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Christopher Hitchens's marks and misses

Discussed in this essay: Arguably: Essays, by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve. 788 pages. $30.

Writing of John F. Kennedy’s numerous ailments, Christopher Hitchens describes this would-be Achilles as a “poxed and suppurating Philoctetes” and notes that his life was remarkable not for being cut so short but for lasting so long. Of a later president, George W. Bush, Hitchens observes that his eyes are set close enough together for him to use a monocle rather than a pair of glasses. Prince Charles he dismisses as “a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts,” while the late English poet Stephen Spender “never quite succeeded in overcoming the widespread impression (which he may have privately shared) that there was something vaguely preposterous about him.”

The surreal figure of the upper-class English author W. Somerset Maugham, a man described by Quentin Crisp as “one of the stately homos of England,” comes in for some particularly devastating treatment. Maugham, as Hitchens points out, is the unacknowledged subject of Anthony Burgess’s superb novel Earthly Powers, which opens with a parody of Maugham’s style in what is probably the most eye-catching first sentence of any work of fiction in history: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite [boy lover] when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” The parody, Hitchens acidly remarks, “is so much better than anything that W. Somerset Maugham ever wrote himself.”

All this is the kind of scabrous wit that readers of the Great Contrarian have come to relish. The verve and panache of Hitchens’s prose, its tonal range and opulent texture, contrast sharply with the colorless, flat-footed style of so many homegrown American commentators. He mixes the unstanchable eloquence of a literary stylist with the barfly loquaciousness of a hack, and could not write a dull sentence if he tried. His columns are also full of fascinating nuggets of knowledge. North Koreans, we learn from this book, are on average six inches shorter than their South Korean counterparts, while Hitler’s favorite movie was the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The pieces in Arguably, culled from a clutch of mostly U.S. journals and spanning the past decade, are as striking for their scope as they are for their brio. They range from the condition of Afghan women to the King James Bible, from Thomas Jefferson and Saul Bellow to the fine art of fellatio. (The Victorians knew the act as a “below-job,” which may explain why the word “blow” came to be used of an act which involves its opposite.) The elegance of Hitchens’s upper-middle-class English background is combined with the unflagging energy and omnivorous curiosity of his adoptive country. He could tell you just who to talk to about Kurdish nationalism in the southeastern Turkish city of Batman, as well as what to order in the only decent restaurant there. He can give you the lowdown on everyone from Isaac Newton to Gore Vidal, Oscar Wilde to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. He has been everywhere, endured a number of forms of torture—from being experimentally waterboarded to being thwacked on the backside by Margaret Thatcher—­and has spent his life assiduously courting everybody who is anybody.

Like a querulous infant, he wants everything and he wants enormous helpings of it. His desire to belabor the social establishment is rivaled only by his gratification at belonging to it. This card-carrying atheist’s fantasy of paradise is to be fêted by the rich and powerful at the sleekest of Washington dinner parties for having machine-gunned a marauding gang of terrorists outside the U.S. embassy in Sana’a while remaining a Marxist. No club must be closed to this man-about-town. One is reminded of the aristocratic woman in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies who has heard rumors of an Independent Labour Party and is furious that she has not been invited. Hitchens, in the tradition of Yogi Berra, thinks you can “follow” a fork in the road, a feat beyond even the most vacillating of politicians. He continues to imagine in postmodern fashion that all certainties are dogmatic, as he did in his recent autobiography, Hitch-22, while being as full of them as the rest of us.

