Write, Repeat Redux
By Christopher Hitchens
In reviewing Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, I mentioned the author’s tendency to reuse material from his earlier essays and books. I subsequently took a closer look at such authorial self-quotation and self-paraphrase, taking Hitchens as a primary example but putting his habit in the context of critics, journalists, novelists, poets and scholars who share it. I didn’t scrutinize the practice in order to condemn it. Indeed, I outlined several perfectly valid rhetorical purposes for repetition with variation, such as unrelenting commitment to positions in ongoing public debates. (“I’ve read that before” would amount to an anemic, if not cretinous, rebuttal to arguments in favor of free speech, to name one of Hitchens’s frequently selected topics.) Further, repetition itself can have legitimate artistic uses. Further still, revision cannot be separated from the writing process: Some writers rehearse in private, before their work is published; others issue successive public drafts, with emendations, modifications and refinements accumulating over time.
While I stand by my defense of repetition, I also acknowledge that frequent revisiting can be overdone, and some readers familiar with his shtick might think Hitchens reached its justifiable limits with Hitch-22, his 2010 copy-and-paste memoir. In his introduction to A Long Short War (2003), Hitchens declares: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, I want to begin by saying that I have tried for much of my life to write as if I was composing my sentences to be read posthumously.” Certainly nothing silly inheres in such a sentiment: Writers want to be read – even after they’re dead. But Hitch-22 certainly makes one wonder if he considered the effect reading his collected work would have, as page after page bore the same arguments, examples, and episodes. In some instances, “I’ve read that before” is a legitimate complaint. Cyril Connolly imagined hell as “a place where one is made to listen to everything one has ever said,” but Hitchens might find paradise in such a fate.
With his ceaseless returning to familiar territory, Hitchens can claim membership in a distinguished club of literary repeaters. Observing his subject’s many tales and novels sharing plot elements and ideas, biographer John Stape says Joseph Conrad habitually “circled round and variously tried out his material.” When Philip Larkin committed the kind of self-plagiarisms that W.H Auden dubbed “forgeries,” he did not so much repeat ideas as he “reinforced or deepened” them, at least in the estimation of Clive James (who in multiple essays notes Larkin’s ability to make despair beautiful) J.M. Coetzee describes William Faulkner as “an extraordinarily tenacious reviser of his own work” and traces the process: “Revisited and reconceived and reworked, material that made its first appearance in The Saturday Evening Post or The Woman’s Home Companion resurfaced transmogrified in The Unvanquished (1938), The Hamlet (1940), and Go Down, Moses (1942), books that straddle the line between story collection and novel proper.” Using a similar method, Hitchens repurposes pieces from Slate and Vanity Fair in books that blend elements of autobiography and polemic.
Overlap between A Long Short War, an assemblage primarily of Slate essays, and Hitch-22 illustrates the point. In what he considers a pamphlet on the liberation of Iraq, Hitchens tells the story of an American soldier whose family had fled Burma for “a new life in Brooklyn” and who while in Baghdad draped an United States flag over a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. Hitchens also appends it as a footnote in the portion of his memoir that recounts his own “new life” as an American citizen. The same chapter of Hitch-22 also reprises his memories of September 11, 2001 – right down to the particulars of who was in attendance at a speech he gave the day before about a lawsuit against Henry Kissinger and what his wife told him over the phone the next morning. It’s in A Long Short War, although in the earlier version he paraphrases his spouse’s comment about why the date will be remembered; in the memoir he attributes an actual quotation to her.
The inclusion of authenticating details is typical of other frequently polished parts of Hitchens’s repertoire. When he writes in Hitch-22 of meeting his literary hero Jorge Luis Borges, Hitchens includes the address of the author’s apartment in Buenos Aires and records his concise assessment of writers such as Rudyard Kipling (“Unappreciated because too many of his peers were socialists.”) He does exactly the same thing in an Atlantic book review reprinted in Love, Poverty, and War (2004), although there the line about Kipling differs somewhat.
