In Lieu of a Drink
By Christopher Hitchens
Everybody likes to speculate, and our favorite subject is the private thought of a public figure. It affords us a strange and silly pleasure to say, “Yes, I understand that you want me to believe that’s what you think, but I’ll soon figure out what’s really the case.” This endeavor is both ridiculous and short-lived for two reasons, the first being the simple fact that one can never truly know the mind of another, the second being that it requires only the minimum mental exertion to get an answer that is most likely correct. Of course that politician shouting about the evils of homosexuality has a rather filthy secret. Obviously that CEO is scraping more than a little off the top. What else could that starlet making pleas for forgiveness be thinking of than when she will be able to kick off on her next binge?
We are robbed of this kind of fun when considering Christopher Hitchens. It is not far into any of his pieces when readers realize that what they reading is completely and authentically the mind of Christopher Hitchens. He provokes and infuriates, but his motives are never ulterior, and though his breadth of knowledge is expansive and varied, his crosshairs are invariably locked directly on his target. Whether his mode is sympathetic or polemical, the directness of his thought and the clarity of his prose are unwavering. In Arguably, the first collection of his essays since 2004’s Love Poverty and War, Hitchens displays again his abilities as a cultural thinker, stylist and unfaltering wit.
His basic biography is well known, due in part to his best-selling memoir, Hitch-22. Born into a lower-middle class British Navy family to a rather serious, straightforward father and a colorful, socially ambitious mother, Hitchens was from an early age the object of direct attention, having parents who were determined, each in their respective ways, to give their first son the best in life. He was educated in a well-regarded public school (though not, as he points out, Eton or Harrow, “to which we knew we could not aspire”), and then went on to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford. At Oxford, he became a hard-line socialist, and was entirely devoted to the cause of international revolution, though he spent many of his nights drinking, dining and discoursing with some of the university’s most distinguished and reactionary figures. This, his memoir tells us, was part of his Hitch-22, which is the subtle and somewhat deceitful art of keeping two sets of books, or, more generously, the ability to hold two opposing views at once. He graduated with a third-class degree and moved to London, where he became known as an audacious, combative and dazzling talent in the world of Fleet Street journalism. The Fleet Street he experienced was the end of the era so memorably captured by Waugh, Powell and Frayn, and Hitchens seems to know what it was like to have been there as well as they did. He never speaks too unkindly of his life-long line of work, but he ends “Fleet Street’s Finest: From Waugh to Frayn” with a serious joke:
Perhaps this assists us in answering the age-old question:
Why does the profession of journalism have such a low reputation?
The answer: Because it has had such bad press.
Given the consensus of journalists and reporters that amounts to general approval of the novelists’ dismal portrayals, as well as Hitchens’s own praise of these accounts, he seems to follow that answer, albeit implicitly, with a resigned but good-natured, “For good reason.”
In any case, after over a decade of living the life to be expected of an outstanding London journalist, which included traveling from one treacherous war zone to another, as well as dating Anna Wintour, Hitchens moved to America, settling in Washington D.C. In the States he continued with essentially the same program, (with the rather large exceptions of marriage and children.) He is notorious for his drinking, though every account of his putting away bottle after bottle seems to include a line to the effect that he never once slurs a word. His friend Christopher Buckley told 60 minutes of a particularly taxing ‘lunch’ after which he “would have gladly checked myself in to the nearest hospital to have oxygen blood and extensive liver work. I think he [Hitchens] went home and wrote an essay on Orwell.” But even the prodigiousness of his drinking falls short of his penchant for argument, hence this collection’s title.
It is obvious that Hitchens is most comfortable as a polemicist. His argumentation, though engaging and persuasive when in the affirmative, seems to be specifically designed to be against a given motion. Though he bears no true resemblance to the original defender of reason, he is able to summon a nearly Socratic incision with which he regularly cuts down the fundamental logical flaws in his opponent’s assertions, or else strips a lauded public figure of undeserved decoration. He has famously attacked Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton, and Arguably provides a similar bevy of indignant and morally outraged assaults. One such destruction of confidence in an established figure takes the form of “From Abbottabad to Worse,” from July 2011’s Vanity Fair, a publication to which he is a long-time contributing editor. To whom does Hitchens now address his scorn? None other than the government that so often gets a free pass from Western critical thought, Pakistan. He begins, as he often does, by taking not the political, but the cultural bent. In Pakistan, Hitchens writes:
[I]s a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame— which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.
If the most elemental of human instincts becomes warped in this bizarre manner, other morbid symptoms will disclose themselves as well. Thus, President Asif Ali Zardari cringes daily in front of the forces who openly murdered his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who then contemptuously ordered the crime scene cleansed with fire hoses, as if to spit even on the pretense of an investigation.
The swift introduction of a political figure into the cultural point is significant, as he considers the two inseparable, often citing the war against Islamic jihad as a war between civilization (note the lack of the qualifier, western) and barbarism. It may not come as a surprise to the more worldly of us that the American connection to Pakistan is a shady and unreliable one, unworthy of even being called an alliance, but to the majority of the populace this is not obvious, and Hitchens’s method of relying on common-sense morality and cultural pride is effective and admirable. He mentions India in this piece; in order to make his point he could have put a greater emphasis on the superlatives of that culture and shifted public opinion away from Pakistan with great effect. But his is the ability to cut away and leave the only viable option standing, and he knows it.
