The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

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JUL-AUG 2010 Issue

Conflicted States

Christopher Hitchens
Hitch-22: A Memoir
(Twelve, 2010)

Embattled on cable television and embroiled in public debate, Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the world’s most conspicuous atheist in a foxhole. A self-described former Trotskyist who started his career writing for the New Statesman, Hitchens has drawn fire for his controversial support of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, as well as for his elegantly delivered raillery against what he calls the “poison” of organized religious thinking. A frequent lecturer and debater, as well as an adoptive son of the United States (he took his oath of citizenship at the Jefferson Memorial on his 58th birthday), Hitchens has penned an attenuated version of his life, creating a memoir that argues for ambiguity and duality as much as for moral courage and physical bravery in the face of dishonesty and despotism. This apparent contradiction in terms, reflected in the memoir’s title, is also reflected in one of Hitchens’s constant refrains: that ‘how’ one thinks is more important than what one thinks.

Memoir is an important opportunity for an author to pursue a line of moral argument, because the form allows him to weave his narrative of arguments in intimate relation with real events and real people. In Hitchens’s work, insight and experience align themselves only at the expense of persistent self-examination. He distrusts Archimedes’s eureka moment. Detailing extensive international travel and the throes of his professional teeth-cutting, Hitch-22 attempts to demonstrate that the author’s later public mutations ought to be understood as symptoms of consistency, dialectical in flavor, and that his surprisingly divergent personal alliances (Gore Vidal, Paul Wolfowitz, Susan Sontag) reflect a maturing (though often truculent) sense of justice, good humor, and the right to self-determination. As the author himself puts it: 

“It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them.”

As a writer, the flavor of Hitchens’s work sits on the spicier, Voltairian side of the shelf. In the role of a journalist he has survived the fusillade of Serbian artillerymen and has undertaken to bribe and fib his way into an intractable North Korea. Despite these adventures, Hitchens is a well-known bon vivant, relishing tableside conversation and sherry, cigarettes, and Johnnie Walker Black. He and his long-time comrades, including Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and James Fenton (the book’s dedicatee), seem to indulge in bawdy wordplay nearly as often as they do serious lit-crit. A crucial aspect of understanding Hitchens is grasping the notion that he wants to participate in the same civilization he purports to defend. A former Marxist is also a lover of the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. A defender of Bush’s War in Iraq also exhibits serious deference to civic virtues, including, notably, parenthood. Though Hitchens admits to a degree of absenteeism in the early years of his children’s youth, his love for his children is as tender as it is terse.

To no small extent, Hitchens’s beloved canon of English literature has engendered his political and moral buccaneering. The pertinacity and play of W.H. Auden; the up-country terseness of Philip Larkin; the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx—we find all of these attributes at play in Hitchens’s moral and aesthetic (and markedly godless) universe. No less crucial than his real life friends are those figures Hitchens selects from literature as his great mentors: Socrates, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, George Orwell. Thinking for oneself is the implicit theme here—and, indeed, the entire memoir is filled with pursuits of independent inquiry. Hitchens wishes both to justify and to hold his decisions to account. He believes it is important to recognize that, “sometimes,” as his Oxford professors used to say, “your mind changes you.”

Christopher Hitchens has made a career of leveraging his outsized personality to help deliver an endless stream of opinion regarding science, history, literature, war, and the recurring presence of irony in human affairs. A self-styled comptroller of public discourse, Hitchens relishes his role of holding to account those in power at home and abroad. Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan have been a few of his domestic targets. Perhaps in step with his acerbity, Hitchens has endured famous fallings-out with such notable intellectuals and writers as Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and Gore Vidal, all at the expense of that famous admonition, “To thine own self be true.” Following his polemical bestseller God Is Not Great, Hitch-22 is a colorful, humane expansion of the canvas of Hitchens’s work. Full of tears and full of mirth, it is Christopher Hitchens’s own life story that has provided the material for his funniest, richest, and most eloquent book to date. 

Addendum: Even the index of the book is telltale. Never to be summarized, Yvonne Hitchens’s story is yet paginated, shot-snapped. Read the entry on the author’s mother as listed at the back:

“Hitchens, Yvonne, 10-26

   Americans and, 206

   desire to move to Israel, 20, 374, 380

   Jewish background of, 354-55, 362,                               


   marriage to the Commander, 356-57

   Paris family visit, 341

   schooling and, 13-14, 49-50, 55,                                             

56-57, 59, 62, 77, 93-94

suicide of, 21-27, 29, 30-31, 155-56”

A book emphatically meant to be read. His rhetorical ‘listing’ is half Socratic, half Whitmanian.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2010

All Issues