Arguably: Essays, by Christopher Hitchens (New York: Twelve, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4555-0277-6) xix + 788 pp. Cloth, $30.00.
In his final column for Free Inquiry (February/March 2012), Christopher Hitchens described himself as “a self-taught amateur writer.” If one were inclined to take this characterization seriously, and if such faux modesty could be purchased by the yard, Hitchens delivered enough for Christo to rewrap the Reichstag. Or perhaps amateur wasn’t floated our way as a self-deprecating joke; possibly Hitchens had in mind the original, eighteenth-century sense of the word (just the sort of thing he enjoyed knowing): the amateur as lover of something, as someone who undertakes an activity primarily for the pleasure it provides.
Amateur effort or not, Hitchens’s final book, Arguably, gathers 107 columns, reviews, and essays, all but a few written during the past seven years and eighty-seven of which first appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Slate, and Vanity Fair. The collection is not exhaustive (none of the columns written for FI has been included). Loosely organized into six sections, Arguably opens with “All American,” which concerns historical issues and figures (Jefferson and the Barbary War, Lincoln as “misery’s child”); American writers; and contemporary concerns (the execution of teenagers, the future of Anglo-American influence). “Elective Affinities” follows, treating twenty-six non-American writers (plus Ezra Pound, whose U.S. citizenship was revoked for unknown reasons) from Isaac Newton to J.K. Rowling. “Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments” serves as a sort of intermission, its handful of essays asking, among other things, why women aren’t funny, when and how blow jobs became the “American handshake,” why we allow waiters to pour our wine for us, and in what ways the Ten Commandments might be revised and thereby improved.
The fourth section, “Offshore Accounts,” takes up geopolitics and related concerns—from Afghanistan’s election fiasco to the Israeli lobby, American interventionism to Benazir Bhutto—whereas “Legacies of Totalitarianism” seeks to discover what cautionary lessons can be learned from Russian revolutionary Victor Serge, diarist Victor Klemperer, Iranian novelist Iraj Pezeshkzad, and sundry others. “Words’ Worth” concludes the collection; its sixteen selections are mostly concerned with how much and in what ways words matter—from the clichéd rhetoric of contemporary politics to the upper-class bias built into the English language, the politics of biblical translation to the liberal media’s frequent resort to euphemism, the use of like as déclassé quotative to the smarmy emoting provoked by the shootings at Virginia Tech.
In his introduction, Hitchens manfully tries to weave through this miscellanea a binding thread. What he comes up with is this: “Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating [the] hateful, nihilistic propositions” of radical Islam as well as rebutting “those among us who try to explain them away.” Fair enough, though defeating a hateful nihilism hardly accounts for all that is on offer here (unless one finds blowjobs and unfunny women detestably meaningless). But then Hitchens did say “practically” every word, justifying the inclusion of so much literary commentary, for instance, as explorations into “the aspiration for a civilized life” and subjects “amusing for their own sake” as perhaps the sin qua non of a society that, in contradistinction to radical Islam or Christian fundamentalism, “knows to keep the solemn and pious at bay.” Let’s say, then, that what unifies this collection is that each essay was written sub specie civilis societatis: each asks what threatens civilized society and what can be done about that threat, applauds those who have enhanced our “universal eligibility to be noble,” as Saul Bellow put it, or demonstrates how the civilized think, feel, and discriminate. (“It’s odd, when you think about it,” Hitchens writes, “that we accuse racists of ‘discrimination.’ That is the very thing of which they are by definition incapable.”)
If you are like me (not that I would wish this upon anyone), you will find much in these pages with which both to agree and to disagree and much that will prompt a desire to explore an issue or author further. Often written against the clock while Hitchens was also busy on Letters to a Young Contrarian, biographies of Jefferson and Thomas Paine, God Is Not Great, and his memoir Hitch-22, not every essay exhibits crystalline prose or the anticipated number of bons mots. Occasionally, Hitchens errs (Lionel Trilling was not denied tenure at Columbia, as remarked upon at least twice). Some essays are a tad dated, and Hitchens may strike some readers as too often an apologist for Anglo-American adventuring. The book reviews are sometimes little more than stylish summaries (ah, but why is the pot criticizing the kettle’s reviews?). Still, there is far more beer than foam here. Were you aware that, before the Civil War, grammar dictated that one say “the United States are” but that after Gettysburg people began to say “the United States is”? Did you know that Karl Marx admired Lincoln and wrote in defense of the British conquest of India? That Saul Bellow was “an illegal immigrant from Quebec” and was denied a job with Time magazine for “incorrectly” answering a question about William Wordsworth posed by Whittaker Chambers? That the 1993 Supreme Court decision in Herrera v. Collins found that “the execution of an innocent person is not necessarily a violation of federal constitutional protections”?