Though his strengths are many, his flaws are as striking. This is most evident in his best-known work, god is not Great and in most of his debates on religion. The book itself is marvelously entertaining and does, despite many claims from detractors to the contrary, contain serious points that make up the bulk of his substantial argument. However, one cannot help but squirm and wince when, after an anecdote telling of Pierre Simon Laplace’s encounter with Napoleon, he calls Nietzsche’s famous claim that ‘God is dead,’ ‘histrionic and self-contradictory.’ ‘Nietzsche could no more have known this,’ he goes on, ‘or made the assumption that god have ever been alive, than any priest or witchdoctor could ever declare that he knew god’s will.’ Does Hitchens really think that Nietzsche’s point was simply to say that the literal God is literally dead? Hitchens follows this with a perfectly good point regarding liberation from what he scathingly calls ‘god-worship’ being contained in its becoming optional, but the sting of embarrassment and disbelief that such a stupid remark leaves lingers. To mock and dismiss the best prophet the 20th century ever had in such a nonsensical way is far beneath one who claims and (take note) has demonstrated an earnest appreciation of learning. This is the field in which he slips: that of the purely theoretical thinker. Hitchens is, to begin and end, a man of action and of thought for the world. In his occasional forays into the life of the mind, he has shown himself not so much as incapable but rather ill-equipped. Forty years out of Oxford, one wonders how much of the categorical imperative, which he references in February 2004’s “I Fought the Law,” he could really dig in to.
But these slips, as one can see, occur in other works, and it is difficult to find clear examples of them in the works which make up Arguably. Hitchens seems to have reached full maturity, and though his commentaries are to a large extent informed by political and social thinkers of the highest order, from Machiavelli to Marx, he is aware that they merely inform, and do not control, what he has to say. Take his contribution to April 2010’s Vanity Fair. In “The New Commandments,” he sets his sights on the omnipresent Decalogue and aims to tear the majority of them down. The bulk of the piece is spent between irony and increasingly barbed stings, but the crescendo is as morally-driven as could be imagined:
Do not condemn people on the basis of their ethnicity or color.
Do not ever use people as private property. Despise those who
use violence or the threat of it in sexual relations. Hide your face
and weep if you dare to harm a child. Do not condemn people for
their inborn nature—why would God create so many homosexuals
only in order to torture and destroy them? Be aware that you too
are an animal and dependent on the web of nature, and think and
act accordingly. Do not imagine that you can escape judgement
if you rob people with a false prospectus rather than with a knife.
Turn off that fucking cell phone—you have no idea how unimportant
your call is to us. Denounce all jihadists and crusaders for what they
are: psychopathic criminals with ugly delusions. Be willing to renounce
any god or any religion if any holy commandments should contradict
any of the above. In short: Do not swallow your moral code in tablet
Morally-driven? Yes. Philosophically rooted? It could easily be argued, yes. Persuasive in its execution? I should hope everyone would agree, yes. But what of that injunction against cell phones? He is serious. Turn it off. But why does he put it between injunctions against child abuse, sexual violence and holy crusades? He does so because he is not doing philosophy; he is doing what he can to affect the lives of his readers directly, and he knows better than most that what is important in life more than nearly anything else is humor. His introduction to the book includes the line “The people who must never have power are the humorless.” I second that, though I would amend it to add a necessary ‘again.’
After several years of mainstream popularity bordering on super-stardom, during which he has made many of his boldest claims, Hitchens presents us with a side that does not make it into his most well-known television appearances, which is precisely his love for the less practical. Sections 2 and 3, called “Eclectic Affinities” and “Amusements, Annoyances and Disappointments,” are comprised of delighted essays on subjects as varied as biographies on his favorite writers from Wodehouse to Larken, to the inexcusable rudeness of wine waiters, to the exact reasons why women are not funny. Even in these light pieces, his thirst for confrontation shines through, and we should enjoy someone taking the time and risking the ridiculous to talk about them.
It is rare to find a writer in 2011 whose works so often contain a phrase one reads and wishes to have written it oneself. He begins his scathing essay on post-9/11 Gore Vidal by remembering what made Vidal a genius in the first, longer part of his career, writing, ‘Like Wilde, Gore Vidal combined tough-mindedness with subversive wit […] and had the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones.’ The first facet of this ability is well-known and frequently employed, but it takes the likes of Wilde, Vidal and Hitchens to know and explore the latter. ‘A Very, Very Dirty Word,’ the final selection in the book, is just one case of Hitchens reveling in his seriousness about an amusing thing. One can see his smirk of glee as he writes:
“Fuck you” or “Go fuck yourself” — the popular American form — lacks this transitive/intransitive element to some degree. At points, it even seems to confuse the act of sexual intercourse with an act of aggression: a regrettable overlap to be sure.
In this case, he inserts a serious point (forgive me) into an otherwise quite amusing passage. It all remains amusing while leaving the seriousness intact and vice versa. A rare gift, indeed.
It would, perhaps, be easy to suggest that Hitchens was born in the wrong time, when such virtuosity and talent is held not by a large class of high-minded thinkers, but by a select few always in danger of dwindling further. But this, for all that has been said about the man, has never to my knowledge been put forward by the talk show hosts and ‘news’ anchors who seem never to tire of discussing him, and whose primary concern is easy sentiment. It is quite clear that that he is absolutely a man for our time, not in that he embodies it, but rather that he is one of the antidotes to its many ills. From Sarajevo to Baghdad to D.C., and in his newest endeavor against aggressive esophageal cancer, Hitchens has brought to bear strong conscience, clear vision and the ability to say often exactly what is necessary. Yes, he has his philosophical and intellectual flaws, and these are to be taken seriously, but that is an argument I’d prefer to have with him.
Jack Hanson is a student of Literature and Philosophy at Suffolk University. This is his first piece for Open Letters Monthly.