The late Christopher Hitchens

Issue: 134
Posted: 27 March 12

Richard Seymour

A review of Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (Atlantic, 2010), £9.99

Given Hitchens’s political inconsistencies, Hitch-22 is better than it ought to be, a fact which is a consequence of his undeniable talent A petty bourgeois individualist, in his last years Hitchens identified with no tendency other than his own, and could be found defending his former radicalism even as he embraced imperialism and American nationalism. A Mugwump who occasionally masqueraded as a “Marxist”, he was, as Terry Eagleton put it, in some ways “a reactionary English patrician, in other ways a closet Thatcherite, and in yet other ways a right-leaning liberal”. These characteristics, always active elements in his political personality, were dominant in his later years.

The strength of Hitch-22 is that it makes a serious effort to recall how it felt to be a different kind of person, to feel otherwise about the world, without trying to repudiate it. The weakness of Hitch-22 is that where it does attempt to resolve the amassing contradictions of Hitchens’s persona, it is largely through solipsistic devices of the kind “I would have suspected myself more if…” and “I wasn’t about to be told…”. The resulting memoir is an alternately riveting and sickening tribute to the late author’s narcissism.

“Navy brat”

“’If there is going to be an upper class in this country,’ she stated with decision, ‘then Christopher is going to be in it’.” Hitchens’s mother, Yvonne, to whom he was closer than anyone in the world, thus decided his path of advancement. This sets the tone, allowing the reader to interpret Hitchens’s peculiar personality through the prism of his parents. Yvonne is touchingly commemorated. A petty bourgeois Liverpudlian who was fond of wit as well as booze and fags, a woman of liberal, humanitarian politics, she was “the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes”. “The one unforgivable sin”, she occasionally remarked with Wildean disdain, “is to be boring.”

Regrettably, it was his father, Eric, who “bored her”. A stoic commander in the British navy and a Tory with—Hitchens fondly remembers—nothing to be Tory about, he was “a very good man and a worthy and honest and hard-working one”. But his mother wanted the metropolis, cocktails and good conversation. She fell in love with a former Church of England minister named Timothy who had “seen through organised religion”, only to fall under the influence of the “sinister windbag” Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. With her new love, she eventually moved to Greece, which was then in tumult as a disintegrating military junta struggled to retain power. For reasons which are unclear, she formed a suicide pact with Timothy, and was found dead in her hotel room. Although Eric, remembered with the sobriquet “the commander”, is less emotively depicted than Yvonne, he is a powerful and recurring presence in Hitchens’s life. Disappointed to find that he is not cut out to be a soldier, the matter of his courage—mental and physical—returns as a habitual concern. So too do the blimpishness and instinctive reaction. Eric “helped me understand the Tory mentality, all the better to combat it and repudiate it”, he insists. But the repudiation was only partial. When the Falklands were invaded by the Argentinian dictatorship, Hitchens found himself outraged at the offence to British power—a “fuckin’ diabolical liberty”, as a friend of his expostulated—only to be disappointed by his father’s lack of bloodlust. Hitchens admitted to having been disappointed on discovering that the limits of his physical courage ruled out a life of military service. Like many who wished they had fought a war, he expended his military passion through verbal bravado: “I will take some of these people out before I die,” as his wife Carol Blue summarised the posture. But this background was also responsible for some of Hitchens’s insights. When he so sensitively diagnosed the “John Bullshit” that he found in Larkin’s poems and detected at the base of Thatcherism, it was a diagnosis based on acute, instinctive recognition.

“Hypocritchens”

The mildly amusing nickname that Hitchens’s friends and comrades at Oxford gave him does not feature in these memoirs. But the “double life” that it alludes to, the keeping of two sets of books, is treated in lavish detail. It is seen as a virtue, a creative, “dialectical” spark. Hitchens began his life as a socialist while at a private school in Cambridge. A supporter of CND and of the Labour Party, he was articulate early on. He read avidly and widely, but seems to have had a preference early on for literary fiction over, for example, the social sciences, for which he had no aptitude.

It was while studying for his degree at Balliol College, Oxford, however, that his talent as an orator was spotted. He rapidly became, next to Michael Rosen, the “second most famous person” in the university. He claims to have bedded a number of future ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet and learned early on the secret of Bill Clinton’s not having “inhaled” when he tried cannabis (he ate it in cake form). However, the most polished passages here, as with most of Hitch-22, are not the insights, gossip or warmly remembered friendships with the likes of the poet James Fenton—like
Hitchens, then a member of the International Socialists (IS, predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party). Rather, they are those in which the author summons with wit and gravity the indignation of his political youth. To those who want to condescend to this indignation, he tartly retorts that “you should have fucking well been there and felt it for yourself”.