As provocateur, Hitchens has few equals, whether describing how he was hustled off Hardball with Chris Matthews after offering “nigger” as an example—like “Tory,” “suffragette,” “queer”—of an epithet embraced by those at whom it had been hurtfully aimed or observing that John F. Kennedy was “a physical and probably mental also-ran for most of his presidency,” his myriad physical ailments and their treatments (steroids, amphetamines, testosterone, anti-psychotics, and much else) raising the question of how competent he had been to serve as president. From such unforgettable facts, Hitchens builds one shrewd, difficult-to-dismiss argument after another: his essay on John Brown concludes with the assertion that “our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans … taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people”; and his reading of Upton Sinclair argues that the novelist might have made a more successful case for socialism had he been a less honest and accurate realist.
The positions Hitchens takes are never mealymouthed: the 2003 Iraq war was a noble necessity; “only a moral cretin thinks that anti-Semitism is a threat only to Jews”; America’s alliance with Pakistan is “the most diseased and rotten thing in which the United States has ever involved itself.” That military brass have turned a blind eye to the proselytizing by Christian evangelicals of both U.S. military personnel and the locals in Iraq and Afghanistan—thus proving jihadists correct “about the Americans as ‘crusaders’”—Hitchens finds “as near to mutiny and treason as one could hope to sail and still wear the uniform.” Rereading Vladimir Nabokov, Hitchens insists that only someone without any literary discernment could “think of employing Lolita for immoral or unsavory purposes,” whereas the sundry unsavory ways in which the United States exhibits third-world “banana-ism” could “make a cat laugh.”
That laughing cat reminds me: Arguably is often quite funny, and readers should find many occasions to seek out their nearest and dearest with whom to share a particularly choice passage. “Prince Charles’s empty sails,” we are informed, “are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant”; of Hamid Karsai’s rival Abdullah Abdullah, we are told that he is “so nice they named him twice”; and a summary of the plot of John Updike’s novel Terrorist provokes the parenthetical “I have just flipped through the book again to be quite certain that I did not make any of this up” before Hitchens presses on to explain how the novel’s imam instructs young Ahmad on the need to fight the infidels: the imam “prepares [Ahmad] for stone-faced single-mindedness with some intricate Koranic hermeneutics, designed to shake his faith. And guess which example is adduced? The theory of the German Orientalist Christoph Luxenberg, who has argued that the ‘virgins’ promised to martyrs in Paradise are actually a mistranslation for ‘white raisins.’ Bet you never heard that! My feeling—call it a guess or an intuition—is that this is not how madrassas train their suicide bombers.”
Lively, extraordinarily widely read, nobody’s fool or mouthpiece (he left The Nation, you may recall, in disagreement over that magazine’s stand on Iraq), able to write engagingly for a general readership, Christopher Hitchens will be missed. He knew as he prepared this collection that he hadn’t much time left and wrote in his introduction that he finally understood what was meant by the notion that “a serious person should try to write posthumously,” just as dying had given him “a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending.” What Hitchens admired about the author of Dangling Man and Herzog was true of himself as well: Bellow’s “pyrotechnic versatility with English, a ferocious assimilation of learning, and an emphasis on the man of action as well as the man of reflection” (here I recall Hitchens being waterboarded so he could know what it felt like, getting beat up by a gang of thugs on a Beirut street, and organizing a rally to support Denmark in the face of Islamic threats). Perhaps all good writers end up admiring in others’ work the qualities in their own of which they are most proud. Thus, when Hitchens pauses amid his general dismay to admire the “breathtaking” scope of Updike’s knowledge and his inability to write badly, or to observe of Gore Vidal that he possesses “the rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones,” Hitchens is saluting his own strengths. Such qualities are rare, and rarer still in combination, which is why (again) he will be missed, in these pages as elsewhere.
“Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to” reads the epigraph, taken from Henry James, that Hitchens chose for his final book. I like to imagine that Hitchens did, though I suspect he might not have thought so (Samuel Johnson “felt, as many fine writers have done, that he had wasted most of his time,” Hitchens avers, and again he may have been looking at Johnson but seeing himself). It is, therefore, poignant to read in the final essay a self-portrait of the author puttering from room to room, preoccupied not with how best to live but with how to organize and where to store the books threatening to take over both his apartment and his life.