Christopher Hitchens is prolific indeed. Now, after books on a dozen subjects from Cyprus to Jefferson, Paine, and, most recently, the general badness of religion, he turns his attention inwards in Hitch-22, named for the paradoxical style of Catch-22. Hitch-22’s chief paradox is that of simultaneously maintaining against militant Islamic absolutists and Western relativists that “there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them.” I’m not sure this is a paradox, but it appears to have garnered an excellent blurb from Joseph Heller.
For many on the left, Hitchens’ newish, essentially pro-American position and his support for the Iraq war identify him as a neoconservative traitor. In reality, however, Hitchens is not a neoconservative. The claim is an excuse for those who don’t want to think through Hitchens’ shifting loyalties, and has no more merit than the habit among Communist parties of promptly expelling anyone who wished to resign.
True, Hitchens holds some neoconservative ideas. Indeed, he earned them the hard way: Few, for instance, can offer personal witness – through thinking, travel, and meetings with many known to most of us only through newspapers – that “the only historical revolution with … any example to offer others, is the American one.” He also recognized the Islamist threat early, when Khomeini issued a fatwa in response to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the late ‘80s.
What Hitchens is, is a contrarian. When of the Left, he was often as much against what he saw as failures of the English Labour Party as he was against the Conservatives. Some readers will be delighted by his anti-Clinton rhetoric (“a habitual and professional liar”) – but this is almost identical to his description of Ronald Reagan’s “appallingly facile manner as a liar.” He is vitriolic about Norman Podhoretz, but defends Paul Wolfowitz to the hilt.
Hitchens went everywhere, and met everyone. Indeed, his book makes a competent if ad hoc and partial account of the political history of Europe since WWII. Hitchens also appears to have written (and read) nonstop as he went.
This productivity is all the more remarkable when we consider his emotional origins. A great admirer of his military father and passionate about his mother, he suffered the greatest of all family tragedies when she went off with a lover to end in a double suicide in a cheap hotel. Perhaps this is ultimately what drives the deeply sentimental, utterly-devoted friend this memoir reveals.
Most famously, Hitchens also turned his omnivorous reading to a talent for the well-turned phrase. His mother becomes a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, “the sinister windbag who had brought enlightenment to the Beatles in the summer of love.” Of Hemingway’s suicide, we learn that he “read the obituaries every morning with a glass of champagne (eventually wearing out the cheery novelty of this and unshipping his shotgun).” Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’ “must be the strictest verdict passed by a daughter on a male parent since the last reunion of the House of Atreus.” And so on.
Immense productivity, deep reading, an endless devotion to friends – and a decisive break with many elements of his past in prescient response to the Islamic threat. There is much to admire here.
But two important things must appear on the other side of the ledger. First is a delusional devotion to Leon Trotsky -- as if, but for Stalin, Trotsky might have made something of the Soviet Union. This of the apologist for Lenin’s Red Terror who insisted “We must rid ourselves once and for all of the Quaker-Papist babble about the sanctity of human life.”
Second is Hitchens’ attitude to Israel. Hitchens ultimately broke with his friend Edward Said when he realized Said believed that anything the U.S. did “could not by definition be a moral or ethical action.” Nevertheless, he cleaves to some bankrupt Saidian convictions about the Palestinian Arabs. Hitchens is perfectly willing to admonish us, “Do not shame yourself with the cheap lie that they were told by their leaders to run away” in the 1948 war. This is odd, because it is well-founded that many Arab leaders did so instruct them. He also insists the Israelis have been oppressing Palestinian Arabs for four generations without noting the frankly incontrovertible fact that the Israelis have never been offered any other choice except to leave. Indeed, he suggests Israel is “a sixty-year rather botched experiment in marginal quasi-statehood… that the Jewish people could consider abandoning.” As if it was a failure of Judaism rather than of Islam.
There is much more, including Hitchens own discovery that he himself is Jewish, and whole chapters on his beloved friends James Fenton, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie, as well as much juicy (there is no other word) material on Gore Vidal and others. (Oddly, his wife and three children get barely a mention). And there is, of course, a hefty if poorly-supported chunk on the stupidity of religion, essentially recapitulating the contents of “god Is Not Great.”
At times sentimental, even mawkish, and frequently infuriating, Hitch-22 is also hilarious, highly literate and genuinely learned, even if it does wear that learning too conspicuously. And refugees from the Left should always be welcomed, even if their journey is incomplete.