I Already Knew That
Well, yes. To say the least. And about time too.
With the publication of his fifth collection of essays, it is time to acknowledge that Christopher Hitchens, as well as an exceptional political polemicist, is also one of the best literary and cultural critics of the past 20 years…It is time to take Christopher Hitchens seriously.
Well past time, actually. To pick just one example among many, one we have mentioned recently, he makes Joseph Epstein look a very pale flat unsparkling essayist indeed. He puts a good many overpraised current essayists in the shade. So well done David Herman for saying so. Some dreary enforcer shouted at Amardeep Singh for daring to say a good word for Hitchens as a critic at the Valve the other day. In fact (now I’ve taken another look) more than one of them. Ha. They should only write and think so well, that’s all. But obviously that’s out of the question, since they have exactly the kind of orthodoxy-enforcing mentality that rules out being able to think and write as well as Hitchens does. The non-orthodoxy and the thinking and writing are intimately connected, are part and parcel of one another, so obviously people who say things like ‘the presumed gap between the politics and the cultural/aesthetic here sounds more than a little bit like the “sure, the Bradley people fund Horowitz, but when it comes to the ALSC that’s just disinterested pursuit of literary appreciation…” from this site’s early days…’ and ‘Rather than throwing up your hands – “huh, he’s sold his soul to the neocons… but that doesn’t have anything to do with this review” – one might think that the proper approach to the topic is to look into the connection between the politics and the aesthetics…’ could no more write (or think) like Hitchens than they could fly like a swallow or bite like a barricuda.
Many people assume that Hitchens’s break with the left came over 9/11. That was a bitter falling out, part of a larger split within the Anglo-American left intelligentsia. But signs of the break are apparent earlier: over Salman Rushdie and the fatwa in 1989, then Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Hitchens’s cause was always the same: secular, humanitarian, democratic.
Just so, as Hitchens has said many times. The Rushdie affair was the start. And he hasn’t broken with the left in its entirety, I don’t think – with the secular, humanitarian, anti-tyranny, pro-human rights, pro-universalism left, the same left wot B&W thinks of itself as part of. The branch of the left he has broken with doesn’t have a monopoly on the word or title or orientation.
At the end of the book [Letters to a Young Contrarian] he writes, “The next phase or epoch is already discernible; it is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the ‘globalisation’ of production by the globalisation of a common standard for justice and ethics.” The pieces on the fatwa against Rushdie had the same tone: it was “the chance to defend civilisation’s essential principle.”
Just so. Universal human rights. The ones Maryam Namazie and Azam Kamguian and Homa Arjomand and Azar Majedi and Kenan Malik appeal to. That is not my idea of ‘breaking with the left,’ it’s far more like trying to get the left not to break with its own basic and best principles.
In all these writers, Hitchens sees complexity, contradiction and “the idea of a double life.” Orwell/Blair, of course, is a classic case of this English doubleness, but the richest account is found in his essay of the early 1990s on Larkin. When Tom Paulin, Terry Eagleton and others rushed to bury Larkin under accusations of racism, sexism and worse, Hitchens dug deeper and found, both in the life and the poetry, more complexity and interest.
And there is a great deal more to say about Larkin than that he was a racist sexist or sexist racist. Blindingly obviously. Larkin wouldn’t be the best person to put in charge of the local Universal Human Rights declaration, but that doesn’t exhaust the possibilities, does it. It takes a certain lack of subtlety to think it does.
Hitchens, you feel, is on the move, drawing away from the littleness of today’s politicians and celebrity culture, towards the great writers of the early and mid-20th century. If that is where he finally pitches his tent, he might end up as the best literary and cultural critic of his generation.
Well, I think he ended up there a long time ago.