The Divided Shelf
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
During an interview on 60 Minutes, the writer Christopher Buckley recounted the story of an epic ten and a half hour lunch with Christopher Hitchens, in which he personally imbibed so much alcohol that by midnight “I would have happily checked into the nearest hospital to have oxygen, blood, and extensive liver work.” And how did Hitchens’s famous ox-like constitution stand up to this liquid assault? “He went home and wrote an essay on George Orwell.” Whether it is drinking, speaking, or writing, Hitchens partakes in quantities that dumbfound normal human beings. (Though sadly, all three have slowed down during his ongoing battle with oesophageal cancer.) The essays in this collection, harvested from articles published over the last decade in Slate, the Atlantic, and Vanity Fair, stack up to nearly 800 pages, and constitute only a smudge of ink on Hitchens’ total journalistic output.
Writing on America’s Founding Fathers, Hitchens tells us how the little-known Barbary Wars “gave Americans an inkling of the fact that they were, and always would be, bound up with global affairs.” Hitchens seems to have had a similar hunch about himself upon exiting the womb, though his real intellectual call to arms came in September 2001, the moment that brought the long overdue confrontation between everything he held dear: reason, science, free inquiry, and the terrors wrought by the “old unchanging enemies – racism, leader worship, superstition.” For Hitchens, the events of 9/11 were not the onset of a battle of civilizations, but a battle for civilization itself. And as we see in his admiration for feminist critic Rebecca West, “one of those people, necessary in every epoch, who understand that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for,” there is no patience reserved for conscientious objectors. Hitchens’s blood was stirred so strongly in support of the Iraq War that he severed friendly relations with many of his old comrades on the Left, who now appeared to him as a “bodyguard of apologists”, excusing the actions of genocidal dictators in a misguided commitment to anti-imperialism.
Orwell once said “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism”. Hitchens borrows the same thought in his preface, with every word he has written since 2001 dedicated to resisting the “hateful and nihilistic propositions” professed by those willing to murder the innocent in the name of a holy text. He has previously referred to the agents of al-Qaida as a “medieval cult of death”, imbued with a hatred for life, culture, liberty of conscience, and most importantly, humour. As he warns us, an absence of mirth is the hallmark of tyranny: “The people who must never have power are the humourless.”
For Hitchens, the imminent threat is a world of “soft censorship”, where Danish cartoonists are forbidden to publish religious doodles lampooning holy prophets, or where the fear of causing offense is taken more seriously than the guarantee of free speech. Like every good satirist, Hitchens knows that parody and mockery, whether delivered via the cartoonist’s pencil or the vocal chords, are the slings and arrows of “the sort of society that knows to keep the solemn and the pious at bay”. When asked by Jeremy Paxman how calling the Qur’an “laughable” helped the spread of reason, Hitchens replied, “one of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.” This is a continuation of the Enlightenment project, to eschew divine authority and follow the dictates of reason and science. If Richard Dawkins is Darwin’s Rottweiler, Hitchens is the Enlightenment’s Bloodhound (though to capture his relative ferocity, a three-headed Cerberus might be a more apt canine of choice.) The teeth and claws are always bared at those who attempt to rob us of the treasures bequeathed to us by Thomas Paine, David Hume, and Thomas Jefferson. Hitchens maintains that the gold standard of this secular inheritance is embodied in the American Constitution: “The secular republic with the separation of powers is still the approximate model”.
This is all well-worn territory for fans of Hitchens, however. The real delight of this collection is the inclusion of his literary essays, in which the stalwarts of English prose are subjected to the rigorous “Hitch” treatment (“it took me decades to dare the attempt, but finally I did write about Nabokov”). Intriguingly, Hitchens’s pinnacle of literary bliss is extremely close to that of his friend Stephen Fry, who once cited his influences as W.W.W.: Wilde, Wodehouse, and Waugh. Though for Hitchens the acronym needs extending to OWWW, as Orwell always comes first. The mix is intriguing. One could see how Hitchens’s contrarian views can find cozy ground with a subversive nonconformist like Oscar Wilde. But how does Hitchens, as an ex-Trotskyist atheist radical, find common ideological ground in the collected works of arch-reactionaries like P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh? These are the public schoolboys who championed traditional hierarchy and longed for an antiquated picture of England that probably never existed. For Hitchens, the answer is a question of virtues, as he partly concedes; “moral courage may be shown by reactionaries” and “good prose produced by snobs”. Even Edmund Burke, defender of feudal hierarchy and founder of modern conservatism, gets an entire essay, and is credited with having the foresight to put forward “the first serious argument that revolutions devour their own children and turn into their own opposites”. But more importantly, Hitchens understands that these authors’ virtues are an upshot of their vices: “Waugh wrote as brilliantly as he did precisely because he loathed the modern world.”
