There’s a habit literary bloggers have where they fixate on a particular book and denounce everyone who reviews the book in a critical way. I don’t like it. It’s precious and childish. But I just finished Christopher Hitchens’s latest breezeblock of collected journalism. There’s a magical quality to it. You feel like you are reading Wilde or Darrow in their own time. And it made the following critiques look even more silly and facile in retrospect.
Step forward, Fintan O’Toole. O’Toole begins, obliquely (you have to go far before you find a Guardian writer who appreciates clarity) with the idea that Hitchens is trying to claim Orwell’s reputation for his own. ‘There are, at a rough count, 36 references to George Orwell in this voluminous collection of Christopher Hitchens’s journalism from the past decade. Hitchens has good claims to be Orwell’s successor.’ It cannot be that Hitchens loves Orwell, has been reading him for decades and wants younger readers to discover the pleasure and wonder of Orwell as he himself did. This is the man trying to cheat death by superseding a secular sainthood.
But who’s channelling Orwell here?
Hitchens, one of anglophone journalism’s great sceptics, aligned himself with arguably the most mendacious government to hold power in a democracy, the neoconservative clique around George W Bush. Hitchens warns in one of them against oversimplifying the political trajectory of another of his heroes, Saul Bellow, as ‘that from quasi-Trotskyist to full-blown ‘neocon’. The plea is entered, one suspects, equally on his own behalf. Without resorting to caricature, however, it is clear that Hitchens embraced the neocon project of defining the world through the ‘war on terror’. It is also clear to all but the true believers that that project was saturated in deceit, self-delusion and a language whose aim, as Orwell would have put it, was not to express, but rather to prevent and conceal, thought.
What would George Orwell have thought of the war on terror? Why, he would have agreed with me, of course!
The rest of the piece is a series of unargued assertions. Hitchens is wrong to compare al-Qaeda to Nazi and communist totalitarianism – but O’Toole won’t say why. What would have been the best response to 9/11? Are Iraqis and Afghans better off than they were? We could have a long argument about that – but we don’t get that argument.
Fintan O’Toole is relieved to report that the author’s prose hasn’t gone down the tubes, as might have been feared; mostly, and despite some blemishes, Hitchens’s writing still affords the reader pleasure. And why might we have feared otherwise? Because on certain key matters – the Iraq war, the war on terror – Hitchens didn’t take the same view as… well, as Fintan O’Toole.
That’s not how O’Toole himself expresses it, of course. He expresses it in a way conformable with the orthodoxy he upholds: the orthodoxy, namely, that there was an only – or, as one might say, a holy – truth about those aforesaid key matters.
We are back to the language of ritual, sanctity and excommunication that chokes off so much leftwing thought. O’Toole’s concluding condescension is that Hitchens is ‘a great journalist fallen, for a while, among neocons.’
Yet for real florid silliness and wilful stupidity, you have to turn to the master. Step forward, John Gray. Gray is an intellectual celebrity with one basic idea – that Enlightenment movements of rationalism and socialism are forms of messianic religion. He has spun this single argument into books, reviews, essays. He is the Stuart Baggs of public philosophy, a field of one-trick ponies. Consequently, his Arguably review is more about John Gray than Christopher Hitchens. From his key to all mythologies:
[For Trotskyites] America replaced the Soviet Union as the embodiment of human progress – and, it transpired, as the instigator of revolutionary wars… For Hitchens, that the Iraq war proved to be a disaster does not show the enterprise to have been a mistake – any more than the disastrous history of the former Soviet Union shows that the Bolshevik revolution (for which Hitchens continues to nurse a decidedly soft spot) was a mistake. In both cases, the human costs count for very little in the final analysis. What matters is the world-transforming revolutionary impulse that animated both experiments.
You get the idea. For Gray Hitchens’s journey was a straight line from evangelical Marxism to evangelical neoconservatism. He is ‘a believer who – like Trotsky – blanks out reality when it fails to accord with his faith.’ Saying that ‘atheists are the real fundamentalists’ may have seemed daring and original when the Guardian started doing it in 2006 or so. It’s hard to take from a man who so obviously has his pet schema, and does not mention anything that challenges this dull narrative of the world. (And Gray does not remind us that he once had a book pulped after alleging in it, falsely, that Hitchens supported torture.)
It took me two or three weeks to read this collection and after it I kept thinking of one of those Orwell references, Trilling on Orwell: ‘he must sometimes have wondered how it came about that he should be praising sportsmanship and gentlemanliness and dutifulness and physical courage. He seems to have thought, and very likely he was right, that they might come in handy as revolutionary virtues.’ There’s a place in the struggle for aristocratic arrogance. Many of these pages chronicle oppression and suffering. Change can happen when someone stands up and says, in Hitchens’s words: ‘This absolutely will not do.’
Although in many ways Hitchens is establishment to the core, he often appears as an outsider. A talented writer in a intellectual and literary world that is little more than a public school bores’ rodeo with the odd ‘firebrand’ leftwinger or ex-RCP member thrown in. A passionate atheist in an age where so many great minds have embraced the easy answers to life’s beautiful imponderables. And in a world where writers too often slip into the role of pallid observer, Hitchens is someone who has lived as well as written. As Jason Cowley writes, in another dismissive review, he ‘agitated at demonstrations by day and romped and cavorted with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night.’ There’s a great account in Arguably of a fight with some Syrian fascists, who attack the writer after he defaces one of their posters: ‘I have barely gotten to the letter k in a well-known transitive verb when I am grabbed by my shirt collar by a venomous little thug, his face glittering with hysterical malice. With his other hand, he is speed-dialing for backup on his cell phone.’ Hitchens gives the lie to the stereotype that an intellectual cannot be a man of action. Everyone condemns waterboarding but only Hitchens volunteered to be waterboarded.
Like Richard Tull in The Information, when Hitchens himself reviews a book, it stays reviewed: and you get the feeling that the review will be read and remembered long after the book in question has been pulped or remaindered. It’s the same difference as with the critiques I’ve quoted in this piece – the difference between writers who will be dead long before they are forgotten and those who will be forgotten long before they die.