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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, Not Arguable

One simply does not dispute with Christopher Hitchens, especially if his newest selection of essays is anything to go by.

By Christopher Zimny

In his time, Eric Arthur Blair saw the publication of two anthologies of essays he had written, both of them curiously terse in content, granting too little justice to the mind of the author himself. Though he did indeed have other publications (radio broadcasts, pamphlets, and novels to boot), none vindicated the man quite like the progressively fuller publications to be produced after his death, or the delightful trove of complete Orwelliana presently available for the curious eye on the Internet. Perhaps Orwell’s unluckiness will lead one to appreciate the many volumes of Christopher Hitchens’ equally wonderful literary lore (at least of the non-fiction kind) made readily available for the learning or otherwise interested mind today.

It should be said on the outset what Hitchens values most in the world; he notes of John Brown, the God-fearing abolitionist who led the failed storming of Harper’s Ferry:

Our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans, from that day to this, taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people.

Add to that list explicitly the implied word “justice” and one has a good picture of his purpose for writing in the first place. The means he advocated throughout his career have changed (and have become more refined, as we should expect, with experience), but his ends have not. Using the timeless tool of the written word, independence of the mind and individual sovereignty are what he has always fought for.

Measuring in at 749 pages of commentary, Christopher Hitchens’ largest and latest published work, Arguably, is the fifth anthology of the veteran journalist’s articles and essays, containing one hundred-seven works spanning roughly the past decade. Not a single one—as one might well expect—is worthy of the term “boring”. Plastered on the cover of the assemblage itself is an intent and glaring face that may only be described as someone who one does not wish to cross with. (It is interesting to note here, by the way, that Hitchens ironically and quite strongly resembles a certain figurehead in the film production of Nineteen Eighty-Four, de-mustachioed.  I can’t be the only one to have noticed this.) The photograph almost creates a feeling contrary to the book’s title: that in fact, no issue is safe for argument when Hitchens is watching. Indeed, through the use of lively, elevated and distinctly characteristic prose, Hitchens illuminates his own view of the world, commenting on everything from the life-affirming martyrs of recent Middle Eastern rebellions, to the faiths of the Founding Founders (or lack thereof), to the scarce literary magic of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and the true humor of the female (and lack thereof). In his introduction he writes, “Since an essential element of the American idea is variety, I have tried to celebrate things that are amusing for their own sake, or ridiculous but revealing, or simply of intrinsic interest.” And through six aptly-named parts, he does exactly this without missing a beat.

Having been granted citizenship in 2007, the first part’s title, “All American”, seems a quite fitting completion to his love of American culture, values and history. To use two old expressions, he shows his true colors right off the bat. On a different note than Kurt Vonnegut’s defense of atheists in the foxholes (“I think it's a much better argument against foxholes.”), Hitchens writes a pointed piece on the (nothing but) ill effects that the high-ranking promulgation of religious zeal has on the secular warriors our military houses, and the subversive attacks it mounts on the Constitution. The rather innocent author of The Singular Mark Twain, Fred Kaplan, comes under Hitchens’ fire for publishing a work that apparently does next to no justice to the man it concerns. Worse (but perhaps this victim is less innocent), Hitchens covers Gore Vidal’s dissent into lunacy. “I have no wish to commit literary patricide,” he writes after doing very nearly exactly that, “or to assassinate Vidal’s character—a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide.” Even worse here, and to the dismay of our government officials, he says virtually the same thing of the federal government in his polemic on the bailout-business it concerned itself with in 2008. Coining quite amusing derivatives of the term ‘banana republic’ (itself coined by O. Henry), he lambastes the whole rotten happening from the private companies who lobbied for other people’s wealth in the first place to the President himself who became “a despot”, so characteristic in these types of places. He also writes about our Founding Fathers who he so much admires. Too, he includes pieces on many American authors he reveres, and after taking “decades to dare the attempt,” he writes about the great Russian and English prose artist, Vladimir Nabokov.

Part two comprises mostly of book reviews, but by no means let that be a deterrent. Making notes on authors from Dickens to Rowling, he illuminates much of the writing world using the books in review as a means and a tool to provide his own thoughts of the subject at hand and the history of the authors themselves and their times. For instance, using Robert McCrum’s biography of P.G. Wodehouse, he discusses his obvious affinity for Wodehouse’s works and wit. With Samuel Johnson, he visits the dark side of the man’s mind and whether or not Johnson really had masochistic tendencies. Always one to make use of Orwell’s works in his own (with due reason, mind you), his preface for Animal Farm reviews both the history and aftereffects, and simultaneously gives an appraisal of the great “Fairy Story” (as Orwell called it) itself, along with a nearly thirty-page introduction to the massive travel history Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West. Of Edward Upward, he gives a frank analysis of his life and works and makes mention of an interview he had with the great writer. Isaac Newton, he notes, was not all the man is presently cracked up to be; he seems to have been a nutcase that happened to produce the laws of gravity. Though it must not escape the reader, as he is never one to avoid the truth, Hitchens spares no rod on any character in question; revealing their bright points as well as their dark ones, one feels they’ve gained a fuller picture of each persona after every brief biography one reads of Hitchens’. Also included near the end of this portion is an absolutely wonderful piece of journalistic nostalgia entitled “Fleet Street’s Finest” where he recounts not only his days in the field but others’ as well. This, to me, is sincerely one of the best essays the book has to offer.

