Arguing in a Museum: Christopher Hitchens’ And Yet…
Christopher Hitchens did not believe in life after death. His publishers, it seems, are not so sure. Hitchens died some four years ago, on December 15 2011. His thoughts on his approaching death were published, posthumously, in 2012 under the title Mortality. But death, as we saw with Rick Getoski’s Lost, Stolen, and Shredded, is seldom the end of the impact of any thinker or artist. Hitchens was famously relentless in his production of the written word, writing furiously, in both pace and temperament, right to his end. In his wake he has left hundreds of articles and essays, spread across dozens of publications; it is these veins that publishers have begun to mine.
And Yet…, like 2011’s Arguably, contains a collection of Hitchens’ prose, his reviews, essays, and opinions gathered from the many periodicals and newspapers to which he contributed. So vast is his bibliographic archive that his publishers could keep this kind of thing up for many years to come. Whether they should is another matter.
Here you will find Hitchens as review, critic, pundit, and, of course, contrarian.
While he was with us Hitchens could draw together his writings to weave a new narrative in their combination, but can a publisher achieve the same effect? Should the review of Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 be read besides Hitchens’ view on freedom of speech and government surveillance? We will never know if Hitchens would have thought so, but someone has. There is someone else between these pages, they are Hitchens’ writings, but this is not his book; it is a museum; a curation.
Calling And Yet… a curation is not intended as an insult. The Mona Lisa sits very well in the Louvre after all, it’s just not necessarily how Leonardo Di Vinci envisaged it hanging when the paint was still wet. The chosen essays of Hitchens in this book are very well compiled; so much so that each seems to reveal a different face of the author. Here you will find Hitchens as review, critic, pundit, and, of course, contrarian.
Not all Hitchens’ features were always endering. The troubling number of times when Hitchens fired off comments that at the very least appeared to many to be misogynistic is something we, and others, have discussed previously. Regrettably, but perhaps necessarily, it can be found here, such as when Hitchens gives curious credibility to the suggestion that the mass arrival of British women in colonial India is what transformed the relationship between the Indian people and the invading British: a man so attached to reason as he should not have so easily confused correlation and causation. And yet, elsewhere, and at other times, he was quick to defend the women who stepped forward to reveal the sexual transgressions of Bill Clinton, and he was lavish in his praise of Gertrude Bell, the first female officer in British military intelligence (in 1915) whose role in shaping the modern Middle East and supporting the early Arab states has been largely forgotten by popular history. This, and Hitchens’ other inconsistencies of reason are, more than anything, disappointing. Disappointing not only because I disagree with thesubstance, but because these are moments when Hitchens steps away from his adherence to reason and argument.
Argument was a joy of Hitchens’ life
Ron Capshaw, in his review of And Yet… in the National Review, called Hitchens ‘often wrong, always forthright’. Hitchens, I suppose, would have delighted at being called wrong by such an archly conservative publication, but the characterisation has a strong ring of truth to it. The diversity captured by the curation of And Yet… amply demonstrates that Hitchens had an opinion on everything, and would never hesitate to make that opinion known. Argument was a joy of Hitchens’ life; as he eloquently noted in Mortality when declaring that he regretted not a single drink nor cigarette, despite the cancer that was then killing him, as around smoking and drinking had formed the arguments that were in many ways at the centre of his life.
In his opinions Hitchens was not imprisoned by the need to adhere to a party line, nor the need to have his opinions satisfy his most ardent admirers; he was by his very nature contrarian, and in its own way this liberated him. But Capshaw was right, of course, you can’t have an opinion on everything and expect to be right all the time. How often you think Hitchens was will, I suspect, primarily depend on your views on politics and religion, but wrong he certainly was on many occasions. He never let this stop him though, his essays in And Yet… seem to demonstrate a belief that having opinions takes courage, and that it was better to be wrong than to be ambivalent; one of his most damning critiques of a public individual was that they held no opinions of their own.
In these essays, as in Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens implored readers to be something more: more argumentative, more rational, more human. Hitchens himself did not always live up to this ideal, and yet he was ruthless with public figures who stepped from this noble plinth. And why not, he might have argued; certainly he was less than perfect, but he did not pretend to be otherwise. Those public figures who became his targets were those who presented themselves as something more than they were; you need only recall his enduring distrust of the Clintons, or his challenging of Mother Teresa.
Read through And Yet… from cover to cover and you will find many ideas, but most pervasive is Hitchens’ deep distrust of authority. Appropriately, essays on George Orwell bracket this book, their placement an example of just how well curated this museum of Hitchens’ work is. Hitchens’ admiration of George Orwell is well documented, and shines through here; in Orwell Hitchens found a man he sought to emulate, and yet was never so arrogant as to believe himself Orwell’s peer. It is here, as he drills into the ills of society, warns against seductive threats, and implores us to be better, that Hitchens is at his best.
It is here, as he drills into the ills of society, warns against seductive threats, and implores us to be better, that Hitchens is at his best.
Hitchens’ greatest success was that in the end it is impossible to be ambivalent about him. At times he will inspire you, at times trouble you, and yes, at times disappoint you; but he will always have an impact. Never perfect, often wrong, but always challenging. Despite my fears Hitchens can after all be found in the pages of And Yet…. These essays, carefully chosen and placed, will present to you the many faces of Christopher Hitchens. This book then, this is for those who missed Hitchens’ life, and wish to know who he was, and for those that miss him for all his faults.