 p69:

“I became too omnivorous in my reading, trying too hard to master new words and concepts, and to let them fall in conversation or argument, with sometimes alarming results. I gained a reputation among the sporting types (and perhaps, to be fair, not only amongst them) as a pseudo-intellectual.”

He was “…awarded an Aladdin’s Cave complex”, but, we must remember, this did get him to Balliol, one of the hardest colleges to get into if not the hardest. His school housemaster warned him that he was in danger of “ending up as a pamphleteer”. Which of course he did, albeit a pamphleteer of the highest order. But he was using a cynical, shallow, very schoolboyish tactic, and it’s hard to see how he could have made it work for so long without certain other strengths.

He adopted, or at least used, a rather deep voice, and he talked extremely posh, both of which, particularly together, are used by those in areas where arguments are won or lost not always by the merit of their verbal content. Some historians come to mind for example, and particularly, dedicated bridge players. Whenever I hear that style I now automatically expect bullshit; oddly though, I rarely disagree with the words, but that might speak only to the persuasive style rather than the quality of the argument itself.

His strong friendships with the famous (actually I don’t remember him mentioning friendships with, well, nonentities, after he left school) were terribly important to him, and his stories about them and others that he knew surprisingly well are much of what makes his last book Hitch-22 (of which this will become something of a review) so fascinating. Friendship is fine but it does cover a multitude of sins, in the sense that it helps cover them up. A friend has been said to be someone who tells you you’re ok, and if what they approve of in you they value themselves, they’ll end up adding their strength to yours. That doesn’t of course make you any righter. And he always seemed to be ‘defending his title’ – fully engaged in a competition at all times. I’m convinced this is a feature of people sent to boarding schools, or maybe just posh ones; it isn’t anything like so obvious with those who go home since winning arguments with your parents changes surprisingly little about how they treat you, for better or worse (in many cases because you can’t win anyway, but even if you genuinely win, it no longer become necessary to argue).

I’ve heard Waterstones have now stopped their “3 for 2” offers, which had snagged me many a time, but my last was the best. For 2,000p I got the best 2,000pp I’ve ever bought. Alongside Hitch’s last, which we are far from having left (-: , my trio included Peter Watson’s massive “The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century” giving swathes of explanation of just ‘how we came think as we do’. Completing the set was yet another Stephen Fry: “The Fry Chronicles”, for sure-fire entertainment in case the others disappointed – but I needn’t have worried…

I bend back the bottom corners of notable pages of my own books, but I’ve never turned back so many as I did on Hitch-22. Shall we take a peep at some of those corners?…

He tellingly reminds us just how unacceptable certain well-known politicians are who we’d got used to being bored by. He tells how it became clear that there was a spy operating at Oxford keeping the CIA informed of the activities of American students there, and how he came to believe that spy was Bill Clinton. Far worse was his opinion of Henry Kissinger. General Videla of Argentina, someone Kissinger described as a personal friend and genial host, was eventually sentenced “Because he sold the children of the tortured rape victims he held in his private prison.” The general understanding many of us had that the US, in Kissinger’s time at least, supported, indeed enabled, unacceptable governments, is thrown into stark new light by this and other comments on Kissinger. Something from a film clip of a coffee break during one of those shady annual meetings between Peter Mandelson and all the other people who “secretly run the world”, becomes easier to understand now. Tony Blair gets up and makes his way over to get another coffee, and as he approaches, Kissinger tries to charmingly buttonhole him – a bit like a sort of winsome Kaa the snake in the Jungle Book film trying to ensnare Sheer Khan. Blair didn’t quite imitate the actions of a tiger but he certainly exuded a look of intense disgust I’d never seen from him before, as he ignored Kissinger. Now we can guess why.

We learn that Berkeley – as in University of California, Berkeley – was a philosopher! Huh. (I’m told by Richard D. it was the philosopher Sam. Johnson said “I refute it thus” to.)

A “Public intellectual” is described as self-sustaining and autonomously financed (a sentiment I can warm to), such as Susan Sontag, a friend of his (not surprisingly, and also not surprisingly, never quite part of my circle!).

He takes Agatha Christie for a punting, along with her husband. He describes the conversation as anti-Jewish, vividly unpleasant and bottom-numbingly boring. (Reminds me of the time I tried to read Mein Kampf.) He then wastes a couple of sentences saying how her books disappointed him. (I too might say something about being unfair with her clues, but really, who cares?!)