As if serving as a small break from the other short works of selected pen, he inserts an unusually, but wisely placed group of miscellaneous essays into the third slot. From his exposition on the male-comedy-adopting female and destruction and reconstruction of the Decalogue (both articles featuring accompanying videos on the Internet) to his discourse on the blowjob, the act being “As American as Apple Pie” (which I couldn’t help thinking was misnamed as such, and that the title of a later essay concerning the French ban on veils—“In Your Face”, as it is headed—would have been a better fit), to gay politicians and waiter complaints, Hitchens provides some welcome and warming personal insights of the random pursuits of his own mind.

As a literary critic, roughly half of this bound collection consists of book reviews. Indeed, one should pay some attention to the author’s words of the subjects in review, but I have long enjoyed his personal thoughts on matters at hand or of history more than his thoughts of the written word of others. For readers of this sort, the fourth section features quite probably the best essays in the book, written by his long-practiced, deft and polemic-specialized hand.

Via two articles condemning the state, the leaders, and to an extent, the people of North Korea “where the only things that work are the police and the armed forces”, he takes the reader briefly through the brutal reality of the disgusting place and we see Orwell’s nightmarish dystopia come true (only worse). On the practice of waterboarding, there exists video footage of Christopher Hitchens going through the process, administered by anonymous and hooded figures: the article written about the experience appears here and it is titled appropriately, “Believe Me, It’s Torture”. Meanwhile, in Vietnam the effects of Agent Orange linger on and the effects on the reader’s heart and psyche of the imagery and living conditions of effected children are wretchedly dejecting—even only described in print—in another magnificent piece, indeed rivaling that of his column about the so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” of Sudan and Uganda, yet another paramilitary group that makes soldierly use of male children and unmentionable, unthinkable use of the female kind. (On the same note, Ishmael Beah’s first-person and first-rate account of the use of child soldiers on both sides of the Sierra Leonean civil war—A Long Way Gone—comes highly recommended.)

                The next collection within this collection may be deemed its lowest point, though that’s not to say the essays it contains are not interesting (or, at the very least, made to be interesting). One feels that it is rather aimless, as if it were simply a place to dump ill-fitting articles about totalitarianism and authors who comment on the awful stripe. This does not constitute overlooking his words, however; his opinions on the facts are not only noteworthy, but are handy for presenting to any regime-affirming apologist. At the outset, he chronicles the harrowing ventures of Victor Serge (who coined the term ‘totalitarian’) and his resulting vitriolic works despoiling all things Communist. For the “Persian Version” of absolutism and despotism, Hitchens writes of the superb ability of Iran’s people to find “the cracks and gaps in the system, [and] testing its limits and transcending them.” Included also is an introduction to Isabel Allende’s semiautobiographical novel, The House of the Spirits, which recounts three generations of Chileans and the overthrow of fascism in the country. After a sharp review of Martin Amis’ Koba the Dread, we are subject to five essays concerning World War II that scathingly deplore pacifism, give moral justification to the war on the whole, and are hilariously ruthless in demeaning Adolf Hitler.

In the last portion included—so ingeniously called “Words’ Worth”—he focuses on the history and idiosyncrasies of the English language, as well as the universal right of freedom of speech and all that it entails (perhaps most notably in defense of the political cartoons—an issue he and others loudly and justly spoke of in the media and elsewhere—printed in a Danish newspaper in 2005). He begins by praising the King James Bible—not something exactly in his character, you might say, until one realizes that it is that version and that version only that he appreciates, and for no other reason than its contribution to the massive lexicon of the English language. Mentioning Terri Schiavo, he makes a fuss over the “four letter word: d-e-a-d,” as he said on MSNBC at the time, and all the needless attention paid to the situation. On the amusing side of our delightful language, ‘Fuck,’ it seems, is a very versatile word. Or so the author makes it seem: making light of this very unsanitary term used by everyone from scholarly authors to the children of Iraq. In his article “Words Matter”, he highlights the importance of the depth and variety of words and the hilarious attempts made by politicians to come up with a catchphrase for campaigns.