Hitchens frequently inserts himself into reviews and essays about other people, and he brings these bits together in Hitch-22. He condenses into a paragraph the event of his being asked by the Vatican to testify regarding the prospective beatification of Mother Teresa and even reworks a line about representing the Devil pro bono that he’d dropped into God Is Not Great. The author of The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995) resurrects the incident in Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001) and offers a more detailed version in Love, Poverty, and War, which contains a piece that first appeared in Vanity Fair, as did substantial portion of the memoir’s recycled prose. Much of the chapter on his friendship with Salman Rushdie, for instance, can be found in “Assassins of the Mind” from the February 2009 issue, including the bit on a game for giving Robert Ludlum-style titles to works by Shakespeare. Rushdie excelled at this, quickly coming up with The Kerchief Implication for Othello, The Elsinore Vacillation for Hamlet, and so on. And, of course, Hitchens covered the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death several times before in essays gathered in For the Sake of Argument (1993), Unacknowledged Legislation (2000) as well as in Letters to a Young Contrarian and God Is Not Great. The fatwa outrage, by offering undeniable evidence the of threat religious fanaticism poses to unfettered thought and to civilization itself, affords Hitchens an opportunity to state his principles by listing what he hates (“dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation”) and what he loves (“literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression”). He says virtually the same thing in the book he wrote immediately before Hitch-22. The chapter on Iraq ends with a very personal postscript that first appeared as a magazine column (and is the sole section of Hitch-22 with its prior appearance noted on the copyright page). Parts of his experiences in Cuba in 1968, including an anecdote about film director Santiago Alvarez, can be found in both Letters and Hitch-22. Indeed, he pads the memoir with stuffing from Letters. He reports dislike for the “contrarian” label and says he ridiculed it in the book that has the word in his title. In Letters, he considers the unsatisfying alternatives to the “embarrassing” label:
The noble title of “dissident” must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement, and it has been consecrated by many exemplary and courageous men and women…. Our remaining expressions – “maverick,” “loose cannon,” “rebel,” “angry young man,” “gadfly” – are all slightly affectionate and are, perhaps for that reason, somewhat condescending…. [W]e can find numberless self-congratulatory memoirs, with generic titles such as Against the Stream, or Against the Current.
He then proceeds in Hitch-22 to rearrange the same objections he’d already made.
It is actually a pity that our culture doesn’t have a good vernacular word for an oppositionist or even for someone who tries to do his own thinking: the word “dissident” can’t be self-conferred because it is really a title of honor that has to be won or earned, while terms like “gadfly” or “maverick” are somehow trivial and condescending as well as over-full of self-regard. And I’ve lost count of the number of memoirs by old comrades or ex-comrades that have titles like “Against the Stream,” “Against the Current, “Minority of One,” “Breaking Ranks” and so forth….
And so it goes in the search for a self-conferrable name with just the right amount of self-regard.
Despite appearances suggesting otherwise, I did not undertake a rigorous search for instances of Hitchens’s public reworking of his own prose. They simply present themselves. In the same week that I read Hitch-22 I also saw his Slate column on the Icelandic volcanic eruption (April 19, 2010), where he refers to an earlier dispute with Britain over fishing rights and mentions the water’s sulphur smell, which he also does in a chapter in the memoir about his propensity for taking refuge in travel. In Hitch-22, he quotes his friend Colin MacCabe telling him that “it looks as if your pal Orwell was on to something after all,” following Deng Xiaoping’s announcement that economic reforms in China “would mean all would get richer but some would get richer than others.” He uses the same episode and line in a retrospective on Animal Farm for The Guardian (April 17, 2010). The latter example simultaneously displays two hallmarks of Hitchens’s mode of repetition: the reuse of other people’s lines as well as his own and the frequent reliance on certain admired authors, especially George Orwell.
