And Yet...Essays by Christopher Hitchens
352 pages. Simon and Schuster. $30.
A posthumous collection of essays from an author whose essays were extensively collected while he was alive makes one wonder whether this is a second or third pressing of the author’s work, with diluted quality, or still the good stuff. With this new volume of essays from the late Christopher Hitchens the answer is pretty clearly, yes, this is good, representative work, capturing what was distinctive and valuable in his writing, and reminding why his untimely passing was such a loss to public discourse. The book’s cover states that there were 250,000 words of his essays not previously collected at the time of his death in 2011, and, on the evidence of this new volume, perhaps there are more collections still to come.
The collection’s essays have a special resonance because they were mostly written and published in the five or six years before Hitchens’ death, and thus include a number of the very last things he wrote. This was also a period in which his public reputation was largely defined by his outspoken support for the 2003 Iraq invasion, warnings about Islamic fundamentalism, and challenges to religious faith. These topics are certainly touched upon here, but not as central themes. Instead, the breadth of the essay topics reveals that in a period when one might have thought him consumed by his highly visible public advocacy, Hitchens the polemicist shared time and attention with Hitchens the literary critic, historian, biographer, cultural observer and humorist.
The collection also recalls an earlier point in Hitchens’ career, when he was better known for the hard shots he took at the reputations of some very large public figures. Two of the shorter essays in the collection return to Hitchens’ case against the Clintons, reminding us with illustration why he regarded them as inveterate liars. No public figure felt more of Hitchens’ enmity than Henry Kissinger, and Hitchens manages to get in a new dig during his review of Arthur Schlesinger’s journals, asserting that Schlesinger and Kissinger, Manhattan social acquaintances, were alike most distinctively in their sycophancy for the presidents they served. Mother Teresa alone of Hitchens’ more celebrated targets escapes mention. This is unfortunate, as her public aura of saintliness, not to mention her imminent formal canonization, seems not only to have survived, but somehow to have erased Hitchens’ argument that she disserved her Calcutta constituency, loved not so much poor people but poverty itself, and worked to expand the latter with her campaigns against contraception and abortion.
Hitchens was also no admirer of the Kennedy clan, and especially of the manufactured mystique of Camelot (“the fourth rate Lerner and Loewe musical”, as he had earlier put it). In a collection essay penned shortly after Ted Kennedy’s death, he’s in no mood to lay off, dispensing with most of the pious public mourning, and instead recalling the unflattering episodes of the late Senator’s career, from his initial ‘inheritance’ of political office to Chappaquiddick and Au Bar. The essay concludes on a note of redemption, but only because Kennedy is overcome by the greater venality of the Clintons, whose attempted smears in the 2008 Democratic primary prompted an early and pivotal Kennedy endorsement of Obama.
The collection reveals as well that Hitchens was willing to throw a punch at those ostensibly on his ‘side’. Consider “Ohio’s Odd Numbers,” an essay speculating on some peculiarities in that state’s pattern of votes in the 2004 presidential election. A bit like Florida in 2000, Ohio was the pivotal contest in the 2004 election, with the vote in doubt through much of the night and the election riding on the outcome. Bush, of course, prevailed, and while there were some Democratic charges of vote suppression or outright rigging, the circumstances, or perhaps the relatively larger margin of Bush’s victory, never led to the kind of brouhaha that surrounded Florida in 2000.
Anyone familiar with Hitchens’ views knows that John Kerry was not his choice for President in 2004, and that while he viewed Bush as something of an amiable dolt, he strongly favored the President’s Iraq policy and wished to see it continued via a second term. By the time “Ohio’s Odd Numbers” was published, in March, 2005, Bush’s re-election was long since settled, but stirring the pot about possible election irregularities was hitting the President where it hurt, given the lasting tarnish of Florida. This could only complicate Bush’s ability to hold on to his troubled Iraq policy, a policy for which Hitchens’ advocacy was not only outspoken, but responsible for a profound reordering of his reputation and professional, as well as some personal, relationships. None of that calculation led to any restraint in the essay, which is a highly skeptical look at a series of pro-Bush voting anomalies for which Hitchens is unable to find any good explanation.