At times though (as the uproarious fiction writer and Hitchens’ close friend Martin Amis hinted at, but did not quite get around to fully pointing out in his forward to The Quotable Hitchens) the author’s humor can be misplaced. In “Old Enough to Die”, an otherwise deeply powerful, very humane observation of the state-sanctioned execution of mentally perturbed minors, Hitchens more than once inserts ill-timed sneers at his favorite targets, or otherwise makes use of untimely phrases or terms, disrupting the pointed mood he is trying to convey. Of the 14-year-old George Stinney, whose unusually fierce convulsions caused his mask to slip off of his face while being executed by electrocution in 1944, Hitchens describes how

The witnesses saw his wide-open and weeping eyes, and his dribbling mouth, before another two jolts ended the business and fried him for good. They may not have “burn’d him in a holy place,” but it was a reverent state occasion and you can bet there was a minister on hand to see fair play done.

While as handy as these sardonic statements are (and as easily as they may have arisen out of pure and justified indignation), he may have been too quick to make use of them. On the other hand, as my reader may have noticed, he quotes a line from William Blake that is rightly harsh to religion, and I have an intuitive suspicion that he went as far as inserting two quatrains of Blake’s “Little Boy Lost” into the article for no other purpose than to have an unfitting dig at the foul institution.

Make no mistake, however: the humor used throughout is often very clever and of smart placement. (Immigration seems to have no effect on wit.) In his review of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the unconscious “capitalist primer” as he calls it, he at once provides humor that is always to be found among the English-born type: “Probably no two words in our language are now more calculated to shrivel the sensitive nostril than ‘socialist realism.’” And funny gives rise to more funniness; when discussing the aphorisms and witticisms of the pseudonymously authored Poor Richard’s Almanack (obviously meant for elevated, humorous minds, but apparently read and seriously taught by unfunny half-wits), Hitchens adds his own to the mix when he notes how the collected tidbits whizzed far over the head of Mark Twain: “A point, like a joke, is a terrible thing to miss.” Later, he issues his complaint of the massive use of the term ‘like’ in the teenage lexicon:

How could one preserve what’s useful about “like” without allowing it to reduce everyday vocabulary and without having it weaken the two strong senses of the word, which are: to be fond of something or somebody ( As You, Like, Like It ) or to resemble something or somebody (“Like, Like a Virgin”)?

Have a laugh but once more at a small excerpt from his field day with the stupid slogans we hear shouted by hopeful politicians on the campaign trails:

Take "Yes We Can," for example. It's the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake. As for "We Are the People We Have Been Waiting For" (in which case, one can only suppose that now that we have arrived, we can all go home). . .

But these bits hardly scratch the surface, and he is meaner—much meaner—in other places; as in his article-length complaint about the pointless national attention given to the Virginia Tech shootings or (perhaps only a little less mean) in the first paragraph of his thoughts on the Terri Schiavo case:

all through Easter Sunday, one had to be alert to the possibility that, at any moment, the late and long-dead Terri Schiavo would receive the stigmata on both palms and both feet and be wafted across the Florida strait, borne up by wonder-working dolphins, to be united in eternal bliss with the man-child Elián González.

Such is the humor of a polemicist. Hitchens restrains himself nowhere he cannot be muzzled, always going for the throat of the matter with a jab and an uppercut for good measure.

Though, it should be said that the largest criticism to be made of this anthology—without any doubt or reserve—is of the content it doesn’t include. Essays like the superbly written account on the author’s loss of voice due to esophageal cancer, “Unspoken Truths”, for instance, published for the June edition of Vanity Fair should have made the cut; or perhaps the hilarious 2004, six-page lampoon of The Passion of the Christ entitled “The Gospel According to Mel”.  There are others that most definitely could have been bound along with the rest of the essays in this book, but unfortunately for one reason or another were not.

The acclaimed and charming essayist E.B. White, in the 1976 preface to his own collection of essays, wrote of his own breed, "The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest." No writer from Montaigne to Huxley has thought otherwise; Hitchens—for the better—certainly has not. This volume will remain in the hands of those who wish to learn not only about the psyche of the author himself, but of the fruits of an independent mind and profoundly talented essayist. Most certainly placing among the ranks of Orwell himself, Christopher Hitchens’ collected tour de force is but one more work to add to his list.

Let us have one last thought come from the work in review: As this remarkable anthology draws too-soon to a close, its ending words are arranged in a last, all to appropriate essay on the simply unnatural amount of books in partially-arranged shelves, or stacks, or in abject mass, strewn throughout his home in Washington D.C. The imbroglio at first seems unfitting, but by the end of the essay—and thus, of the book—it seems, in a very pleasant way, to be particularly consistent with the wise and brilliant character at hand. Long live Christopher Hitchens. 

Twelve Publishers — List price: $30

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