In one sense of the word, Hitchens is not really an intellectual at all. He is uneasy with abstract ideas, scraped an Oxford bachelor’s degree by the skin of his teeth, and grows stridently simplistic whenever he strays into the realms of science, philosophy, or theology. He prefers concepts charged with the raw stuff of everyday life, or which flesh themselves out in literary fiction. Part sage, part showman, a jack-of-all-trades who can glide with aplomb from the state of the novel to the state of the economy, his true ancestor is the Victorian man of letters, equally perceptive about theories of evolution and Thackeray. So Hitchens is as well versed in the fiction of J. G. Ballard as he is in the politics of Pakistan. As with his Victorian predecessors, his engagement with literature is more versatile and less technical than that of the specialized literary critic. He has a fine ear for tone but would be lost in a discussion of Formalist poetics. The versatility is exemplified in Arguably by a stinging critique of the Harry Potter novels delivered by an insider who actually did once travel to boarding school by steam train. He has a soft spot for novels by English toffs (Waugh, P. G. Wodehouse, Anthony Powell, Jessica Mitford) and a regressive affection for thrillers, spy stories, ripping yarns, flag-waving fables, and imperial adventures. There is nothing the least adventurous about his literary allegiances. It is hard to imagine him writing about Wallace Stevens. There is a scrappy essay on Ezra Pound and an account of Flaubert that takes him for a straight realist, failing to see that style is the protagonist of his fiction from beginning to end.

In classic man-of-letters fashion, Hitchens sometimes loiters in the suburbs and borderlands of literature, the places where it shades off into real life, which is one reason he shares the perverse and peculiar English passion for biography. For certain types, biography is a convenient way of talking about authors without the bother of having to read their stuff. Hitchens can be exceptionally perceptive about literary works when he gets down to them, but he is too often to be found discussing Samuel Johnson’s politics and religion rather than his fiction and poetry, or filling us in on the social context of Animal Farm without noting how its allegorical form subtly distorts its political argument. Disinclined to dissect the narrative structure of Dickens’s Bleak House, he instead reminds us that its doughty author, champion of the dispossessed, once had a poor woman arrested for cursing in the street and robustly advocated the extermination of anti-British rebels in India. Literary criticism degrades into high-class gossip, biographical snippets, publication details, and a dash of history. Hitchens derides Somerset Maugham for being awarded an honor by the Crown for services to literature rather than for literature itself, but there are times when he himself sails perilously close to qualifying for that dubious distinction.

Even so, there are some memorable literary essays here, not least an invaluable account of the novelist and political radical Rebecca West and an incisive survey of the Trinidadian Marxist author C.L.R. James. A piece on Philip Larkin reminds us that the poet once glumly described the sexual act as a futile attempt to “get someone else to blow your nose for you.” Larkin’s provincial England, Hitchens writes with well-bred disdain, “is the world of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism.” It is a brutally precise indictment.

Hitchens is at ease in the upper-class world of Waugh and Mitford, and takes a mischievous delight in recording tumbrilisms, those callously cavalier, let-them-eat-cake remarks honed by the British aristocracy. Mitford once wrote briskly to her son that his bipolar disorder had become a bore and that he had better pull himself together. On a more tender note, she offered him her maternal aid “if you should ever tire of the manic condition.” One thinks of the Oxford aesthete Brian Howard on being asked for his name and address when confronted by a Scotland Yard officer at an illegal dive in London: “My name is Brian Howard, and I live in Berkeley Square, and you, my dear, I suppose, come from some dreary little suburb.” Hitchens admires the chutzpah of such comments, their comic effrontery, while registering their obnoxiousness. The ambiguity reflects his own socially amphibious condition, as a scion of the British establishment able to turn its own witheringly sardonic attitudes against it.

Hitchens is just as much an enthusiast of the more muscular lineage of Kipling, John Buchan, and Ian Fleming. In fact, the secret of his identity can be found at the confluence of these two traditions, the elusive spot where Bond meets Brideshead. Hitchens, whose father was a military man but who turned to Trotsky as a student, is a renegade in a long English tradition of well-bred bohemians and iconoclasts. Some of these men became Soviet spies, while others, like Graham Greene, lurked on the shadowy outskirts of that demimonde. These Oedipal children of the ruling order, who took a sadistic delight in biting the hand that reared them, have always proved useful to the political left. They have the grit, stylishness, effortless assurance, inside knowledge, and social contacts of their patrician backgrounds but can turn these assets to radical ends. The only problem is that they tend to revert to social type as they grow older and wealthier, or when the political going gets tough. Hitchens, who detests a cliché almost as much as he abhors a despot, has turned into one of the dreariest stereotypes of all: the revolutionary young hothead who learns to stop worrying about imperialism and love Paul Wolfowitz. With marvelous convenience, his support for liberal interventionism allows him to combine his radical hatred of oppression with the values of his posh military background.

