Rather than write a new appraisal of Christopher Hitchens, the outspoken iconoclast who died this past week, it seemed fitting to re-print Shlomo Schwartzberg's very fine review of Hitchens' memoir. Within it, Shlomo captured perfectly what made Hitchens such an essential voice.
Hitch-22: An Iconoclast Looks Back On His Life (So Far)
It’s not that Hitchens doesn’t stand up for what he believes or goes against the grain. He certainly does. But Hitch-22 is largely a reflective, soft-spoken book wherein he (mostly) sets the record straight on his life, including his famous friendships and his adversarial politics. It’s the latter he's become best known for, particularly from the days right after 9/11, when he rejected the left’s moral equivalence between Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush and their justification for the terror attacks on America. He came out in support of the Iraq war and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, which led to Hitchens being ostracized by the anti-war left. While he's not necessarily embraced by the right, who are suspicious of his anti-religious diatribes and criticism of past American foreign policy, Hitchens is determined (as always) to stake out territory as an iconoclast who thinks solely for himself.
Hitch-22, which for some reason carries the explanatory and accurate sub-heading, Some Confessions and Contradictions, only on its copyright page, indeed lives up to those words. Hitchens confesses to a lot of things people likely didn’t know about him, including his early sexual (read homosexual) dalliances in boarding school – though he is not gay – to some startling revelations about his mother’s background, which he did not discover until after her death. As for the contradictions, well, that is something he has grappled with all his life. He first embraced communism, at a young age, only to later reject it for its many moral blind spots. Yet he still admires many of its tenets and doesn’t really regret any of his early forays into Marxism, as some others who have fallen away from that ‘faith’ have. Nor is he shy about revealing an attraction (both sexual and political) to Conservative British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He admired her for her steadfastness, especially when she went to war against Argentina after that country seized the British Falkland Islands in 1982. Nevertheless, he remained all too aware of the social harm she was doing to his country of birth. Moving to America about thirty years ago, first for work in journalism and then making the fateful decision to live there and become an American citizen on his birthday in 2007, was also more than a bit contradictory considering his left-wing beginnings. Like most converts, he ends up being more of a patriot than many American-born citizens, particularly when it came to his horror and anger surrounding Al-Qaeda’s’ assault on his beloved adopted country.
Though Hitch-22, which is a variation on Joseph Heller's anti-war satire Catch-22, deals often with Hitchens’ political journeys and beliefs, I was most moved by the chapters in the book which detail his generous views towards his late parents and his friends. In the chapters "Yvonne" and "The Commander," he pays lovely tribute to his mother and father: Eric, whom he clearly loved dearly and who raised him very well, even though, as in the case of Yvonne, a meaningful secret was kept from him and his brother, Peter. Hitchens’ deep and long friendship with fellow writers Martin Amis (Yellow Dog, House of Meetings) and Salman Rushdie (Midnight's Children, The Satanic Verses) is movingly written about, too. One hilarious anecdote, told by Hitchens to demonstrate the remarkable quick agility of Rushdie's mind, concerns the word games Hitchens et al were fond of playing. In one of those games, speculating how the late thriller writer Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) would have titled Shakespeare's plays, Rushdie came up with the brilliant The Elsinore Vacillation as the new moniker for Hamlet.
None of this should suggest that Hitchens is a strong supporter of Israel; on the contrary he’s as apt to carelessly throw around words like ethnic cleansing in referring to Israeli policies towards the Palestinians as not. Yet, he’s the only commentator whose anti-Israel views I can tolerate since he’s so politically bang on most of the time. Besides, it seems to me that he’s been ameliorating some of his views on Israel and Zionism since having too vehement a stance against the Jewish state puts him in bed with the Islamists and the immoral left he so hates.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of Hitchens’ heroes and villains might be surprised to see how little ink he expends in Hitch-22 attacking his usual personal bête noires, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and ex-President Bill Clinton, both the subjects of tell all books by the author. (I understand the deep loathing he feels for the duplicitous Kissinger but re: Clinton, not so much.) Likely, Hitchens wants to give good value for your money, assuming, probably correctly, that his loyal readers have already devoured his works on those subjects. I’m glad that Hitchens’ hectoring espousal of his atheism and virulent antipathy to organized religion is considerably reduced in Hitch-22. I’m not religious myself but his ad hominem attacks on organized religion have always struck me as somewhat hysterical and less credible than his norm, which is why I didn’t bother purchasing his popular book against religion, God is Not Great. How Religion Poisons Everything. Much more appealing in Hitch-22 is Hitchens’ frequent rejoinders on why the views and observations of courageous political writer/essayist George Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four) are still important today. (Not surprisingly Hitchens wrote a book on the man called Why Orwell Matters.)
There are a few omissions in the memoir, which I’d like to see rectified for the paperback release of Hitch-22 next June. For a book that’s generally so honest and revealing, he barely mentions his family, except occasionally in passing. I know he wants to respect their privacy but I would have liked to know something about his two wives, including his current one writer Carol Blue, and his three children; Hitch-22 is a memoir, after all and surely his family is part of what makes Hitchens who he is. More information about his topsy-turvy relationship with his younger brother Peter, a religious conservative and writer (The Abolition of Britain, The Rage Against God) who once wrote that Christopher’s support of the war in Afghanistan was “stupid” would have been welcome, too.
The two brothers have reconciled somewhat, particularly today when Christopher Hitchens is dealing with Stage 4 cancer of the esophagus, a cancer he might not beat. Ironically, the opening of Hitch-22 relates his philosophical observations when he was mistakenly listed as the "late Christopher Hitchens" in a British museum catalogue. This incident occurred before his cancer diagnosis so one shouldn’t read anything into the subsequent tone and demeanour of Hitch-22, but it is chilling and startling nonetheless. I really hope Christopher, who is now 61 years of age, remains around for many years to come, chivvying those who don’t want to hear what he has to say and comforting the rest of us who need him to speak the unpopular truths and expose the inconvenient realities of our time. We can’t afford to lose someone of his rare ilk. Hitch-22 is a timely reminder of why Christopher Hitchens matters, too.
- originally published on October 25, 2010 in Critics at Large.
Steven Spielberg. He will next be teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.