Thursday, September 9, 2010

Infinite Jest

Christopher Hitchens is an interesting person. A banal statement, perhaps, but in being so, all but indisputable. And Hitchens is much disputed. Over the last decade he has been called a drunk, an intellectual titan, a defender of rational thinking, a war-monger, and more besides. Most lately, he and his esophageal cancer have been, rather stupidly, held up as an example of God’s punishment for his atheism, even as he presented himself as hardly worth the godless universe’s attention. With such a lively (deathly?) variety in opinion, the agreeable proposition that the man is ‘interesting’—which I emphatically do not intend as a weasel word for ‘bad’—is a good starting point for discussing his memoir, glibly titled Hitch-22. For while it will probably not change anyone’s opinion of him—there are no apologies here—it will doubtless deepen one’s understanding. Even if one thinks Hitchens a flatulating asshole, one has to marvel at the depths of this Anus mirabilis.

One of Hitchens’ many wonders is his worldliness. The memoir proper begins with Hitchens’ first memory, of his three year-old self on a boat to Malta with his parents. He would before long spend much of his childhood in England but away from home at boarding-school. This distance was useful preparation for his career as a globe-spanning journalist and sometime socialist agitator, which he eventually undertook with breathtaking speed. By the time he was my age of a quarter century, Hitchens had witnessed first-hand the then-new Cuban government’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia; been testily questioned by English soldiers in the streets of occupied Ireland; and was soon to experience the aftermath of the end of fascist rule in Portugal. Nor were his travels merely geographical. A precocious child, he had absorbed War and Peace when twelve years old, and was “smuggling into the chapel” the works of Bertrand Russell by fifteen. His Oxford social circle spanned the intellectual and literary world, encompassing the likes of Kingsley Amis, Isaiah Berlin, and Noam Chomsky, and W.H. Auden, whose funeral he attended. One would expect a man who enlists Hamlet and “Old Man River” to describe the feelings of depression to be widely influenced, but Hitchens is positively panoramic.

But that is, as said, expected. Perhaps less so is his personal warmth. Gregariousness is not the first characteristic the layperson settles on when describing Christopher Hitchens, and he later on in the book expresses surprise that he, quite unintentionally, creates “the impression that [he is] so angry and maybe unhappy.” Yet the greatest feature of this memoir is its insight into this hitherto unglimpsed facet of its author’s persona, and in this it wastes no time, devoting the very first chapter to his loving if reserved relationship with his mother. Yvonne, as he refers to her, taught him to appreciate cosmopolitanism and high culture. She was to him, “the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes.”

His relationship with his father, a British navy man to whom Hitchens refers as The Commander, is decidedly cooler, mostly due to them having next to nothing in common, especially politically. Yet if there was little affection between them, there was certainly a respect for the old man’s honor and stoicism, and a reciprocal pride for the son’s notoriety. Somewhat curiously, Hitchens’ brother Peter, with he feuded publically for several years, appears in these pages only occasionally, and his own wife and son are mentioned even less so.

Yet the effect of these figures’ absence is more than mitigated by the presence of several others who make us see Hitchens in a role few of us proles, pardon the term, have ever really thought to see him as: friend. A full four chapters, which comprise about a fifth of the book’s length, are devoted explicitly to particular individuals—James Fenton, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Edward Said—whom Hitchens has befriended, with other notables like Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag making appearances throughout.

Of all these people, it is clear he holds Amis in the very highest regard. One can discern this affection not in anything said about him in particular, though it verges on gushing, but merely by his enduring presence; whether ribbing the lush Hitchens for doling out drinking advice or publicly expressing solidarity with America following 9/11, Amis is a constant throughout. The book’s index shows only Iraq and its various subcategories are mentioned more often. Amis’ recent surprise appearance in an at-home interview with Jeffrey Goldberg about Hitchens’ cancer treatment, only serves to cement the quote that opens Amis’ respective chapter, that their relationship is “a love whose month is ever May.”

Perhaps the most interesting of Hitchens’ observations on friendship comes toward the close of the chapter on Edward Said, his friendship with whom came to an end over America’s moral standing and the Iraq War. He relates a story of a dinner party, with Martin Amis, naturally, in which Saul Bellow was quite unfairly slandering Said:

“[E]ven though I know [Martin] wanted me to stay off anything controversial, I couldn’t allow him to see me sitting there complicitly while an absent friend was being defamed….I certainly didn’t concur with Edward on everything, but I was damned if I would hear him abused without saying a word…. It used to be a slight hallmark of being English or British that one didn’t make a big thing out of patriotic allegiance, and was indeed brimful of sarcastic and critical remarks about the old country, but would pull oneself together and say a word or two if it was attacked or criticized in any nasty or stupid manner by anybody else. It’s family, in other words, and friends are family to me.”

Hitchens’ most famous friend he has ever defended is, of course, Salman Rushdie, who received a death sentence from another country’s leader for the crime of writing a book. Here, perhaps even more than in the chapter on Iraq which follows Rushdie’s, does one see the animating impulse behind his still frustratingly unflagging support for war in the Infernal Crescent and the Iranian theocracy-turned-junta. The particulars of Hitchens’ grievances on that front, and their righteousness or wrong-headedness, are much too large a topic for an already overlong book review. It is enough to note Hitchens’ expressed distaste for identity politics embodied in the slogan, “The personal is political.” This might seem hypocrisy for one who writes early on that, “The separation between personal and public is not so great.” Yet this is to get it exactly backwards. The Rushdie affair was the opening volley in Hitchens’ crusade against militant Islam, aggressive shots fired by a murderous cultural chauvinist in the direction of a dearly beloved friend. Thus for Hitchens was the political made personal.

This is not to excuse Hitchens’ poor form on Iraq and the broader subject of winning Muslim hearts and minds—if violence and misogyny are intrinsic to Islam and its adherents, why bother with the bloody Middle East democratic experiment at all?—but to understand it, perhaps more than Hitchens himself. There are two unintentionally, almost deceivingly, revealing moments described in Hitch-22, both enormous personal crises: Yvonne’s suicide and the revelation that Mark Jennings Daily, a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq, enlisted based on Hitchens’ writings. His accounts of both incidents, while letting show a certain rawness, still display an almost maddening composure, with fulminations against Greek dictatorship and comparisons to Yeats popping up in moments of grueling inner turmoil. It is as if Hitchens, who elsewhere (a Proust questionnaire, of all things) acknowledges “insecurity” as his most marked characteristic, is nonetheless afraid of his emotions, messy and painful and inchoate, and falls back on abstraction and erudition as a filter to keep them at some remove.

Very few people see themselves as they really are, or at least as others see them. This makes reading a memoir, and Hitch-22 is no exception, like watching someone design and view himself in a fun house mirror, through two-way glass. What Hitchens says about himself, says a lot about him. His “Hitch-22” is therefore not, as he thinks, a juggling of confrontations with absolutists and relativists, but his own unresolved interior struggles between the intellectual and the emotional, writ large in intellectually justified but tactically disastrous attacks on totalitarian Islam on its own absolutist terms. That all of this can still be so at odds with the contradictory opinions others hold about him, is most interesting indeed.

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