Hitchens’s official hero is George Orwell, another internal émigré who journeyed from private school to socialism and war journalism. Orwell sprang from the lower echelons of the upper class, and this ambiguous position allowed him, like Hitchens, to combine an insider’s sympathy for some of its values with the critical eye of a semi-outsider. There is a sense, however, in which it is Greene, shorn of his Catholicism, who is his true mentor. Like Hitchens, Greene was a tourist of revolution who moved in a louche, whiskey-soaked world of secret agents and political desperados, scribbling his sweat-drenched dispatches to the sound of vultures shifting menacingly on the corrugated iron roof. This is just how his inheritor likes to see himself, and indeed something like the kind of life he has lived. The pen has always been Hitchens’s substitute for his father’s sword, as the vulgar Freudians might put it. To be waterboarded is to grab a piece of the action, however passively. If you cannot be an officer in the Royal Marines, then at least you can write admiringly about them in Vanity Fair.

Hitchens seems perfectly aware of these torn allegiances. Greene, he writes,

was nothing if not radical, even subversive . . . Always at odds with authority . . . a bohemian and a truant, part exile and part émigré . . . he personified the fugitive from the public school, Foreign Office, rural and suburban British tradition in which he had been formed. By what means did this pinkish roué gradually mutate into a reactionary?

Or, to pose the question slightly differently, By what means did a pinkish, bohemian comrade of mine in the British International Socialists come to compare the burka to the hood of the Ku Klux Klan? “I am not going to have a hooded man or woman teach my children,” Hitchens declares huffily, “or,” he continues, in a mystifying and bathetic non sequitur, “push their way into the bank ahead of me.”

It is not that he lacks judiciousness. Balance is not a quality one usually associates with polemicists, but it is a feature that Hitchens’s writing often displays. He is right, for example, to see that Edmund Burke, far from being the politically benighted creature of popular caricature, was a liberal Whig who denounced the French Revolution for much the same reasons he lambasted British colonial rule in Ireland, India, and America. He was also a stout opponent of the slave trade. This, however, does not stop Hitchens from describing one of Burke’s most celebrated passages of prose as possibly “the most preposterous and empurpled sentimentality ever committed to print.” If Burke appeals to Hitchens’s Romantic conservatism, Burke’s great antagonist Thomas Paine is one source of his radical rationalism, so that the jousting between these two mighty thinkers reflects a deep-seated conflict in Hitchens himself.

There are times when in the manner of the grateful immigrant he is far too easy on the United States, and other times—a scintillating little essay on capital punishment, for example—when he excoriates the place at full throttle. He can even turn his wrath on his beloved old buddy Martin Amis, which is a bit like David taking a swing at Jonathan. A piece that is largely critical of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s indictment of AIPAC nonetheless suggests that they should have gone further in emphasizing “the role of Israel in supporting apartheid in South Africa, in providing arms and training for dictators in Congo and Guatemala, and helping reactionary circles in America do their dirty work—most notably during the Iran-Contra assault on the Constitution and in the emergence of the alliance between Likud and the Christian right.” To achieve some degree of evenhandedness on this of all topics is to summon the rhetorical talents of Paine and Burke, as well as to double one’s hate mail.

When it comes to Islam, Hitchens’s judiciousness deserts him. The only thing that distinguishes some of his more intemperate comments on the subject from Glenn Beck’s is that the latter has no judiciousness to be deserted by. Hitchens regards “Islamophobia” as a “dumb” word. Either he means that there is no hatred of Muslims simply as Muslims, or that such hatred should exist. The En­glish Defence League, a bunch of boneheaded thugs whose vocation in life is to beat up British Asians, would be thrilled to inscribe that pronouncement on its leaflets. When Amis launched a vile assault on the Muslim population of Britain in the wake of 9/11, suggesting that the community should be hounded, harassed, and perhaps deported, Hitchens mounted a squalidly disingenuous defense of him.

