Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hitch 22 ... on outrage and irony

Reading the very first words of Christopher Hitchens' autobiography, Hitch 22, I knew I was going to like the book,

"I can claim copyright only in myself, and occasionally in those who are either dead or have written about the same events, or who have a decent expectation of anonymity, or who are such appalling public shits that they have forfeited their right to bitch."

Irreverence and a unique command of the English language have marked all of his writings, and this was no exception.

I can respect Hitchens not because I always agree with him, which I don't, but rather because I know at least he has deeply thought about the positions he takes. As he says, "it matters not what you think, but how you think. This manner in which he thinks is admirable and something I strive for myself,

"It's quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain 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. After various past allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was the rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. Membership in the skeptical faction or tendency is not at all a soft option. The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time ... To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.” It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics."

Certainly, his takes on Iraq (for the invasion) and Bill Clinton (would have testified during impeachment against) I find almost indefensible. But he goes to great links to do just that, especially in the case of Iraq ... a whole chapter. Leaving that whole chapter out of this book would have improved it greatly. And there is obviously room to leave it out, as Hitchens left whole areas of his life out of the book, including his first wife and several of his children, and his younger brother, columnist Peter Hitchens.

Some reviewers have rightly called out Hitchens for being a inveterate name-dropper ... and he is. But I don't mind it so much. When you have led such an interesting life and have had such interesting company: Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Gore Vidal, etc., you can be forgiven. His stories are funny and he is not afraid to poke fun at himself or to admit dalliances that others might be reluctant to admit, including homosexual encounters in his youth.  His well known propensity for drinking, among other vices, is well represented as well.

Several chapters are spent on his friends, including Amis, James Fenton and Rushdie. Many of his early friendships were strained or outright ended because of Hitchens' gradual turning away from his progressive (and to a certain extent, Marxist) roots. For many, his cheerleading for the Iraq invasion was the final straw. His position, while regrettable in my opinion, shows his willingness to follow his thoughts to their logical end. It may be hard on relationships, but it's probably a necessary choice for a public intellectual.  He's not swayed by religion or parochiality or even family and friends.

His autobiography goes to great lengths to recount his schooling and his parents. When describing the British public schools (the American equivalent of private schools) and his experiences there, Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall (Pt2) came to mind,

"... We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone ..."

With his father, a military man, his words are respectful but detached. With his mother, someone he found to be Jewish after her death, affection is more apparent.

One of the "four horsemen" of modern atheism, along with Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Hitchens has the virtue of being the only non-academic, though he's obviously well-read. That detachment gives him the leeway to be more biting and distinctly more funny than the other three. That's not to say he is my favorite, at least on that subject. I've always been partial to Sam Harris, and then probably Dawkins.

Hitch 22 touches on his atheist contemporaries a little bit, and in glowing terms, "I feel absurdly honored to be grouped in the public mind with great teachers and scholars such as Richard Dawkins…, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris ..." Largely, the book is not about his atheism at all. The only time he touches on it is in the final chapter. But when he does, it is to great effect and one of the reasons that I admire Hitchens. On the "meaning of life" for non-believers,

"About once or twice every month I engage in public debates with those whose pressing need it is to woo and to win the approval of supernatural beings. Very often, when I give my view that there is no supernatural dimension, and certainly not one that is only or especially available to the faithful, and that the natural world is wonderful enough—and even miraculous enough if you insist—I attract pitying looks and anxious questions. How, in that case, I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about?

Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough."

Though Hitch 22 was written prior to his discovery that he had esophageal cancer, his words clearly envision his eventual passing, "The clear awareness of having been born into a losing struggle need not lead one into despair. I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence. (It's the second of those thoughts: the edition of the newspaper that will come out on the day after I have gone, that is the more distressing.) Much more horrible, though, would be the announcement that the party was continuing forever, and that I was forbidden to leave. Whether it was a hellishly bad party or a party that was perfectly heavenly in every respect, the moment that it became eternal and compulsory would be the precise moment that it began to pall."

Hitchens has lived on his own terms, and shows a desire to leave this Earth on those same terms. We should all be so lucky.

"Your favorite virtue? An appreciation for irony."

"I hope never to lose the access to outrage that I felt then."


wunelle said...

This is on my list of things to read. I agree that whatever he says he's engaging and thought-provoking and invariably entertaining. We should all be so talented!

Since I haven't read it, I'm sure I don't grasp the details correctly; but I think his support of the invasion of Iraq was more a support of the idea that Muslim fundamentalism is a problem which will not be gotten around without a military engagement, rather than a support of what we claimed our motivation was or how we went about things.

I don't know enough to say with certainty that this is an issue which can be won with negotiation, but I have a sneaking suspicion that there's a kernel of truth in what he says.

Anyway, I look forward to reading it.

dbackdad said...

I took from his position that his concern was more specifically with Saddam Hussein and his treatment of his own people. While Hitchens has no love for Bush or his administration, his motivations were similar.

He has been visiting Iraq since the mid-70's and had numerous contacts there among the Iraqi people. I believe that he truly believes in his position for noble reasons and it wasn't swayed by neo-con cheerleading. But ... I still disagree with it.