Hitchens’s memories of this period in his life cannot always be relied upon. For example, it is not true that he befriended Tariq Ali in this period. (There is surprisingly little on this friendship as it did emerge.) Nor is it correct that Michael Rosen was a Stalinist or even an “ex-Stalinist” when Hitchens met him at Oxford.

In general, however, Hitchens tends to err on the side of heroically romanticising his past and the figures in it. He recalls Peter Sedgwick, who recruited him to the “post-Trotskyist” IS, with genuine warmth. The same is true of his reminiscences of CLR James. Yet here he describes not exactly political animals but omni-talented gurus whose like has not been seen since. This slightly maudlin portrayal is the obverse of the later demonology, which finds the left, and especially the far left, in league with “Islamic fascism”.

Despite Hitchens’s openness about his taste for riches, and rich people, this memoir does have a tendency to protest too much. Thus, when he meets and greets the military dictator General Jorge Videla in Argentina in 1977, he assures the reader that he was “swallowing vomit”. Meeting George HW Bush at a wedding in 1984, he says he was advising the then vice-president to “leave Nicaragua alone”. In neither case does he look like he’s doing anything but politely kissing ass. He is perhaps more honest when describing a meeting with the ageing fascist Oswald Mosley. “Somehow I found I was putting out my own hand first and saying: Sir Oswald, how very good of you to come. In what seemed a volitionless state, I then conducted him to the hospitality suite and poured him a drink.” This seems more like it. It is fortunate that, during his brief excitement over Saddam Hussein (“the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser”1—this isn’t mentioned in Hitch-22) he did not actually end up meeting the dictator. A picture of the two locked in a handshake, grinning broadly, with a caption reading “Telling Saddam to leave the Kurds alone”, would be too much to take.2

Though attracted to Ba’athism, it seems that Hitchens grew weary of the revolutionary left. He had left the IS, citing the latter’s support for a “dictatorship of the proletariat” during the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-5, and was a member of the Labour Party by 1975. But even Labour was not as homely for a rising journalist as he might have hoped. By 1979, as the Thatcherites were on the precipice of power, Hitchens was evidently exhausted by both the revolutionary and reformist left. As his career advanced, he was increasingly embarrassed to be caught in the company of his old comrades. Having left the IS, and having briefly joined Labour, he now resented the “tax-funded statism” of the old consensus, as much as the union bureaucracy and the Labour right. Hitchens later confessed to being physically unable to vote for Labour in 1979, and to having realised that this was because he wanted Thatcher to win. He admired her determination to take on the stale, post-war consensus. He also admired, as he didn’t tire of repeating, her femininity, and was left giddily intoxicated by an encounter with the iron one that ended with her spanking his rear with a parchment. Was Hitchens, as he once said of Byron, “intimately aware of the relationship between sex and cruelty”? At any rate, he was on the brink of abandoning the small, wet, defeated islands of the United Kingdom, making off for the United States—a surrogate patria as far as Hitchens was concerned, and a more promising prospect for a talented writer.

Anglo-American ironies

Hitchens’s fascination with the United States is traceable to his earliest childhood. The elemental psychic fuel of this enthralment is formed by memories of brash, grinning Americans “over here”—”so large, so friendly, and so rich”. America seemed “either too modern”, without history, or “simply too premodern” with its barren frontiers, “at once the most conservative and commercial AND the most revolutionary society on earth”. For a provincial Englander it was also vast in promise. Along with his belatedly discovered Jewish heritage, his American self formed part of a compound identity for Hitchens—one sufficiently singular as to distinguish him among peers, but not so exotic as to be a career impediment.

Throughout his years at Oxford he had known Americans and yearned to know America. He had watched the moon landing, yawped with delight when the stars and stripes were placed on the “silvery orb” and thrilled with what in retrospect he realised was a “latent” American patriotism. At Balliol he applied for a scholarship to visit the United States. This experience gave him “a sharply new picture of life in the United States”. He saw New York City, “redolent of sex”, the women of Chicago “en fête” at a feminist rally in all their “bird-of-paradise variety”, and found San Francisco’s Bay Area “seductive”. American girls were “more…forward”. The whole country was humming with activity, and it seemed “a state of affairs worth fighting for, or at least fighting over”. He returned repeatedly. Finally, in October 1981, he left Heathrow with a one-way ticket to New York, the promise of a flat, and a potential job at The Nation magazine.

