Monday, October 25, 2010

Hitch-22: An Iconoclast Looks Back On His Life (So Far)

Christopher Hitchens
Hitch-22: A Memoir (McClelland & Stewart), the entertaining and enlightening ruminations of controversial writer Christopher Hitchens, is quite a gentle book, even though the British-born, American writer has plenty to be angry about. I met him at a book signing in Toronto a few years ago and he came across as a kind man. But those folks, maybe the majority, who see Hitchens solely as the rabble-rousing provocateur, who’s as apt to tell his adversaries to fuck off as he is to spout bon mots, will glean from Hitch-22 that his combative public image and persona is more removed from the genuine article than they’d think.

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’s 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.

Yet, Hitchens is also honest and generous towards those whom he wished he could be friends with, or with whom he has fallen out. Hitchens never had much in common with American political commentator Noam Chomsky, who he faults for essentially being anti-American at core and never having anything positive to say about his own country. But he also praises the (few) writings of the man he does admire. It’s more complicated when it comes to his relationship with Edward Said, the Christian Palestinian whose 1978 book Orientalism is considered by many to be the seminal work on how the Western world has viewed (and stereotyped) the Arab and Muslim worlds. The two were great pals when they first met, soon after Hitchens came to America, even collaborating on a book Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, but eventually he couldn’t continue to ignore Said’s excuses for Palestinian terrorism and PLO head Yasser Arafat’s corruption; one reason so many in the Arab-American community were suspicious of the 1993 Oslo peace Accords, writes Hitchens, is that Said never signed off on them, refusing to concede the necessity of Palestinian concessions to match those demanded of Israel. By the time Said passed away from leukemia in 2003, the two were no longer on speaking terms, a state of affairs that still saddens Hitchens even as he writes of the betrayal he felt when Said attacked him, though not by name, as a "racist" in an interview.

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.

Hate is an emotion that Hitchens is more than slightly familiar with, even though he mostly tamps it down in Hitch-22. One instance where it does manifest itself, is when he writes, very effectively, on Saddam Hussein and his many crimes against humanity. Hitchens' pivotal support of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq came about largely because of his passionate and long standing support of the Kurds, who had suffered grievously under Hussein’s rule and his exposure, evident during an illuminating visit to Iraq, to the facts about the atrocities the Iraqi dictator was committing against his own people. In that regard, he couldn’t fall into bed with those on the left who would not countenance any attempt to oust Hussein, usually because they felt more antipathy towards President Bush and America. In that light, Hitchens' quoting of Martin Amis’s comments that a million Britons marched against the overthrow of a fascist regime is a telling and disturbing one.

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 bĂȘte 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.

Christopher Hitchens will debate former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on the it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world. It takes place on November 26 at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall. Go to for more details.

-- Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He is teaching a course on significant contemporary film directors this fall at Ryerson

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