The usual duty of the “intellectual” is to argue for complexity and to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae.–Christopher Hitchens
The reason I like Christopher Hitchens is he is an original thinker who is not afraid to stand up to conventional wisdom. An Oxford-educated former socialist and Vietnam war protester, his favored version of communism is that espoused by Leon Trotsky whose original thinking of course got him killed by Stalin with an ice pick no less. Bothered that leftists in academia were quick to blame the 9/11 attacks on its victims Hitchens broke with the left and became an advocate of war with Iraq.
The USA does not have many great public intellectuals anymore–well-read men and women like, for example, Susan Sontag. There are no great thinkers like Immanuel Kant or Bertrand Russell who use reason to reach their conclusions contributing new ideas and words to the culture. Instead our public speakers are shrill television talking heads like Sean Hannity who once accused Christopher Hitchens in debate of claiming to be “the smartest man in the room”. The truth is that Christopher Hitchens in that case was the “smartest man in the room”. What Sean Hannity fails to realize is that it is not the volume of your argument that matters most but the learning from which you draw your opinions.
Most people probably did not know Christopher Hitchens–unless they were among the few who would read The Times Literary Supplement–until he published his book on atheism entitled “God is Not Great”. Pious accouterments notwithstanding he argues that there is no God (capital G) and that the church has been criminal rather than kind. If that is not audacious enough his previous books include an attack on Mother Theresa, who he calls a fraud, and Henry Kissinger, who he calls a murderer.
Most of Hitchen’s new memoir “Hitch 22″ is about his education at Oxford and his work in journalism writing for such magazines as New Statesman. But my favorite sections are where he talks of his friendships with the British writers Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie and the poet James Fenton. If you read The Atlantic Monthly you know that Hitchens is a literary critic. It is this aspect of his work that interests me more. He writes of the poetry of W.H. Auden and praises Nabokov and Ian Mcewan. I wish he had discussed more those books that had influenced him and guided his intellectual development rather than write about his work covering wars because so many ordinary people can do that. I am more impressed with his volume of reading and moreover his retention putting him the in the league of the great literary critics like Edmund Wilson.
Hitchens mentions George Orwell frequently in his memoir having studied the man and written a book called “Why Orwell Matters” defending him in the face of criticism from other socialists on the left. I think the reason that Hitchens admires George Orwell so much is their thinking has evolved in the same manner. Orwell was a communist who went to Spain to fight the civil war getting shot in the neck for his efforts. There he saw that the Soviets were more helpful to the fascists than the communists and anarchists and turned against the Stalinists of which his native England was filled. Orwell was a member of the movement called the “International Socialist” of which Hitchens was himself a member. Orwell then famously turn against those communists who turned a blind eye to the dictator and parodied the same in two books “Animal Farm” and “1984″ which have been misrepresented to a generation of high school students as a critic of socialism of any kind.
Hitchens calls himself a contrarian. He found out late in life that he was Jewish, because his mother chose to hide this from her family. You might think this would make him sympathetic to Jewish causes and pro-Israel. Quite the contrary. On visits to Poland to seek out his grandfather’s roots he observed that while the Jews had been victims at Auschwitz they were in the vanguard of the red brigades as the communists turned back the defeated Germans. Offered an all expense paid trip to Israel he observed that the Jews there had become tyrants holding Israel together by force as a colony when colonialism has gone out of fashion. Hitchens says there is no diaspora for the Jews outside of Israel. Rather it is the other way around as this land they have seized from the Palestinians will never really be their home.
Most shocking in the book is Hitchen’s discussion of the English boarding school. It is more graphic than James Joyce’s “Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man”. According to Hitchens most the English upper class are gay. When he talks of his homosexual dalliances I am left wondering how long this endured into his adulthood. He says men and boys lusted after him until his youthful good looks faded. He is so blunt with his description that it makes one who is straight feel uncomfortable.
Finally, there is one more area in which Christopher Hitchens and George Orwell agree. That is that in order to make a proper pot of tea one must have boiling water and not simply water which is hot. As one who drinks tea all day long I agree with this.