In his early years in America, Hitchens seemed to have moved slightly to the left. Barring the brief expostulation of patriotic bullishness over the Falklands (and even here Hitch-22 tries to spin it as a stance against the death squad mandarins of the Reagan administration), he was a socialist in a country where it was radical enough to be liberal. Some of this may owe itself to his milieu, particularly his initial dependence on friends such as Alexander Cockburn for his entrée to the New York scene. Yet Cockburn barely merits a mention in this memoir. This reticence on Hitchens’s part is not the last such hesitation in the book. In this case, I would venture that it is because Cockburn has a monopoly on the embarrassing gossip from that period.

Still, his latent patriotism would express itself in early tributes to Thomas Paine or vile little passages in which he lauded the accomplishments of America’s war against the Native Americans. If he was initially brisk with Bush Senior’s war on Iraq, he soon thought better of it. By the early 1990s he was on the side of “humanitarian intervention” and had already implicitly formed the view, later expressed openly, that America was the last bastion of progress in the post-Soviet world. This sort of vulgar-mechanistic progressivism is one of the things that Hitchens usually meant by “Marxism”.

Yet he was at his most American, as it were, when channelling his English self, whether in the form of his Orwellian reflections
(“My Country Right or Left”), or in the form of the “Churchillian bluster” that he scorned during Desert Storm, but which was his signature tune after 9/11.3 His nationalism at the end was consuming, and he complained bitterly that the left had never thought America “a good idea to begin with”. They were, in a word, anti-American—and in Hitchens’s new political universe this was the root of almost all evil.

Right turn

The moments punctuating Hitchens’s shift to the right are well known: the Rushdie affair, which alienated him from sections of the left; the feud with Clinton, which saw him ally with the hard right; Bosnia, which drew him into an alliance with the neoconservatives; and 9/11, after which he supported and voted for the Bush administration. Yet any reader of Hitch-22 would have to fill in many gaps surrounding these issues. Moreover, despite this being Hitchens’s most intensely personal book, he suddenly lacks personal insight where it would be most called for.

For example, a strange lacuna exists where there ought to be discussion of Sidney Blumenthal, the friend—indeed, the “cousin”, as he dubbed him at one time due to their supposed familial connection—who he betrayed to House Republicans anxious to impeach Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. This is certainly curious, since this very public detonation of their friendship signalled a key moment among Hitchens’s many flirtations with the hard right, for which he was rewarded with publicity that can’t be bought. Two subjects that are given a thorough airing are the Rushdie affair and Bosnia. In both of these “struggles”, Hitchens found himself in opposition to many of his friends on the left. The Rushdie affair provided an early apprehension of the left’s supposed flirtation with a treacherous cultural relativism: the “whining” and “excuse-making” had already begun. Some of the specific criticisms of individuals are fair, but Hitchens’s tendency to idealise his subject made him impatient with anyone not immediately as smitten as he was with Rushdie, or as single-mindedly focused on the latter’s defence. The philosopher Michael Dummett, a liberal anti-racist, is thus belaboured in absurdly hyperbolic terms as a member of the “multi-culti”, “postmodern” left “somehow in league with political Islam”. His offence was that he criticised The Satanic Verses on the grounds that it had provided a focus for rising anti-Muslim racism—a problem that Hitchens denied was even conceptually possible. Thus an opportunity to subject Dummett’s position to more testing criticism is squandered.

The Bosnian War is written in a similarly moonstruck fashion, as Hitchens lavishes praise on a leadership of nationalist gangsters, choosing to ignore the fact that so-called “Al Qaida” mercenaries fought on their side. He was Orwell again, fighting (in spirit if not body) with the anti-fascists
in a modern Spanish Civil War. Once again he judged this viscerally, and reacted with petulant hostility to anyone who did not subscribe to this romantic view of plucky little Bosnia. Here, in addition to a defeatist relativism, the left also stood indicted for reflex anti-Americanism, while the neoconservatives he had expected to “perish” after the Cold War were suddenly on the right side of history.

Exhilaration

When the World Trade Centre was flattened, Hitchens was given a new political purpose. Having previously declared the game of socialism to be concluded, he was resigned to writing literary essays. Upon learning of the September massacre, he later confessed, he felt “exhilaration” over the prospect of “a fight to the death” between “everything I love and everything I hate”: “a whole new terrain of struggle had just opened up in front of me.”

Sadly, the passages on the “war on terror” are haranguing rather than enlightening. The ironist gives way to the sentimentalist, and the whole ensuing sequence is characterised by mawkishness, spite and bar-fly pugnacity. The lines have become wearisomely predictable. “I wasn’t about to be told”, he begins his stern reprimand, “that the people of the United States…had in any sense deserved this.” In truth, this is exactly what he wished to be told, because it was the one argument against which he had an array of chloroform retorts. Here memoir morphs into self-aggrandising fantasy, Hitchens into John Bullshit.