Pakistan, Hitchens argues in an enraged essay, has shamefully exploited its relations with the United States and “played [us] for suckers.” In fact, “our blatant manipulation by Pakistan is the most diseased and rotten thing in which the United States has ever involved itself.” Really? More diseased than the chemical warfare waged by America in Vietnam, the subject of another properly disgusted essay here? More rotten than Hiroshima? Is being pushed around the worst that has ever happened to the United States? To think so would seem to reflect the touchiness of the émigré.

Hitchens has no illusions about the way in which the West has hurt and humiliated the rest of the world. He knows why some in Latin America feel so sore about the States, whatever he thinks nowadays about the validity of their grievances. He knows that Congolese insurgents were not fighting the Belgians because there were no sports facilities around to keep them more innocently occupied. He must also know, being the superbly intelligent analyst he is, that to explain is not to excuse. People who set fire to small children in the name of Allah are not justified in doing so because they feel exploited and belittled; but to observe that they would be a lot less likely to do so if they felt differently is not to lapse into the language of psychopathology. Why then is Hitchens, a man who has spent his life witnessing some of the terrifying consequences of political injustice, unwilling to concede that Western interference in the affairs of the Muslim world has contributed to the murderous fury of the Islamists?

When splendidly perceptive people become suddenly obtuse, one generally suspects that one is in the presence of ideology, a presence occasionally betrayed by a stumbling of style. When Hitchens writes of his old friend Edward Said that “for some reason—conceivably connected to his status as an exile—he cannot allow that direct Western engagement [in the Middle East] is legitimate,” the limp bemusement of the prose is an exact reflection of the dim-wittedness of the thought. Hitchens dedicates this volume to three dead men who played a key role in the so-called Arab Spring. It’s just as well, since there is scarcely anything in the book itself to suggest that the Islamic world contains anything but cruelty, tyranny, and corruption.

Few Western journalists have written with such passion and rancor as Hitchens of the rotten regimes that besmirch the Arab world. It is true that this scorching critique would be a lot more impressive were it not accompanied by such a strong whiff of Western supremacism. Even so, it is impossible to deny its force. It may be that Hitchens’s political allegiances have changed over time, as his sympathies have shifted from Trotsky to that reliable barometer of Iraqi public opinion Ahmed Chalabi (granted a few sweet words here), to the crooked, unstable Karzai, and to Tony Blair. Yet there is no shred of inconsistency in these remarkable turnabouts, which stem from Hitchens’s visceral hatred of political oppression in any form. He is a left-leaning liberal whose creed led him first into the arms of Marx, and later into a suspiciously energetic championing of imperial warmongering, but whose principles have never altered en route. Nor has he wholly abandoned his admiration for Marx, as an affirmative piece on him in this volume testifies.

All the same, it has not gone unnoticed among Hitchens’s former political friends that his conversion from socialism to capitalism has coincided with curious exactitude with history’s own drift in that general direction. For one like Hitchens who enjoys being au fait, this cannot be entirely discounted as a subsidiary motive. It is unlikely that a practicing Trotskyist (though Hitchens never practiced quite hard enough to get really good at it) would be as welcome in Washington’s corridors of power as the man who can tell us in this book, for all the world like some purple-faced colonel in a London club, that joining the army is an excellent way for black youths to integrate with mainstream American culture.

There are other minor blemishes. The African American who shows his penis to the titular hero of Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet does not do so in the street. By “rural idiocy,” Marx did not mean rural stupidity. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was by no means the first realist novel, and Martin Chuzzlewit is by no means Dickens’s weakest piece of fiction.

Hitchens remarks laconically in his introduction that he may not have long to live; the voraciousness of these essays makes this seem an implausible claim. To pitch so full-bloodedly into the midst of things, as Hitchens has never ceased to do, demands a certain kind of courage and self-abandonment. He is right to suggest in this book that the traditional values of “grit and pluck and hardihood” are not to be dismissed as irredeemably old-fashioned, and fearlessness has always been among his supreme virtues—he’s always struck one as a man who would go down writing. “Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to,” is the book’s epigraph, the words of a character from Henry James’s The Ambassadors who has poignantly failed to heed that injunction. Whatever his other mistakes, this gravest of errors is one that Christopher Hitchens could never have made.

's latest book is Why Marx Was Right (Yale University Press).

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