Yet there is no gushing adulation here. Despite a deep devotion to Wodehouse, we are told that the old master “wrote too much”, and, although clearly an admirer of John Updike, Hitchens savagely excoriates his ill-judged 2007 novel Terrorist, which he sent “windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance”. Even his beloved Orwell is taken to task for his misogyny and pessimism, and despite “loving Philip Larkin”, the great poet is revealed to be an asexual prude. Contrast the latter with Hitchens himself, who indulges us with an extended meditation on the All-American blowjob, and claims to have spent every waking moment in Afghanistan obsessed with sex.
Amongst these literary critiques are some wonderfully fresh insights, as when Hitchens points out the vast debt Wodehouse owes to The Importance of Being Earnest, which shares all the staples of a Jeeves and Wooster romp: terrifying aunts, idle bachelors and their butlers, and frivolous farces in country houses. Moreover, in his piece on Evelyn Waugh, Hitchens effortlessly makes the connection between Waugh’s unyielding cruelty to his protagonist in Decline and Fall and his staunch Catholicism: “he wanted to bring the Book of Job to life for those who had never read, or who feared, it.” This perfectly captures the callousness with which Waugh treats the innocent in his work, where characters are repeatedly shown “how cleverly and suddenly their creator could bring them low”.
It is unusual though, that these themes of religious guilt and idle rich bachelors should be of any interest for Hitchens, a man who claims to “still think like a Marxist”. Despite his anti-conservatism, Hitchens’s literary tastes are most comfortable with country houses, drawing rooms, and the exploits of boarding school chums. This is what he has often referred to as his Divided Self. During his studies at Oxford, the young Trotskyite was just as comfortable dining at high table with the masters of All Souls College as he was resisting arrest in an anti-Vietnam demonstration. This was the boarding school boy with revolutionary sensibilities, the Jew raised as a gentile (Hitchens did not find out of his Jewish lineage until his late 30s), the Englishman with a vigilant eye toward the open plains of America (He was sworn in as a US citizen in 2007, and now considers himself an Anglo-American, “a nice synthesis”).
Arguably also re-acquaints us with the ruthless polemical side of Hitchens we have come to know best, including his trademark critiques of lauded public figures: Prince Charles is branded a superstitious moony and a “moral and intellectual weakling”, Dickens is blamed for leaving us with the “grisly inheritance that is the modern version of Christmas”, and the cult of Kennedy-worship amongst American Democrats is derided for its support of a man “whose presidency was punctuated by more or less gangsterish conduct.” Further provocations come from an essay on “Why Women Aren’t Funny”, and a scrupulous denouncement of all Ten Commandments (along with a revised list for the modern secularist). If there are criticisms to be made of Hitchens, it is in his brief forays into moral philosophy, where his polemical certainties come at the cost of analytical rigour. For example, Hitchens clearly believes it self-evident that atheists can possess moral certainties, but at no point sees it necessary to get down to the grubby philosophical task of justifying this crucial assertion. Once again, we see the divided self: too thoughtful to be politician, too polemical for academic philosophy.
But Hitchens has little patience with over-thinkers, and openly vents his frustration at a certain breed of intellectual, who are “often a little reluctant to trust their guts” in the face of their opponents. For this polemicist, the role of a public intellectual is not reserved to ink on a page; it asks one to stand up to bullies and affirm “enduring virtues” in the face of those who seek to threaten them. And in an age of moral ambivalence, over-cautious tolerance, and “sniggering relativism”, this virtue of conviction should be cherished whenever it is deployed in the service of reason; it requires more guts than ever.
Stephen Hussey is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at University College, Oxford.