The raving about “Islamofascism”, the thought of what various native “riffraff” may be doing on the “frontiers”, served to bind him to his adopted home and its paternal state all the more: “thank whatever powers there may be for the power of the United States of America. Without that reserve strength, the sheer mass of its arsenal in combination with the innovative manoeuvres of its special forces, the tyrants and riffraff of the world would soon possess an undeserved sense of impunity.” The libidinally charged and morbid obsession with the “sadistic” and the irrational, which he saw only in America’s enemies, allowed him to almost blot out the evidence of crimes which he had energetically facilitated. “Nothing that I have witnessed since, including Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and various scenes in Afghanistan and Iraq, has erased those initial images” of 11 September, Hitch-22 avers.

There is, amid all this, a lamentable chapter on his friendship with the late Edward Saïd, which ended with Hitchens attacking Saïd in print while the latter was on his death bed. Here he parades his intellectual prejudices and limitations as proudly as any boor. Saïd wrote about English literature, he complains, in the language of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism”. It is fair to say that Hitchens never had the slightest idea what either term referred to. Certainly his own attempts to summarise “postmodernism”, as in Orwell’s Victory, have been pitiful. Similarly, his bafflement over the concept of “Orientalism” serves a political agenda, but one senses that it and the resentment that it generates are absolutely genuine.

This is not to say that the profile of Saïd is simply a hatchet job. It is in many respects a loving portrait. But with wearying predictability, it rapidly gets to the point of alleging that Saïd was anti-American and illustrating this with tedious caricature. The attack on Saïd confirmed him in his new political direction, inasmuch as it signalled that he would no longer write the kinds of things about Palestine that he once had. When Israel’s armies marched he would, from then on, be “Blaming The Victims”. Hitchens soon found himself consorting with the New Leftist turned witch-hunter David Horowitz, writing for neoconservative publications and sounding the disgrace notes of alarmism about Islam and its demographic threat to Europe. By such means he was inducted into the caste of the empire’s scribes. He was finally sworn in as an American citizen in 2007 by that greatest of all American citizens, Bush’s secretary of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. This imperishable moment, which had been a lifetime in the making, is commemorated on a picture plate.

The sentimentalist

It is fair to say that Hitchens judged his targets in highly personal terms. Whether it was Bill Clinton or George Galloway, his foil had to be shown as an out and out unprincipled, mediocre, physically unappealing mountebank. He would not fare well if those standards were applied to him. Nor would he have done, even before he wound up spinning for President Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, Ahmed Chalabi and so on, until he had No One Left To Lie For. But the point is how viscerally he thought and communicated.

This leads me to my conclusion, which is that Hitchens, for all his ostensible rationalism, was a purveyor of finely honed sentiment. He was devastatingly good at emotionally potent oversimplification, which made him an effective demagogue at times. But it is also responsible for some of his worst writing. It is one thing to write affectingly of a now fragmented labour movement—”men and women, warriors for the working day, who had survived mass unemployment and slum housing and bitter exploitation”—or of Europe’s pantheon of socialists—”The names of real heroes like Jean Jaurès and Karl Liebknecht make the figures of Asquith and Churchill and Lloyd George seem like pygmies.” This heroic style is somewhat less impressive when it is so clearly self-serving, as in his evocation of the near-forgotten figure of the “American proletariat” busting every sinew to clear the rubble at ground zero.

But when the object of this passion is the author himself, the tragic becomes not farcical but emetic. The lowest point in Hitch-22 comes when the author regurgitates the tale of Mark Daily, a young American who read Hitchens’s articles, was tragically taken in by the macho swagger, and went off to his death in Iraq as a US soldier. It is not the unabashed emotionality of this sequence that makes it so indigestible. It is that even in this pathetic moment Hitchens finds no occasion for any but the shallowest of reflection. He dissolves all the contradictions of his posturing—the “Marxist” who can’t say no to Paul Wolfowitz, the “anti-imperialist” who supports empire in its “Jeffersonian” capacity—in the ensuing catharsis, and never looks back or recants.

Never fond of the dictum that “the personal is political”, Hitchens nonetheless held others to it, and lived it, gratuitously, to the bitter end.


Notes

1: Hitchens, 1976.

2: In fact, he did visit Iraq during this period, posing in front of what he told the Guardian was “an atheist banner”. As Hitch-22 acknowledges, though, the banner actually commemorated the July “revolution” that brought the Ba’ath Party to power.

3: This is directed at Noam Chomsky, whose infrequent mentions in Hitch-22 tend to be unflattering thumbnail sketches (“atonal” being one of the most damning of Hitchens’s adjectives).


Reference

Hitchens, Christopher, 1976, “Iraq Flexes Arab Muscle”, New Statesman (2 April),
www.newstatesman.com/society/2007/07/iraq-arab-saddam-iran-hitchens