Hitch-22: A Review

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Fri, 2012-07-27 08:02

I have just read Christpher Hitchen’s memoir Hitch-22. In fact I listened to it on audiobook as it was read by Hitchens himself and I thought it was going to be a real treat hearing from the man again after his death. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Authors are not usually good at reading their own work and Hitchens was no exception. He spoke too quickly and often mumbled his words. He lists one of his worst traits as impatience and it showed: he sounded bored at times and was animated in places where the content seemed trivial. He talked about word games for example he liked to play with his literary friends over the years such as Martin Amis and Salmond Rushdie, not just once but throughout the book. Not only does he relish talking about these games, childish though they are, he repeats the same jokes twice. Not just in passing but with extensive lists. One game involved replacing the word love in the title of a book or song with the words “hysterical sex”. The first time he relates this it is mildly amusing. The second time he does it, it becomes mildly disturbing. He literally takes up space by listing about forty titles with the word hysterical sex transplanted in them. His particular favourites were “Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera” and “Hysterical Sex Is All You Need”.

Knowing him mostly from his TV debates I came to this book with a high expectation of the man who fought his corner so well against the followers of religion and the opponents of US interventionism. Half way through the book though I couldn’t help feeling that he was an incredible snob too. Here was one of those publicly educated pretentious posers who are so in abundance in British high society. So it was with some surprise that I learned that Hitchens parents were not wealthy at all but sacrificed their own comfort to pay for their two sons to attend a prestigious public school, Leys School in Cambridge, in order that they could enter the upper classes. Respect! He reveals later in an interview that he picked up his left-wing ideology at school because he felt like an outsider and he wanted to challenge the establishment views he encountered there. This answer chimes well with another of his stated vices which is getting into arguments just for fun of it to counter boredom.

He engages in a Proust inspired quiz of himself which he always felt was lacking in memoirs in order to better illuminate his character. For example:

To what faults do you feel most indulgent? To the ones that arise from urgent material needs.”

One thing became clear to me here is that he loved books. In fact he devoured them whole whether they were non-fiction, literature or poetry. Not just that he absorbed them into a phenomenal memory, but that he could seemingly quote any obscure text at will. This may sound like a cultural stereotype, but his abilities seemed less mysterious to me when I learned Hitchens was half-Jewish. More surprising though is that he did not discover this fact until he was 38 years old, having being raised a Christian. His Jewish mother never revealed to him the fact of his heritage before her untimely suicide when he was 24. By this time however he had inherited some unorthodox political positions too, such as being an anti-Zionist and embracing the “plight” of the “occupied” Palestinians.

Your favorite virtue? An appreciation for irony.”

"Actually—and this was where I began to feel seriously uncomfortable—some such divine claim underlay not just 'the occupation' but the whole idea of a separate state for Jews in Palestine. Take away the divine warrant for the Holy Land and where were you, and what were you? Just another land-thief like the Turks or the British, except that in this case you wanted the land without the people. And the original Zionist slogan—'a land without a people for a people without a land'—disclosed its own negation when I saw the densely populated Arab towns dwelling sullenly under Jewish tutelage. You want irony? How about Jews becoming colonizers at just the moment when other Europeans had given up on the idea?"

His socialist ideology is in general anathema to many of the views he would famously become associated with. People on SOLO might be quite surprised to find that he was a devout follower of Marx and Trotsky until the end, but dismissed Atlas Shrugged as if it were a piece of inferior pulp fiction. At least you can say Hitchens was always honest and gave his opinions straight without any bullshit.

His early career in England as a journalist with the New Statesman found the fresh-faced Hitchens a left-wing internationalist who travelled from one revolutionary hotspot to the next. From the newly formed Castro government in Cuba to the prague spring in Czechoslovakia and the solidarity movement in Poland. He tried to join the mainstream Labour Party too, but never quite fit in. His lifetime hero being George Orwell, he describes how tyrannical these regimes were. In Cuba his passport was taken off him and he had stay within a compound. When he tried to stray outside of it he was reprimanded. When he cynically asked his hosts where the socialist utopia lay, they told him there was a small village some miles off where the perfect society was already in action. Not surprisingly Hitchens never found it.

Your favorite occupation? Travel in contested territory. Hard-working writing and reading when safely home, in the knowledge that an amusing friend is later coming to dinner.”

In 1981, when a girlfriend of his left for New York he decided to join her. He started writing for the Nation in the US with his usual international bent. I am reminded of how George Galloway said to Hitchens in a debate post 9/11 that once Hitchens had been a beautiful butterfly, but now he had become a slug in reverse. I must remind myself that to the left-wing anti-war movement he had been a butterfly. He disliked Thatcher for her ruthlessness and thought Reagan to be a serial liar. He didn’t have much truck with the Clintons or Bushes either, disliking George HW more than George W. At this time Hitchens also became great friends with US liberal luuvies such as Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and Edward Said.

