How, five years after his sad, untimely death aged 61, should we explain the phenomenon of Christopher Hitchens? He was more loved, and more hated, than any journalist, and inspired devotion unseen since, perhaps, Henry Louis Mencken. He inspired countless people, young and old, to love argumentation, and promote the causes he so energetically advanced.
Why? Those causes were inspiring, of course, to some, but it was Hitchens’ talent and charisma that made them seem so attractive. PJ O’Rourke joked that whatever one says about the Nazis, no woman ever had fantasies about a liberal. Hitchens made liberalism, or, at least, his version of it seem exciting, bold and very much worth identifying with. This was partly because of its content. He was clear and passionate, both about what he loved – freedom, literature, irreverence and scientific progress – and what he loathed – obscurantism and tyranny. There was no liberal dubiety and compromise here. It was also because of him – his style and his persona – with mordant prose and scintillating anecdotage washed down with gallons of wine and celebrated with cigarettes.
Many of us think less of him as an intellectual now. His arguments relied on sheer rhetorical force. Whenever an expert in one the fields he strayed into analysed his empirical claims they found much to refute (see John Barrell on his little book about Thomas Paine, or David Bentley Hart on his assessment of the Christian faith). It is fair to decide that he played fast and loose with the facts.
Still, he was not a scholar but a polemicist, and we should zoom out to consider his worldview in its totality. It is remarkable how many holes we find. Hitchens wrote little about economics, environmentalism or technology. Perhaps he knew he did not have a lot to say about them, and, respecting Wittgenstein’s dictum that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, held his peace. That is admirable, to some extent, except that he reduced equally complicated matters, of religion, ethnicity, conflict and rebellion, to Manichean grandstanding and liberal triumphalism.
Hitchens was respected by conservatives for his defence of Western civilisation. It was always superficial. His antitheism, which was so crude and virulent that he applauded Lenin for destroying the Russian church, ensured that he admired a Europe of vague post-Enlightenment abstractions, uprooted from actual societies. He was a bold and eloquent defender of free expression but what is good to express is something he knew less of. His opposition to militant Islam, though often wise and always passionate, inspired him to promote catastrophic, counter-productive military adventurism.
Iraq is the obvious example. Hitchens’ “conversion” to neoconservatism was not as sudden or surprising as one might have guessed. He had been interested in toppling Hussein for years, and his enthusiasm for hawkish endeavours had been growing since the Kosovo War. Still, it is astonishing quite how gung ho he was. Confusing “ought” with “is” to a dismaying degree, he made a sound argument that Saddam Hussein was unspeakably evil but avoided hard, painstaking thought about the practicalities of regime change. How to replace the power structure a nation? How to unite conflicting ethnic and political factions? How to bring liberalism to illiberal populations? How to make the U.S. government behave competently? One can find few answers to these questions in his work. They do not lend themselves to moralism or rhetorical bombast.
Still, Hitchens exerts a grasp on the imagination. Well, on my imagination. Why? Well, he inspired me. To a teenager his wit, eloquence and “muscular liberalism” were intoxicating. It is hard to forget such formative influences. So, when I found his memoirs, Hitch-22, in a second hand bookshop I had to revisit him.
The book contained all the familiar pleasures: the firecracker prose, the stories and the jokes. The humour was more hit-and-miss than in his essays. There are lots of tales of youthful hijinks with his London coterie, including Martin Amis, Clive James and Julian Barnes, that I am sure he knew would appear less than sparkling on the page. There is one digression on the sexual preferences of Gore Vidal and Tom Driberg that should never have seen the light of day. Still, Hitchens makes up for this with a surprising number of moving, poetic passages, especially about his parents.
Yvonne Hitchens was a lively and ambitious woman who was, it appears, unsuited to lower middle class motherhood. Eric Hitchens, “the Commander”, was a buttoned-up old Navy man who was at sea in normal civilian life. It is clear that Christopher identified with his mother, and was heartbroken when, after eloping with a partner, she committed suicide in a Greek hotel. Still, his sympathises with his staid, loyal, reliable dad, who was abandoned by the establishment he dutifully served. This doubtless informed the young Hitchens’ radicalism, though one might wish a little more judicious Toryism had infected his genes.
Little as I laughed while reading of the drink-soaked punfests Hitchens, Amis and their friends enjoyed in London, I appreciate how much they valued friendship. It would be no more amusing if I wrote of me and my best friends’ drinking exploits but I still cherish the memories. Still, it is interesting to reflect on their “generation”. They grew up with mentors who had lived through a titanic age of Churchill, Hitler and Stalin and struggled to find causes by which to define themselves, either picking through the memories of Auschwitz and Vorkutlag or making laboured interventions into arguments about nuclear weapons or Islam – some of which, granted, have had merit but none of which have been more than somewhat ostentatious opinion commentary. They yearned for the moral crises of their predecessors and drifted wordily into eloquent cliches.
