Christopher Hitchens is hard to get a handle on. The same people who gleefully forward me his scathing review of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 would of course be aghast at his most controversial book, God is Not Great; similarly, those who would cheer No One Left to Lie To: the triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton wouldn’t likely appreciate The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice1. A man who for many years called himself a socialist and or a Trotskyist, Hitchens now finds himself largely decamped from the Left, operating in some vague political DMZ, his politics both hawkish and liberal.
Whether correct or not (most people find at least something about which to disagree with “Hitch”), it would be unfair at least to say that the man is uninteresting, not simply for his intriguing mix of ideas, but for the rather storied life he’s led—even moreso than I was aware. In latter days, he’s become something of a darling of the pro-liberation crowd with respect to Iraq; he’s a frequent contributor to Fox News, though I imagine he finds most of their bobble-head commentators to be irritating and boorish; simultaneously, he’s come to be a leading voice in anti-theist rhetoric (certainly, his lecture schedule has borne that out). But, in fact, I think Hitchens as political polemicist unfairly impinges upon Hitchens as a literary critic and even, oddly enough, Hitchens as a travel writer.
Given how generally well-spoken and well-read Hitchens is, it should come as no surprise that he was something of a nerdy boy, excelling at the private English boarding school to which his parents sent him2. It will be a surprise to those who only know the pro-war latter-day Hitchens to know that he spent most of his life being a card-carrying socialist, getting arrested at rallies, demonstrating against dictators, and generally doing the things that insufferable and indispensable young activists do. It was also a trifle surprising to learn that Hitchens is or was bisexual—or at least took part in homosexual sex up through his college years. Ever the understated Brit when it comes to himself3, he never comes out and says this, but it’s clear enough that it’s so. Of the many other stridently homosexual writers that Hitchens knows, he is perhaps the most vocal of Gore Vidal (“massive old darling” that he is).
Rather than stick to a strictly chronological progression, Hitchens divides his chapters by subject, ordered more or less by their order of occurrence. His childhood passes quickly, and I am not terribly surprised that he glosses over this. One of the earliest critical junctions comes at that point where his mother leaves with another man and the two commit suicide in Athens. Hitchens, then in college, describes having to see the crime scene with a sort of distant horror that comes off as heartbreaking. I’ve never known the man to be overly sentimental, and indeed he describes the experience with a philosophical disgust rather than a particularly personal one. This is a memoir, after all, and not a biography: Hitchens controls the content and tone, and thus one shouldn’t expect any shocking revelations from the Hitchens you know and love (hate?) from his appearances on television and previous books. In fact, if you follow his lecture/debate circuit to the extent that Youtube et al. will allow, you’ll find that he uses some of his same phrases, expressions, and stories from the lecture in his book (or vice versa). Though I’ve no doubt that he’s very good at extemporizing (in fact, I’ve seen him do on Uncommon Knowledge), this book as with his speeches is a sort of rehearsed intelligence; or, more likely, he extemporizes from a pool of practiced points, since he lectures so frequently upon the same subject.
One chapter is devoted to his closest friend, Martin Amis; another to Salman Rushdie, which is of course a springboard to Hitchens to express his views on religion, tyrants, and religious tyrants. In fairness to Hitch, he abstains from becoming overly polemical with respect to religion, since his last book was devoted entirely to the subject. He does spend a fair amount of time explaining his views on the various conflicts in the Middle East, which have distanced him from many of his former associates (and employers), but this is largely in service of an overarching point that Hitchens attempts to make with Hitch-22, namely the sort of “double life” that he’s led, both in the sense of believing in two (apparently) contradictory ideas and of having so often compromise his ideals in order to get a story. But don’t mistake me: this is no wistful or maudlin look back, nor an expurgation of youthful indiscretions; though the Hitchens writing his memoirs may be different than the Hitchens planting coffee plants in Cuba after Castro’s revolution, there’s an internal consistency that is at least somewhat gratifying. The same moral impetus made Hitchens (initially) celebrate Castro as made him encourage the invasion (er, “liberation”) of Iraq; defend Paul Wolfowitz and excoriate Henry Kissinger; defame Mother Theresa and laud Thomas Jefferson. The book reminded me more of Love, Poverty, and War than it did his most recent work; stiff-lipped and intellectual, it is occasionally turgid or pedantic, but mostly it’s a fascinating (albeit circumscribed) window into the mind of arguably one of the brightest public commentators of our generation.
- The title is deceivingly neutral; the book, I assure you, is excoriating.[↩]
- Thankfully, he writes, not one of the Tory horrorshows; rather, he attended a moderate school near Cambridge[↩]
- About others, he is notoriously curt and frank. Famously, of the recently late Jerry Falwell: “If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.”[↩]