Friday, May 18, 2012

Hitch 22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens

Those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know I'm not a big fan of memoirs. You may also know that I do listen to the recommendations of my younger son Kevin (after all, he's the only literary scholar in the family, not to mention a major smart guy). So, when he recommended Hitch 22, I read it.

The late Christopher Hitchens, while not from a wealthy family, attended boarding school and Cambridge University in his native Britain. He was definitely bright and well-educated (his vocabulary is prodigious and his literary allusions are drawn from a life of reading that is obviously both broad and deep). Through his activism as an "international socialist" and his journalism career, he was also well-connected (I found his name-dropping simultaneously impressive and annoying).

While Hitch 22 begins with brief portraits of his parents, Yvonne and "The Commander," and covers his school years rather extensively, it is far from an autobiography. We learn precious little about Hitchens'  personal life as an adult or, for that matter, his work as a writer and teacher. Rather, the book is a reflection on his philosophical development--from socialist to . . . well, something else, which seemed to be based on a belief that the United States (his adopted country) should intervene militarily wherever totalitarian regimes threaten their subjects. Hitchens, an atheist, saw religion as one such regime. On the very last page of the book, he says "To be an unbeliever is not to be merely 'open-minded.' It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well in politics. But that's my Hitch-22."

One of the sections that Kevin particularly enjoyed was Hitchens' robust defense of and staunch friendship with Salman Rushdie. And this chapter does, in fact, show Hitchens at his best--loyal to and advocating for both friends and principles. Hitchens at his worst--in my view--was on display in another chapter Kevin found interesting, one about Edward Said, the Palestinian-American literary theorist.  Hitchens tells a lengthy story about the need to defend Said as a friend in a conversation with Saul Bellow--the occasion had been arranged by Hitchens' good friend Martin Amis, who had entreated Hitch not to engage Bellow in controversial topics. Yet Hitchens has no problem attacking Said in the most derogatory terms once their differences grew larger. For example, while he objects strenuously to being called a "racist" by Said, he says about an article Said wrote, "I could hardly credit that these sentences were being produced by a cultured person, let alone printed by a civilized publication." QED, Hitch.

Perhaps I might have better tolerated Hitchens' memoir had I read some of his other work first--that is, if I had a prior appreciation of his research, his writing, and his thinking, perhaps his personality would have been less annoying. I'm sure it is a sign of my own shallowness that my response to the work of this public intellectual is based on a gut-level response, but there it is: I don't like this guy!

Favorite passages:

Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of "the flock."
(With apologies to my religious friends, this observation struck me as very interesting.)

It is not so much that there are ironies of history, it is that history itself is ironic. . . . It is not only true that the test of knowledge is an acute and cultivated  awareness of how little one knows (as Socrates knew so well), it is true that the unbounded areas and fields of one's ignorance are now expanding in such a way, and at such a velocity, as to make the contemplation of them almost fantastically beautiful.

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