Where would you like to live? In a state of conflict or a conflicted state.”

However 9/11 changed all that. Suddenly Christopher Hitchens was thrust onto a different stage, and would inaccurately become known as a “neo-con”. Outraged by the WTC attack he wrote an article entitled, “my country up or down” echoing George Orwell’s essay “my country right or left” which gave justification to a fierce patriotism when his country was under attack by savages.

He also decided to formerly become an American Citizen. The gaining of his citizenship was quite a mundane and boring experience however, involving much bureaucratic hoop jumping.

“Nihil humanum a me alienum puto, said the Roman poet Terence: 'Nothing human is alien to me.' The slogan of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service could have been the reverse: To us, no aliens are human.”

However when he bumped into the homeland secretary Michael Chertoff after the dry formalities were over he asked him for a personal citizenship ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial on his 58th birthday (and Jefferson’s 264th). He got it.

Hitchens dealing with the Iraq war and how he fell out with his former anti-war comrades over his support for it is really the best part of the book. Hitchens explains how he had visited the country himself in the past and was appalled by the ruthless regime he saw there. So much so that he always maintained that Saddam needed to go and that he would welcome the opportunity to help with that when it came.

“So, whenever the subject of Iraq came up, as it did keep on doing through the Clinton years, I had no excuse for not knowing the following things: I knew that its one-party, one-leader state machine was modelled on the precedents of both National Socialism and Stalinism, to say nothing of Al Capone. I knew that its police force was searching for psychopathic killers and sadistic serial murderers, not in order to arrest them but to employ them. I knew that its vast patrimony of oil wealth, far from being 'nationalized,' had been privatized for the use of one family, and was being squandered on hideous ostentation at home and militarism abroad. (Post-Kuwait inspections by the United Nations had uncovered a huge nuclear-reactor site that had not even been known about by the international community.) I had seen with my own eyes the evidence of a serious breach of the Genocide Convention on Iraqi soil, and I had also seen with my own eyes the evidence that it had been carried out in part with the use of weapons of mass destruction. I was, if you like, the prisoner of this knowledge. I certainly did not have the option of un-knowing it.”

I came away from hearing this part of the book actually feeling ashamed for even having taken the anti-war rhetoric seriously. From claiming that the US was only interested in the oil reserves to asserting that the Bush administration (so clever for once) had planned the 9/11 attack to justify the invasion of Iraq there was no depths to which they wouldn’t stoop.

"I had become too accustomed to the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one. This vulgar method, which is now the norm and the standard in much non-Left journalism as well, is designed to have the effect of making any noisy moron into a master analyst."

He writes too about having visited Iraq after the invasion whereby American and British troops were being genuinely cheered on by crowds of Iraqi well-wishers thankful for being freed from Saddam’s rule.

"I am sorry for those who have never had the experience of seeing the victory of a national liberation movement, and I feel cold contempt for those who jeer at it."

I was surprised that missing from the book were Hitchens’ recent battles with religion. Indeed all mention of Richard Dawkins is relegated to just a few sentences. The remaining “four horsemen of the atheist movement” as they are known are barely mentioned. His debates on religion and the book “God is not great” are not mentioned at all. I can only assume he thought that he had already covered this material elsewhere.

What is your idea of earthly happiness? To be vindicated in my own lifetime.”

So has Hitchens been vindicated by this book published in 2009 before his tragic death? Yes he has due to his uncompromising stance in defending the US against her enemies since 9/11. Who else would have stepped into the breach to point out the moral flaws of those who tried to belittle her enemies, and did not need to invoke God or flag waving in order to do it? Hitchens has an eloquent way with words that sticks in the mind long afterwards. As an author, journalist, political commentator, debater and media personality he indeed made his mark upon the world. His death last year was duly mourned and did not pass unnoticed on either side of the Atlantic. He was not a libertarian or objectivist hero; prepare to be disabused of that notion, but his legacy of belittling dictatorships will now pass on into immortality like his hero George Orwell. And perhaps they’ll get the point?

What word or expression do you most overuse? Re-reading a collection of my stuff, I was rather startled to find that it was 'perhaps.”

( categories: )

Looks like you were right...

Marcus's picture

...but working for our side.

"Conquest joined the Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD), a unit created by the Labour government to "collect and summarize reliable information about Soviet and communist misdoings, to disseminate it to friendly journalists, politicians, and trade unionists, and to support, financially and otherwise, anticommunist publications."

