Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 February 2020

A Hitch in the plan

Christopher Hitchens' memoir finds no ­regrets in a life of polemical fervour among famous friends. You may feel like throwing it across the room, but then you will want to pick it up again.

The world of Anglophone journalism is home to a species of bore prone to regaling listeners with accounts of a boozy evening, or possibly afternoon, spent with Christopher Hitchens, who is invariably called, in a familiar spirit, "Hitch," since familiarity and spirits are the real point of the story, rather than preservation of any specimen of his table talk. Members of this species (which somehow consists entirely of males) will occasionally form a small flock. When they do, legends of "the Hitch" undergo a transformation. Gradually they are detached from his person. No longer descriptions of gregarious behaviour, they become incentives to imitation.

What effect will Hitch-22 have on this process? It is too soon to say. And in any case, reviewers have for the most part been treating Hitchens' memoir as the chance to keep discussing the positions he took after September 11, when he shifted his considerable polemical talents to advocating for the invasion of Iraq. It is the pretext to write an op-ed by other means - as if the most salient thing about the book was its revelation that Hitchens has no regrets, and is willing to make only the scantest of self-criticisms, about his support for the Bush administration.

But evidence of the man's intransigence is not exactly hard to find. All the primary documentation anyone would ever need can be found in a volume called  Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left, published in 2008 and containing his own arguments as well as a number of trenchant polemics against him. These attacks on his opinions now find echoes, if not exactly amplification, in discussions of Hitch-22, as if reviewers were discharging reserves of anger left over from the era of Bush and Blair. 

This is understandable but not illuminating. It neglects what seems to me the real interest of Hitch-22:  its value in capturing the legend of Hitchens and recording, so to speak, the conditions of its existence. For it is not simply his camp followers who have perpetuated the legend. (Nor could they, really: the resemblance between Hitchens and an acolyte is approximately that of fire to a firefly.) The author's intelligence and command of the podium, his breadth of reading and recall, his knack for the telling anecdote, the well-turned aperçu - these capacities are all still in evidence, no matter what one thinks of the political uses he now makes of them.  

At the risk of sounding ineptly contrarian, let me say that the political significance of this book is slight. What makes it fascinating, rather, is the light it sheds on the genesis and structure of "the Hitch" as a role, as a continuing performance on the public stage. One way to describe this persona would be to call it a belated version of George Orwell, minus the gloom and the resentment.   Hitchens was born in 1949 to parents who shared the same "lower-upper-middle-class" status that Orwell claimed for his family. His father was a retired naval officer, while Orwell's had been a civil servant working in an outpost of the empire. Hitchens went to a boarding school, albeit one less horrific than that Orwell portrayed in Such, Such Were the Joys. He became, for a time, a revolutionary socialist, 30 years or so after Orwell did; he began his journalistic career by writing for some of the same publications. There are similarities in regard to pugnacity. 

One notes a resemblance. And more, one notes the desire that a resemblance be noted. But an Orwell without gloom or resentment is a very different figure indeed. Any biography of Orwell will suggest that his personality was defined by an overwhelming urge for downward mobility. At the age when Hitchens was attending Cambridge, Orwell was serving as a policeman in Burma. Only very late in his career did Orwell earn enough from his writing not to have to worry about money, and he never let go of a smouldering rage at literary cliques.  

By contrast, Hitch-22 is a lesson in social ascent considered as one of the fine arts. Though "lesson" is not,  perhaps, the right word here; finesse is continuously exhibited but never explained. An impressive list of impressive friends (among them Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, Isaiah Berlin, Noam Chomsky, James Fenton, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said and Gore Vidal, to give an alphabetised sampling) accrues without any display of effort, as if through natural processes. The ending of friendships is another matter. History is usually involved.  

Either way - coming or going - the famous and the talented lend some portion of their aura to Hitchens' own. From time to time, he will pause to make clear that certain information about someone must be withheld. This looks like discretion but is actually its simulacrum. (The real thing avoids calling attention to itself.) It is, rather, a seductive manoeuvre, reinforcing his power of fascination by making clear to the reader who is in charge.

The point of his book is not to demonstrate the charms of his person, of course, though these always remain just within sight. His current position on the ideological spectrum is sometimes called "neoconservative". But that label, once useful to describe a particular cohort of formerly left-leaning intellectuals, has been so abused by brainless people as to have lost all meaning; and in any case, it fits Hitchens rather badly.  

He prefers to identify himself as a soixante-huitard: someone whose sense of politics was defined by the events of 1968, when the whole world was in upheaval, with people filling the streets to challenge whatever local authority (capitalist or Communist) wanted them to go back inside and shut up. In the words of Bob Dylan: "There was music in the cafes at night/And revolution in the air."   Hitchens threw himself into this rising tide as fully as anyone, and continued to swim in it even as it ebbed. He was arrested at protests. He travelled to revolutionary regimes of the Third World and tried to find an encouraging word to say about them. He was an editor at the Socialist Worker newspaper for a time, and his name appeared on the masthead of the journal International Socialism - albeit as "Chris", a bit more comradely familiarity than he found pleasing. And though he does not mention it now, he also prepared an edition of Karl Marx's pamphlet on the Paris Commune of 1871, published in time for the centennial of that revolutionary event. (In 1971, it bears noting, he was 22.) 

Three decades later, faced with antiwar protesters in the streets challenging the authorities, Hitchens wanted them to go back inside and shut up. But this is not an ideological conversion narrative - at least not of the straightforward sort. While the horror and rage Hitchens felt after the terrorist attacks of September 11 were catalytic, he insists on a continuity of perspective from phase to phase of his career - the gradual but progressive accumulation of political insight, such that supporting George W Bush for re-election in 2004 was no betrayal of his soixante-huitard past but rather its most chastened and cogent fulfillment. 

To watch him make this case is, to put it one way, interesting. You want to hurl the book across the room at times, but with an awareness that you would then need to go over and pick it up to continue reading. Or such, at least, was my feeling - though this was doubtless conditioned by my own experience with "the Hitch", which I suppose bears relating now, even at the cost of enlisting myself in the army of bores. 

It was during the mid-1990s that we occasionally met. We shared a background in what, during the Cold War, had been called Third Camp radicalism - the slogan being "Neither Washington Nor Moscow But International Socialism!" I was writing for the same sort of underfunded and fly-specked little journals that Hitchens once had. Every so often, he would get in touch. Could I locate a document in which a Holocaust denier renounced his own views? Did I happen to know where to find a certain passage in the memoirs of the Russian anti-Stalinist Victor Serge?

This I would do, and drinks would follow. He would call me "comrade". Anecdotes about the old movement would be related. If it ever came to it, he said, he could certainly face going back to the reduced circumstances of his early days as a writer.   I do not recall what I said in response to this last bit. His present circumstances looked very comfortable indeed. There was room enough to fit every Trotskyist in North America into his apartment, with enough room left over for the Maoists, too, probably.  

The first time we had this conversation, I was flattered. The second time, I was impressed by the passion of his nostalgia. By the third, it was clear that he was trying to persuade somebody, but it wasn't me, even though we were the only ones sitting there. Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.

Updated: June 11, 2010 04:00 AM



Most Popular