'Hitch 22' by Christopher Hitchens
The personal and political entwine in an entertaining memoir.
Twelve: 448 pp., $26.99
With the possible exception of Tom Wolfe and Maureen Dowd's, Christopher Hitchens' marvelous byline is the most archly kinetic in current-day American letters. Every article, review and essay has the romantic whiff of a durable vintage. You might disagree with him. You might question his motives. But not for a second will you ever be bored.
"The usual duty of the 'intellectual' is to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae," Hitchens explains in "Hitch-22," the Vanity Fair correspondent's cunning, illuminating memoir. "But there is another responsibility, to say that some things are simple and ought not to be obfuscated, and by 1982 Communism had long passed the point where it needed anything more than the old equation of history with the garbage can."
We live in a society that likes to stamp and label writers. Somehow we feel more comfortable dubbing a thinker as a neo-conservative or a Kennedy liberal or a Derrida deconstructionist because boxes make us feel falsely in control. But Hitchens represents a far more noble intellectual tradition: the rapscallion iconoclast. Being able to shape-change, shed skins, sit on the hillside overlooking suburbia like a coyote, Hitchens represents a dying breed of public intellectual whose voice matters precisely because it can't be easily pigeonholed or ignored.
"Over the course of the last decade, I have become vividly aware of a literally lethal challenge from the sort of people who deal in absolute certainty and believe themselves to be actuated and justified by a supreme authority," Hitchens writes in mockery of certitude. "More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exultation."
Hitchens, a Washington, D.C., resident, has become a cultural fixture at antiquarian bookstores and A-list cocktail parties. One of the delights of "Hitch-22" for book lovers is the way Hitchens has excavated semi-forgotten literary gems to use as cutting-edge ammunition in his literary arsenal. There are, for example, significant call-outs to V.S. Naipaul's "The Enigma of Arrival," Arthur Koestler's "Arrow in Blue," Anthony Powell's "Infants of the Spring" and Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon." He makes the reader want to purchase them all. By tapping into these underappreciated classics, Hitchens does the literary world a great public service. "Thus I have to be honest and say that the best book that most altered my life was 'How Green Was My Valley,' " he writes. "One day I took up a tattered paperback copy of Richard Llewellyn's classic… and then sat as if snared by an enchantment until I had finished it. The I read it again."
Over the decades, Hitchens has risked over-exposure or Warholization as a public intellectual. Sometimes he plays the dancing bear fool; a Renaissance festival puppeteer toying with the sad spectacle of a 24/7 newsbyte culture. He has also become an edgy commentator on the full monty of bobble-headed TV talk shows, freelancing original ideas, unvetted, to audiences tediously tamed by either inflamed ideologues or self-anointed experts. Somewhere along the line — girded by Henry Jamesian erudition and George Orwellian truthiness — Hitchens decided to make a career of putting hypocrisy on trial, damn the cost. Quite unselfishly he's done so, without a wince or worry, for his own intellectual self-preservation. It's impossible not to notice Hitchens — like a streaker at Queen Victoria's funeral — or, in a perverse way, not to admire him enormously.
So it's really no surprise that "Hitch-22" doesn't follow any preordained Iowa Writers' Workshop rules of engagement. His only criterion, it seems, is that his prose be whiskey-strong (and he succeeds). Hitchens, as an English boarding-school kid, learned that words "can function as weapons." At the core of "Hitch-22" are Hitchens's British anxieties about class and decline of empire. When tracking his long creative career, it seems that these two worries predominate in even his best essays in The Nation and Mother Jones. What Hitchens understands — first as a British expatriate and, now, as a U.S. citizen — is that Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" describes how "manorial glamour" was being corroded by the "imperialist slaughter of 1914-1918."
This dual English neurosis has inflamed Hitchens' psyche since childhood. With the Grand British Order descending into the Eurozone sphere, Hitchens found the day-to-day life of America to be a smelling salt to this decay. When Hitchens writes that Auden was the "only Englishman to successfully mutate into an American," he might as well be reflecting on himself.
What Hitchens has admired about the U.S. is the cult of raw gumption that used to define Britain at its unflappable best. Not only did the U.S. oversee D-Day; it also put Neil Armstrong on the moon and toppled the genocidal Iraqi thug Saddam Hussein from power. What America, in turn, likes about Hitchens is his outlaw status, the one contrarian-in-the-woodpile that could denounce Mother Theresa as immoral but champion Paul Wolfowitz as a pillar of truth.
"Hitch-22" includes funny stories about such fellow foxhole allies as Martin Amis, James Fenton and Richard Dawkins. Fueled by booze, literature, love and travel, Hitchens has lived an incredibly fun-filled life. When it comes to Bacchic and Dionysian impulses, he doesn't like to be outdone on boogie-street. But he doesn't really put himself on the couch either. The reader learns that he was born in Portsmouth, England, in 1949 and liked alcohol (a lot) at an early age. Hitchens' mother was determined to make sure her boy could someday dine with the Queen of England at Buckingham Palace. "If there is going to be an upper class in this country," his mother explained, "then Christopher is going to be in it."
While Hitchens certainly achieved preeminence within London's intelligentsia in the 1970s with such books as "Hostage to History" and "Blood, Class, and Nostalgia," I'm not sure calling Margaret Thatcher "sexy" was what Mother had in mind when offing eight-year-old little Christopher to boarding school. Thatcher, however, cherished the comical flattery, calling Hitchens a "naughty boy." (That he was—and is.) There are, however, a few surprising tales here of Hitchens' sex life that are, as he puts it, "polymorphous perverse." These included having "mildly enjoyable" sex with "two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher's government."
But, in truth, "Hitch-22" shows us more how Hitchens is a great pamphleteer — like Thomas Paine — rallying against perceived social injustice and religious fanaticism. While his targets are sometimes wrong — like Mother Theresa — his originality of argument is always refreshing.
Other anecdotes in "Hitch-22" are about nostalgic memories of the 1960s (they often end with a scorpion sting). One story, for instance, describes a "very, very far-out meeting" when a friend debated whether a terrorist cabal should be called "The Weathermen" or "The Vandals" (both concepts taken from the Dylan song "Subterranean Homesick Blues"). A socialist neo-conservative at heart (you figure it out), Hitchens learned from the 1960s that leftism was as shallow as rightism. The best place to reside was in Hitchensland.
Brinkley is professor of History at Rice University and the author of "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America."