Funny to think you were once one of the pretty young things like Hitchens and his lefty clique! Kudos! I wish I could have found a group like that in NZ.


Lindsay Perigo's picture

Weir House was/is a university hostel, all male at the time, for the elite. Believe it or not, I was one of them. A group of us quickly formed who would meet every night, usually in my room, and rage and scream about life, the universe and everything. We were all gorgeous, and I was in love with every one of them. Eye But Robert Conquest wasn't there.

He also quotes a poem...

Marcus's picture

...by Robert Conquest about. Don't tell me he was a British poof and a spy too.

What is the Weir household?

Moral and mental glaciers melting slightly

Betray the influence of his warm intent.

Because he taught us what the actual meant

The vicious winter grips its prey less tightly.

Not all were grateful for his help, one finds,

For how they hated him, who huddled with

The comfort of a quick remedial myth

Against the cold world and their colder minds.

We die of words. For touchstones he restored

The real person, real event or thing;

—And thus we see no war but suffering

As the conjunction to be most abhorred.

He shared with a great world, for greater ends,

That honesty, a curious cunning virtue

You share with just the few who don’t desert you.

A dozen writers, half-a-dozen friends.

A moral genius. And truth-seeking brings

Sometimes a silliness we view askance,

Like Darwin playing his bassoon to plants;

He too had lapses, but he claimed no wings.

While those who drown a truth’s empiric part

In dithyramb or dogma turn frenetic;

—Than whom no writer could be less poetic

He left this lesson for all verse, all art.

Robert Conquest (1969)


Lindsay Perigo's picture

That Proust prose is awful!

As I explained to you privately, Marcus, in my youth three French poofs were fashionable: Proust, Genet and Gide (maybe Gide wasn't a poof). They were utterly tiresome and talentless, but one was expected to offer them obeisance, especially if one were oneself a poof, as I was (and possibly still am Eye ). Sartre was around, too, but deemed to be a bit conventional. Hahahaha! And of course there were Derrida and Foucault, but for some reason these weren't cult figures in Weir House. In any event, the French have a lot to answer for.

Irony not lost on Linz...

Marcus's picture

Getting out my old copy of Orwell's victory I see Hitchens quotes Proust at the beginning. Hitchens is simply described as a columnist for the Nation and Vanity Fair who lives in Washington.

But genius, and even great talent, springs less from seeds of intellect and social refinement superior to those of other people than from the faculty of transforming and transposing them. To heat a liquid with an electric lamp requires not the strongest lamp possible, but one of which the current can cease to illuminate, can be diverted so as to give heat instead of light. To mount the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful of motors, one must have a motor which, instead of continuing to run along the earth's surface, intersecting with a vertical line the horizontal line which it began by following, is capable of converting its speed into lifting power. Similarly, the men who produce works of genius are not those who live in the most delicate atmosphere, whose conversation is the most brilliant or their culture the most extensive, but those who have had the power, ceasing suddenly to live only for themselves, to transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected.

― Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove, Part 2: Remembrance of Things Past Series, Volume II

Thanks, Marcus

Ross Elliot's picture

"I actually bought and read Hitchens' book on Orwell, Orwell's victory..."

I will have to read it.

The contradiction of Orwell is that he wrote magnificent critiques of the very system to which he subscribed.

A good question is: if you strip Hitchens of his atheist invective, what do you have left? Well, you have quite a bit, but it's not in anyway on the level of Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm.


gregster's picture

I liked his God Is Not Great for the subtitle alone - "religion poisons everything." And as one of the public atheists, at least, he may have done well in softening up some of the populace to considering that truth. That book was good.

Yeah, he was a good writer, but imagine if he'd had some SOLO tuition. I'm certain arrangements could have been made for limitless supplies of nicotine and alcohol and some snuff. Whatever was required to twist his brain into churning out something reasonable.

I think he always had one eye on the applause meter Another way of saying he was a consummate social-metaphysician.

That's right Linz...

Marcus's picture

...he did.

He wanted the kudos of being George Orwell but never pulled it off.

Being an objectivist just did not fit into that model.

I actually bought and read Hitchens' book on Orwell, Orwell's victory, when I did research for my first ever FreeRad article.

I didn't even know who he was. It was obvious he was a left-winger but had a highly original take on Orwell's life and some unusual info I couldn't find elsewhere.

It's funny how things come full circle like that.

Great work, Marcus

Lindsay Perigo's picture

Explains many of Hitch's exasperating traits. The great shame about his premature death is that he didn't have time to liberate himself fully from pomowankery and poseurism. I think he always had one eye on the applause meter, which makes it all the more remarkable that he took on the Saddamites.

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