Perhaps the most affecting of the book’s essays are those that unintentionally foreshadow his death, touching upon the behaviors that almost certainly were contributing factors. In particular, three sequential essays recounting his visits to various health facilities or spas in humorous pursuit of a physical makeover provide him the opportunity to discuss at some length his notorious relationship with alcohol and tobacco. He affects a fair jauntiness in the face of what he certainly knew were serious risks to his health, but one can’t help wondering whether his attitude would have differed had he known that the mortal disease that felled him was only a few years off and very likely attributable to this choice of vices. Part of his argument was that he needed them to write, and, if truly so, he perhaps had no real choice or, later, reason for regret. One suspects, however, that the essays’ stance reflected that the risks of his behavior remained only a contingency.
Poignant in another way is Hitchens’ essay on the oppressiveness of the Christmas season, published in the Wall Street Journal just a couple of weeks after his death. The essay leaves no doubt that Hitchens’ views on religion and piety did not waver as he approached his end, and, indeed, that his sense of humor and proportion were not the least bit weakened by the severity of his situation. This likely was not the last essay Hitchens wrote, but it would have been rather fitting if it were. It captures his irreverence, his humor, his willingness to challenge the most durable of public sentiments, all wrapped in a serious argument for the secular values that he spent much of his final years defending: reason over faith and the strict separation of church from state.
A more likely and equally fitting candidate for Hitchens’ final essay is “The Importance of Being Orwell,” Hitchens’ introduction to “The Diaries of George Orwell,” a book published some months after his death. Orwell was the writer Hitchens most admired and the one he most sought to emulate in his own writing. This was not a matter of style, since Orwell, although equally prolific, didn’t have Hitchens’ flair as a writer. He was, however, as Hitchens liked to say, distinctive, if not alone, in being on the right side of the three big questions of the 20th Century, communism, fascism and imperialism. Perhaps even more, Hitchens saw Orwell as an uncompromising truth teller, “one of those upon whom nothing was lost …and who unite[d] the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.” This was in an environment in which, as Orwell himself put it, “Everyone’s thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a “case” with deliberate suppression of his opponent’s point of view….”
It’s rather unfair to measure any writer’s career against Orwell’s, and Hitchens wouldn’t have dreamed of making the comparison himself. Yet the integrity he exalted in Orwell, “that tiny, irreducible core of the human personality that somehow manages to put up a resistance to deceit and coercion,” was the standard he set for himself, and this essay, given when it was written, serves also as Hitchens' meditation on the values that shaped his own writing and career. Similar to what he said of Orwell, the line that runs through Hitchens’ work is a “reverence for objective truth,” and the conviction that it can be found through free and reasoned inquiry. That process of inquiry was anything but forensic in a Hitchens essay, as he sought and invited counter-argument, determined to confront, not suppress opposing views. At the end, it left him a confident writer, committed to the truth as he found it, and thus unhesitating when it led him to assail a public icon or hold to a stand that was or became vastly unpopular.
As Martin Amis put it in his remarks at the recent dinner awarding the first annual Hitchens Prize, Christopher Hitchens’ death was “a catastrophe”. This was true not only for those, such as Amis, who were personally close to him, but for the public at large, which lost a singular, uncompromising, typically contrarian voice, as well as its most eloquent and effective champion of free expression, free inquiry, and the secular state. Those values have rarely been under greater assault, from the left’s eagerness to subordinate freedom of speech, and, indeed, thought, to identity politics, to the right’s recurrent urge to merge the religious and the political and allow sectarian values to obstruct secular rights. This is, of course, not even to mention the increasingly shocking and random violence associated with religious fundamentalism.
The loss of Hitchens’ advocacy in today’s circumstances is especially hard, but we are left with a considerable volume of writing and recorded appearances to remind us of what he stood and fought for. This book is among those resources, and though it is not Hitchens at his most polemical, it nevertheless captures his spirit and helps explain why for so many he was, is and should remain important.