Friday, October 23, 2009


The ambivalence that I and many on the left feel toward Christopher Hitchens is perhaps best summed up in this post by a reader of the Guardian (UK)'s books blog:

"Hitch is a pretty amazing character. His output is immense, his commitment unwavering and he should be applauded for this and held in high regard. I really like the guy.

He's also clearly a massive, massive twat. Anyone who genuinely thinks he is a good person needs to have his head examined.

If Hitch was given the slightest whiff of power, we'd all be his underslaves while a host of elected 'worthies' including Dawko, McEwen, Rushdie and Stephen Fry fed each other grapes, composed atonal music and played with each others balls.

Does anyone else think he should change the record too? He's delivering the same lines over and over again. I've heard the North Korea gag a thousand times over. And the Hubble telescope nonsense. Yeah, I've seen the pictures too. They're kinda shit. Not a patch on the wonder of Jurassic Park.

PS His literary criticism is cracking by the way. Stick to that."

My own view is that Hitchens is a knowledgeable political analyst, a talented writer and a wonderful polemicist who has been unfortunately mistaken for a public intellectual. (It's an easy mistake to make in America, a country without an intelligentsia. We have a professoriat, which is a different and much tamer animal.) I admire the passionate energy of Hitchens's polemics against religion, Kissinger, etc. while deploring his support of the Iraq War and his recent cosiness with the neocon right. (I essentially agree with him on Afghanistan, though...) Anyone with an interest in the man or his work should read this cover story from the May 2008 issue of the British magazine Prospect, which elucidates Hitchens's thought processes better than anything else I've read.

And I suppose I should eventually get around to the stated subject of this post. Unacknowledged Legislation is the unwieldy Shelleyan title for a grab bag of Hitchens's literary criticism from the 1990s. There are some good pieces here on Wilde, Raymond Williams, Anthony Powell, Kipling, Martin Amis, Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin books, etc., but the collection's greatest joys come (as one would expect) when Hitchens unloads mercilessly on a more or less deserving target of his wrath. The Reagan-worshipping Tom Clancy and the self-worshipping Tom Wolfe receive devastating bombardments, but the most furious polemical barrage is reserved for the egregious Norman Podhoretz. A high-point is Hitchens's casually parenthetical reference to "the engulfing, mandible-destroying blowjob that [Podhoretz] would...bestow on Ronald Reagan." And yet, even as I enjoyed this evisceration of Old Poddy I reflected that Hitchens's imagery had been rendered fatally ironic by his own later performance of the same service upon the corpus of George W. Bush. (Anyone who doubts the abjectness of Hitchens's period as an apologist for the Bush administration need only view a tape of Hitch's New York debate with George Galloway, during which he defended even the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina.) Near the beginning of his piece on Isaiah Berlin, as he considers Berlin's support of the Vietnam War, Hitchens writes of hawkishness as "the most lethal temptation to which the contemplative can fall victim." I'm surely not alone in wishing that Hitch had been more contemplative on the issue of Iraq.

1 comment:

Richard said...

Hitchens is a jackass. I once felt some ambivalence towards him, but as I've grown to understand what he's really about, I've lost all respect for the man.

There are, as you say, some decent pieces in this collection, but it's telling that the book's "greatest joys come (as one would expect) when Hitchens unloads mercilessly on a more or less deserving target of his wrath". His mode is one of superiority and when he's right, which is rarely if ever these days (including on Afghanistan, where he's just as wrong as on Iraq, just as he was wrong on Serbia, and for all the same reasons), there's no risk to the position. (Who is he talking to when he reviews a Tom Clancy novel? How brave is it to go after Henry Kissinger 30 years after the fact? His work on Kissinger is fine, but looks odd set alongside his concurrent warmongering elsewhere.)

And, atheist that I am, I find his religious polemics deeply embarrassing, poorly argued and badly written (as I argue here, against his awful book)...