Christopher Hitchens’ recent diagnosis of cancer is bad news for all the readers who appreciate his profound and prolific output as a writer of political journalism, social commentary, and literary review (this latter, naturally, encompassing both the former). A man who “writes faster than most people talk” naturally generates no small œuvre. Hitchen’s last book of collected writings was Love, Poverty, and War in 2003, and it’s no surprise that Arguably, his latest compendium—and morbidly, the last which will not be posthumous—is a hefty eight-hundred pages of essays hand-picked from Hitchens’ various media—Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Slate, and no few introductions to reissued classics—without likely exhausting the pool.
The topics selected here, of course, tend away from his articles for Slate which are more topical, and would not fare well when several years removed from their source. More impressive to me, as always, are Hitchens’ monthly literary reviews for The Atlantic and his various and sundry topics of criticism for Vanity Fair. In this respect, of course, one does not even need to buy the book; most of the essays reproduced here are still viewable online, with the exception of his introductions to published books. But it’s easy, especially given The Hitch’s prolificacy, to overlook the significance of this particular set of essays plucked from the much larger corpus. More interesting than any individual essay itself, perhaps, is the fact that it is in this collection at all.
The entries in Arguably are grouped loosely by some shared subject or quality. First in queue is a series of pieces about [in]famous Americans, ordered roughly by chronology. Some are old Hitchens hobby-horses, including Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine; another chronicles Jefferson’s handling of the (Muslim) Barbary pirates as a way of presaging the current global problem of Islamic fundamentalism. Even more interesting than this, perhaps, or because Jefferson in particular and the Founding Fathers in general are hardly untrod territory, are his essays about Twain—at least obliquely, as the main thread of the essay is Hitchens’ excoriation of Fred Kaplan—and Vladimir Nabakov as revealed by the famously transgressive Lolita.
Some of these topics are simply here because they are Americans by nationality. Others seem to be here because they say something distinctly American; there is no surprise that Hitchens’, early a socialist and lately a something, should find no small import in the topic of Upton Sinclair, perhaps the most famous of early American socialists, and the way in which his points of issue are persistent… for which see Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001), not necessarily for the gruesome details of figurative and literal sausage-making, but for dwelling on “those whose lives are lived at the point of production”.
The next section strikes me as miscellany, or a dumping ground for essays that would not go easy into that dark category. Incidentally, however, it contains some of Hitchens’ best pieces of this anthology. Of particular note are his treatment of Dr. Samuel Johnson (he of the first appreciable dictionary) in a review of Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson: A Biography; a review of an poetic anthology by Philip Larkin, whose contribution to the world of poetry is perhaps critically underappreciated because he is more infamous than famous1.
There’s a customary piece on Animal Farm (Orwell is never far from Hitchens’ pen), but even more interesting is a historical piece about Karl Marx’s early career as a journalist (the lens through which Hitchens reviews a compendium of Marx’s early work), before he became better known as a social philosopher of sorts. Hitchens finds it fascinating, as I do, to see the germ of Marx’s later calling present in his journalism: Marx’s targets tended to be the suppression of free inquiry and the maltreatment of the lower class of the sort that typified the mid-to-late 19th century. I can imagine that Hitchens himself must feel some intimate connection to this topic, as the germ, if not the later sprout, must have been at the root of his own early attachment to British socialism, and his lifelong distaste for tyranny.
Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments
I would categorize this section as the humorist in Hitchens, or at least Hitchens at his most playful, for it not for the inclusion of a somewhat more serious piece about the late Stieg Larrson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. Others are sufficiently lighthearted, notably Hitchens’ controversial piece on why he thinks women simply aren’t as funny as men unless they’re lesbians, but also (among others) a piece on political sex scandals in the wake of Larry “Wide Stance” Craig‘s rather public debacle, a scathing denunciation of Prince Charles2, and, oddly enough, a well-worded rant on how much Hitchens hates it when waiters at upscale restaurant presume to pour wine that a table has already purchased.
Offshore Accounts & Legacies of Totalitarianism
A much longer section—no surprise given the subject of Hitchens’ contemporary journalism—deals with foreign policy, much of it having to do with the “Axis of Evil” and associated actors, including North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. One notable inclusion is the tale of Hitchens experience with waterboarding, wherein the journalist—a staunch support of the invasion of Iraq, remember—concludes quite definitely that the experience constitutes torture… this at a time when conservatives all over the map were falling over themselves to, at best, declare it “harsh interrogation” or some other sickly euphemism or, at worst, make barely mask their disappointment that America isn’t doing much worse. Hitchens’ essays on the Middle East are very much in line with his public appearances and other essays, and not of particular note. More interesting is his essay on the Jewish lobby and the latent anti-Semitism which is still disturbingly widespread; or his more general view of humanitarian intervention, which helps to illuminate the underlying ethos that informs his political and social positions.
It would be easy to say that Middle East foreign policy has come to dominate Hitchens’ writing in the last few years; more accurately, it has come to dominate his TV appearances while the War in Iraq was still big news and before his phase as an outspoken atheist took over following the publication of God Is Not Great. In his writing, Hitchens remained as global as ever, and his aversion to totalitarianism remained as consistent as ever, whether near the fertile crescent or not; hence the inclusion of his thoughts on Vietnam, Cuba, Tunisia, and postwar Germany. There were those on the Left who puffed up their plumage and got very offended when Hitchens became perhaps the most vocal and eloquent proponent of military intervention in Iraq, and it seemed somehow incongruous with his leftist history. But one can easily see a thread which has informed all of Hitchens’ positions, including his apparently strange stance on Iraq, and which persists today in other locales as well.
The next section (“Legacies…”) deals again with foreign policy, but through the lens of literary reviews, including books about or reviews of Victor Klemperer, Isabel Allende, and Arthur Koestler. Because the locus of these reviews ends up being less about the book and more a lesson in history and Hitchens’ own opinion about the foreign policy involved, it once again makes sense that these essays directly follow his collection of essays which deal more immediately with his political ideals and foreign policy implications.
The final section, and the one which stands out as my personal favorite, deals both with words and the rights to use them. This latter topic touches upon such obvious and contemporary issues as the Danish cartoons lampooning Muhammad and the violence of response, or the autography of Ayaan Hirsi Ali (a Somali apostate who became active in Dutch politics and now works at the American Enterprise Institute).
With a lighter heart, Hitchens touches upon the foibles of language, such as the rise of “like” as a filler word for young adults, or the particularly British phrase “fuck off”, and ends with a rather poignant piece about the accumulation of books in his apartment, which (though written in 2008, before the news of his cancer) seems as though it could be interpreted as a metaphor for the acceptance of death. The accumulation of books—of knowledge—either read or unread, known or unknown, and the realization that one cannot finish or store them all.
Like all compendia, Arguably has crests and troughs, some absolute and some arising from the reader’s judgment. Of no departure from history, and of no surprise to longtime readers, this collection embodies the best and worst about Christopher Hitchens: an acerbic wit, a vast hunger for knowledge, a boastful bit of pride, a decent, solid, but occasionally old-fashioned worldview, a stubborn but consistent political worldview, and incredibly talent for wordsmithing, and a mind with few equals in this generation. It’s difficult to say, as of December 2011, just how much longer Hitchens will be around, but Arguably is another volume of examples, as if we needed any, why he will be sorely missed when he’s gone.
- Despite such luminaries as William Butler Yeats and Thomas Hardy, Larkin will perhaps always be known most for items like “This Be The Verse”, whose famous line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” is too often the quick refuge of angry teenagers, but is a rather telling glimpse at Larkins own neuroses.[↩]
- Let’s face it: the man is a twit.[↩]