Hitchens was, of course, a special case: far more explicitly political and far more aggressively engaged. No one, reading Hitch-22, could deny that he had real convictions. His accounts of formative experiences, such as reading How Green Was My Valley, that tribute to South Welsh miners, or travelling as through a torture-terrorised Argentina, emanate a love of freedom and hatred of tyranny.
Still, nobody is pure. We all have all hidden motivations – that we hide from others or that are hidden from ourselves. Averse though I am to sending readers to another critic, David Runciman’s characterisation of Hitchens as a “political romantic” was convincing. Drawing on Carl Schmitt, he claimed such people were:
…driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things.
Throughout Hitch: 22 the author relates desperate attempts to witness revolutions, wars, riots and unrest. At one point he writes of being disheartened on realising that he cannot be in Prague and Chicago at the same time. In part this must have been a consequence of the tremendous fear of boredom he admits to enduring (lamenting that his desire to be at the centre of things, whether that means a warzone or a cocktail party, made him an extremely hands-off father, which, it seems, was a source of “inexpressible pain”). More particularly, though, what inspired him was action, be it socialist revolution or American invasions. That is dangerous for anyone who claims to value reason in human affairs.
Yvonne Hitchens, unbeknownst to Christopher, at least until he was middle-aged, had Jewish relatives. Hitchens grapples with his Jewish roots, rather liking, I infer from his proud reference to the jealousy of Martin Amis, the exoticism he acquired. There is a bum note when, discussing anti-semitism, he asks if there is something to the “age old identification of the Jew with the subversive” and answers “if so, good”. Why “good”? Why is it “good” to be subversive? It can be, of course, but it can also be bad. It depends on what you are subverting and how. Many of us admire these or those subversives, including a certain Jew from Bethlehem who did a lot of trouble, but there is nothing inherently attractive about insurrection.
In Hitch-22, as elsewhere, Hitchens can be vague about the actual events that underpin his narrative, and the actual suggestions he is moved to endorse. I mentioned the vagueness of his campaign against radical Islam. Attempting to align it with his love of internationalism, as he writes of European multiculturalism, he writes, almost offhandedly, “mass illegal immigration threatens to spoil everything for everybody”. What? How? What should be done about it? And why was “illegal” sneaked in there? Most if not all the terrorists who have killed Europeans entered legally, or at least their families did. Most of the Cologne abusers were legal immigrants. I’m not sure if Hitchens had finished that thought but he certainly did not finish it for us. It was too hard, perhaps, to even dress it up in the language of liberalism.
Though inclined towards that which was revolutionary, Hitchens was not utopian. He was not sufficiently optimistic. At the end of Hitch-22 he quotes James Fenton’s poem “Prison Island”, which reads:
My dear friend, do you value the counsels of dead men?
I should say this. Fear defeat. Keep it before your mind
As much as victory. Defeat at the hands of friends,
Defeat in the plans of your confident generals.
Fear the kerchiefed captain who does not think he can die.
It is sound advice. But with it should come other warnings. Learn to value that which you have managed to defend. Pick your battles wisely. Know when to attack and to withdraw. Hitchens was all too aware of the chance of failure but he was too careless when he faced it, thrilled, as he was, by the idea of conflict and attached, as I have written, to the romance of lost causes.
Hitchens was a writer. He was an impressive writer. He was learned, witty, curious and charismatic enough to describe people, places and books better than almost anyone. I will never forget, to mention a few examples, his essays on North Korea, Agent Orange, Henry Kissinger, Philip Larkin, Philip Roth and, from his last days, death. Significantly, he also makes his readers want to write – not just to get as much money, friends and sex as he has had but because, after reading him, people, places and books are suffused with excitement.
But he wanted to change the world. He should have been disappointed. He died as a believer in the “Arab Spring”, which, now, is something of a graveyard for idealistic internationalism. The God argument in which he was such a tireless participant has grown ever more crude, even as, indifferent to it, Europe has slid further into atomised apatheism and theocratic Islam has continued to spread. From Trump to Brexit to the migration crisis, the world looks very different to the one he explored.
Perhaps Hitchens’ most enduring legacy will be stylistic. He writes little of his TV appearances and public debates but he was perhaps best known for what have been called “Hitchslaps”: his caustic and sometimes cruel but often very witty condemnations, put-downs and insults of his rhetorical opponents. Far less cultured, insightful and entertaining people now have their favourite jibes featured in videos bearing titles like, “Milo Yiannopoulos DESTROYS feminist”. Well, there is nothing wrong with rhetoric. But one’s rhetoric has to be employed in the service of principles and policies one has established are good, true and worth promoting. That, I believe, is where, for all his virtues, Christopher Hitchens failed.
Still, he is inspiring: as a man; as a force of nature. He put such energy into reading, writing, speaking, arguing and travelling that it seems foolish to dismiss his efforts in a passive state. If we think we have better ideas we should be half as energetic.