September 17, 2011

Not yet the eulogies

Christopher Hitchens still walks amongst us, but neither he, nor we, know for how much longer.  It has been enough time for the production of one more book, one more round of reviews - many an almost visceral regret for the man who will soon be lost.

Where in our landscape - in Australia - in our woefully empty public discourse, are the missing provocateurs, the clinical clear sighted public intellectuals, the academics, the polymaths, the crisply honest journalists?  Where is our Hitchens?  Of the boomer generation; or of the younger generations (pick any letter of the alphabet)?  If they're being bred in a basement of CSIRO, the program remains absolutely secret and far too slow in coming. 

Even the likes of the often charming and erudite Phillip Adams (he too will pass soon enough), uses his mind and significant skills for nothing more than pale regurgitation of well worn ideologically-based assertions. Richard Neville?  Vanished; perhaps off somewhere provoking his suburban neighbors.

We have no one of the calibre or likes of Hitchens, yet we are in desperate need of many dozens like him; to restore seriousness, complexity and precision to our political and social landscape, which is currently dominated and sodden with the limp, the weak, the banal.
Hitchens is the kind of writer who quite deliberately uses words like evil, and wicked, and shameful, and sinister. He reclaims these words from the religious; he deploys them in a robustly humanist way that maximises their meaning and weight. When Hitchens is standing up for a violated or threatened principle, he can attain a rhetorical white heat that no one else writing today can match.

What places him beyond Left and Right is his readiness to apply his moral anger across the board. Orthodox leftists, and indeed orthodox conservatives, exercise their senses of outrage more selectively. But Hitchens has no time for sniggering relativism. In 1989, when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Hitchens unequivocally took the side of the condemned novelist. He treated the death-dealing holy man with no more respect than he would later extend to Kissinger. If more flexible progressives, such as John le Carre, preferred to discuss the nuances and grey areas of Rushdie's death sentence, we should hesitate to conclude that this made them more enlightened than Hitchens. Perhaps this was Hitchens's first brush with an emerging pseudo-Left, identifiable by its tendency to retreat into sophistry when confronted by the topic of Islamic extremism.

He travels to Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, whose regime he abhors not because it is an official enemy of the US but because it is an enemy of its own people. He traces the "wretched . . . counter-evolution" of Pakistan, a place where women can be sentenced to be raped . . . if even a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk" and where "moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter".

Nor is Hitchens worried solely about extremists of the Islamic stripe. He travels to Uganda, where the Christian death squads of Joseph Kony employ child soldiers as young as nine. He goes to Venezuela, where the increasingly erratic Hugo Chavez is getting "very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg". In North Korea he sees people drinking from the sewer and notes that the average North Korean is now, because of malnutrition, 15cm shorter than the average South Korean.

In his book reviews, which occupy a good half of this volume, Hitchens frequently has call to revisit the totalitarianism of the past. Reviewing the wartime Diaries of the German Jew Victor Klemperer, he plucks out an "appallingly eloquent" illustration of Nazi cruelty: Klemperer, having been progressively stripped of all his other rights and dignities, is eventually denied the right to own a pet and must send off his beloved cat to be put down. Elsewhere, Hitchens analyses Hitler's increasingly psychopathic conduct near the war's end, by which time he had become a "howling nihilist . . . [who] didn't care if nobody outlived him". Again the word nihilist: the essays in this book merge into a compelling argument that all the various forms of zealotry, beyond a certain point of madness, begin to resemble one another, no matter what ideology they nominally embody.

You can see, right there, why some in today's Left resent Hitchens so extravagantly. Such people are comfortable enough telling you what they are against: Bush, Tony Blair, the so-called war on terror. But they're considerably less audible about what aspects of civilised society, if any, they might theoretically be prepared to fight for, let alone kill for. Hitchens, on the other hand, is grown-up enough to acknowledge that history contains unpalatable lessons and he has the moral honesty to try to get to grips with them. He's ready to say that there is such a thing as civilisation, which must be prepared to use violence to defend its way of life against the kind of people for whom violence is a way of life.
Hitchens must also be given our gratitude for calling out the obvious, and placing in print, this assessment of Martin Amis:  "he goes on to "set down a judgment I would once have thought unutterable": he accuses Amis of a "want of wit" that "compromises his seriousness".

Let's not miss him too much just yet, there will be endless time for that ... 

There's just one Hitch 

Christopher Hitchens - a man of his words

Arguably - By Christopher Hitchens


  1. geoffff4:10 PM

    "Writing in praise of Karl Marx's journalism, Hitchens compiles a list of the great writer-reporters -- Zola, Dickens, Twain, Orwell -- and wishes that the word " 'journalist' might be made to lose its association with the trivial and the evanescent". Hitchens has helped that to happen, and we can now safely enrol him among those great names. "Ours is a useful trade," Twain wrote in 1888: "With all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it -- the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence . . . Whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.""

    I have sometimes amused myself by imagining Hitchens is channelling Orwell. I am certain that he has so internalised the question "what would Orwell say and how would he say it?" that it has long been a reflex.

  2. geoffff8:04 AM

    Hitchens quoting Orwell quoting Mark Twain. Priceless.

    Twain was a traveller. He was a huge hit in Australia. Here's a little trivia. He visited "Palestine" in 1867 and described it in The Innocents Abroad.

    "There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent [valley of Jezreel] — not for 30 miles in either direction… One may ride ten miles hereabouts and not see ten human beings. … For the sort of solitude to make one dreary, come to Galilee … Nazareth is forlorn … Jericho lies a moldering ruin … Bethlehem and Bethany, in their poverty and humiliation… untenanted by any living creature… A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds … a silent, mournful expanse … a desolation … We never saw a human being on the whole route … Hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil had almost deserted the country … Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery Palestine must be the prince. The hills barren and dull, the valleys unsightly deserts [inhabited by] swarms of beggars with ghastly sores and malformations. Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes … desolate and unlovely … [Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1867]"

  3. Could have been describing an Australia ...

    I don't think Hitchens is always elegant; he can be clunky, sloppy and yes, even tedious to read, but when he writes with great conviction and/or passion, he rises about every timid, small minded, shuttered journalist about the place.

    I notice you didn't even attempt to propose an Australian equivalent (actual or in the making ... let's not forget that Hitchens has had time - although not enough of it, as it turns out - to hone his skills and refine his thoughts and moral compass). We'll have to keep hoping there's some talent and curiosity in the younger generations; perhaps they're out there dreaming of a noble profession.