On p350 he makes us chuckle over a couple of comments to him at book signings, and then tells us on average he produces at least 1,000 words of printable copy per day (and has never missed a deadline). I don’t know if you feel you want to compare yourself with that, or the 4 tutorials/seminars etc. he had per month while teaching (a fraction of that can take some toil), but I think it helps to realise that to produce plenty of impressive output, at least in the arts areas, it’s best to be the kind of person that talks about such things, and simply do whatever comes naturally. Don’t adopt the task-oriented approach that a sometime-perfectionist sometime computer programmer might take, mulling over the thing from the start, planning it and finally checking and honing it over and over again. Do whatever you love doing of course, but really become it, perfecting not the tasks but the identity, imagine you’re in an argument every second of the day, and in the end you just need to open your mouth and throw it in gear. I’m reminded, having dipped into The Fry Chronicles yesterday, of Stephen’s time-decimating approach to exams – just familiarise one impressive argument about Shakespeare say, and troll it out on every suitable occasion, (but for ghod’s sake remembering (as Stephen reminds us) to start with a special paragraph adapting the stock argument to the question at hand! :-S ).

While I was reading Clive James and occasionally passing him in the street on my way to lunch, Hitchens was regularly meeting James, Martin Amis and all the rest of them for lunch, often just a few streets away from me.

We imagine the famous people of the world all knowing each other and getting together and running things in a manner both exclusive and rather more in their interests than ours. He gives their names, who got on with whom, who didn’t and why, the dates of the meetings, and even quotes from them.

In the end it was just a whim of his to support victims of injustice, but then there is no ‘science of injustice’ to apply. He didn’t appeal to people’s higher faculties but relied more on ridiculing his targets and making himself sound clever. But that’s what often works best against the powerful or with a crowd, and many audiences don’t have particularly sophisticated higher faculties to appeal to. Sometimes those he supported didn’t appreciate him, and he’d turn up at factory gates and find no workers attending to listen to him. Sometimes his causes didn’t actually matter, very significant though they may seem, or indeed be. Being a Trotskyist was potentially the right choice; perhaps communism was yet another endeavour that would have taken someone of jewish intellectual stock to make work. But support it or no, it wasn’t going to influence anything in Hitchens’ time, not even the welfare state or the realpolitik of tradeuninionism. (He tells us the acid test of a true Trot is the term “permanent revolution”. Well, knowledge, as Kim Philby said, is seldom wasted.)

All this kind of stuff completely passed me by, or rather I passed it by, at university. I got so fed up with the photocopies of “Halt the Baa’thist Terror in Iraq” piled on the refectory tables that once or twice I bundled them into the bin myself. Hitchens went to Iraq to meet and understand the resistance. The war deposing Saddam Hussein, if t’was done well, when t’were done, could be rightly supported, as he chose, or opposed as many respectable people also did, since however dodgy the excuses for starting it, the benefits to the Iraqis could have been huge. (He details the progressive inevitability of the war through the Washington of the 1980’s and Clinton’s time.)

Hitchens’ means to his ends were not always ideal, and he did seem to me to fight his wars through an addiction to limelight and glory, but this is often part of the inspiration for worthy actions; his causes often found sympathy with me (as I discovered when I read the book), and his successes were often a worthwhile contribution. I would say he was a bit of a misogynist, and the connoisseurship of women that he shared (take that either way) with for example Kingsley Amis [Update; Aaargh No!! MARTIN! )-: ] in no way abrogates this; we don’t hear a lot about his last wife in his 424 page autobiography. George Galloway didn’t get any mention; odd that. For many people the dreadful showdown between the two was the prime thing about either of them one remembers. Surely Hitchens didn’t consider that he’d lost?! (Well, perhaps he’d forgotten it; it was rather forgettable. All I remember of it was Galloway claiming beforehand he was “not now and never had been…” something, him calling Hitchens a poppinjay, and my being ashamed to be British.)

Not very nice to know, I’d say, and much too domineering and interruptive for my taste; checkout the Youtube videos of “The Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens”. You don’t doubt that his comment on p124: “if you can give a decent speech in public or cut any kind of figure on the podium, then you never need dine or sleep alone” could be his life’s motto, and never mind the just causes. But very, very interesting; though I never did quite see the link with Catch-22.

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3 Responses to Christopher Hitchens – the view through his last book Hitch-22

  1. Ger Hapwat says:

    Salman Rushdie recently explained the name Hitch-22 ( Of course, that was written after this article.

    If I’m not mistaken you’re insinuating that Hitches lost the showdown with Galloway? Prime thing to remember about either or them or rather forgettable, Hitchens somehow managed to make Galloway look like even a bigger fool than Galloway himself could ever hoped to achieve.

    In any case: he might have been too interruptive for your taste; Dawkins, Dennet, and Harris never seemed to mind.

    • Richard D says:

      Well I reckon Galloway did for him, as he did for the Senate Committee. Galloway is abrupt when he needs to be (eg General Election night 2005, roasting Paxman), and on matters relating to the Iraq war he had every reason.

  2. Thanks for pointing our Rushdies’s explanation – and of course his blog! One to add to one’s list! I’ll let other people read the explanation for Hitch-22 there for themselves.

    So Galloway didn’t come out of it well? Interesting.

    The other three horsemen were happy to discuss with him; I think they’d have been even happier for a little more politeness! I put up with lot I and others don’t or wouldn’t like.

    Thanks for your views though.

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