Appreciation of a good line is one indication of a fine mind, and Hitchens wishes to advertise his connoisseurship. “There is not less wit nor less invention in applying rightly a thought one finds in a book, than in being the first author of that thought,” writes Pierre Bayle, and Hitchens would seem to agree, since he preserves the same witty thoughts of others in several of his books. When restating his objections to being called a “contrarian,” Hitchens uses a Harold Rosenberg quote in both Letters to a Young Contrarian and Hitch-22. In the same chapter of the latter he also uses the identical quotes from Theodor Adorno and an unnamed Teamster official that he put in Letters to make, yet again, the same point about the unreliability of self-definition. In his memoir 2000 Experience, Martin Amis says of a certain reviewer, “by calling him humourless, I mean to impugn his seriousness.” Hitchens paraphrases the remark in both Letters and Hitch-22, and I admit to having multiple occasions for using it too. (At least partial credit for the insight probably should go to fellow scribbler Clive James, who writes in a 1981 essay: “There is a level of seriousness which only those capable of humour can reach.”)
While Hitchens writes at some length about Amis (and mentions James), perhaps no name appears more frequently in Hitch-22 than Orwell’s. He (perhaps unavoidably) refers to Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys” when making his contribution to the obese body of writing on British boarding schools. He recalls the large impact Orwell made on him upon first reading. He explains how a certain passage of Orwell’s came to mind soon after September 11. (He presents the same memory, and the Orwell quote, in a December 2001 Vanity Fair piece.) And he imparts what he takes as Orwell’s essential lesson, as he has done many times. He concludes Why Orwell Matters (2002) by asserting that “it matters not what you think, but how you think.” He says this again in God Is Not Great and more than once in Hitch-22.
Hitchens’s use of MacCabe’s remark about China’s resemblance to a pigs’ dictatorship typifies two characteristic maneuvers, but it also embodies a third (perfectly understandable, generically appropriate) move made again and again in the memoir: the “my friend” locution attached to the names of various worthies. (At times he goes some distance out of the way in order to namedrop, as when he notes his pal Ian McEwan’s talent for finding and befriending elusive figures like Thomas Pynchon and Milan Kundera or when he mentions attending a meeting near the home of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.) If I may indulge in a bit of this myself: Before I received a copy of Hitch-22 arrived, my friend the poet and painter Jack Rapp asked me what I thought of Hitchens’s unfriendly disparagement of Gore Vidal in Vanity Fair (February 2010). After taking a look at it, I said I shared Hitchens’s disdain for Vidal’s crackpot theories about George W. Bush having a hand in the September 2001 assaults on New York City and Washington DC and about Franklin D. Roosevelt instigating the Pearl Harbor attack but I couldn’t immediately see why Hitchens was rehashing them. Perhaps I should have foreseen that he was extending his trademark recycling effort, reconfiguring his own work and carrying on old spats. He leaves the impression of having uncovered passable material for magazine columns while looking over his life story. In the section of Hitch-22 where he revisits Vidal’s conspiracy fantasies, Hitchens also quotes Vanity Fair and Nation pieces that he openly names, rather than following his standard procedure of rewording with no explicit indication that he’s said the same thing elsewhere.
Given what I believe I’ve demonstrated to be Hitchens’s characteristic tendency to circle around the same ideas and to reuse the same lines, the most startling moment in his autobiography comes with his disingenuous statement that he rarely writes about himself. When discussing his research into his Jewish lineage, which he’d been unaware of until adulthood, he quotes an earlier piece he’d written about the discovery that he calls his “only excursion into memoir” prior to Hitch-22. I can say without fear of contradiction that he has made a few more such trips. When previously surveying his writerly recycling, I wrote, “I did not compile these examples to suggest that Hitchens has dined out on the same material for decades,” but Hitch-22 made me start to wonder. I do not repine or blurt “Enough,” however, since it looks like I’ve pulled my chair up to a table in the same restaurant, where the menu seldom changes.
John G. Rodwan, Jr., is the author of Fighters & Writers, a collection of essays. He lives in Portland, Oregon.