The most difficult thing one encounters when writing a review of a Christopher Hitchens’ collection is the problem of how to avoid mentioning his prodigious intake of booze and fags. But none can escape the temptation. So with that out of the way, we can move onto more important questions. Like, what, apart from nicotine and alcohol, is Hitchens on? In the past few years he has been everywhere: debating, challenging, polemicising, insulting, and all for the cause of the battle between ‘civilisation’ and what he terms ‘Islamic Fascism’ (a label that has lost virtually all the currency it might have originally had). The next question that might occur, then, is how did he find the time to write about anything else? For his latest collection, Love, Poverty & War, is concerned primarily with matters somewhat separate from the ‘war on terror’. It is only in the final section, unsurprisingly entitled War, that we get to see Hitchens in political mode, and, as has been pointed out by others, in this section he looks like a tweeded hunter in the woods of England (or Lahore, or Kashmir) ruthless chasing his prey, confident that his confidence will win out.
War is further divided into two sections, Before and After September, and it is in the latter that Hitchens’ weaknesses are so apparent. To be fair, some of the essays were written only days or weeks after September 11, so the “charred and supperating” remains of the World Trade Centres were still smouldering, as was Hitchens. These pieces are short sallies written primarily for The Nation, and I have to confess I gained some pleasure in reading Hitchens’ attacks on the syllogistic reasoning of Noam Chomsky, whose mildly bizarre reading of September 11 became an inexplicable bestseller following the attacks (one assumes the primary purchasers were German students, who may not have minded the horrific prose). But his targets are wider, and he slips when he attacks this comment by Sam Husseini:
“The fascists like Bin-Laden could not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from Jerusalem like it was supposed to – and the U.S. had stopped the sanctions and the bombing on Iraq.”
Hitchens wants us to believe that the only goal of Al Qaeda et al. is theocratic world domination, and this could well be true for the Osama Bin-Ladens. Why then, in February 1998, did Osama Bin-Laden and others issue a detailed list of demands, at the top of which
was a cri de couer for the US to cease involvement in the Middle East, particularly with regards to its support of Israel? While Hitchens is right to warn us not to view fanatics as the interpreters of legitimate grievances, is it that hard to believe that some justifiably aggrieved Muslims might see Al Quada that way? As Judith Butler has pointed out, the Chomsky interpretation is just another way of denying agency to anyone but the white west; Hitchens, on the other hand, seems able to give agency to anyone but the white west.
All of these arguments are fired by a high-powered rhetoric – “The US has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age” (on Afghanistan) – and ride roughshod over objections, qualification and questions. His pieces here have a patina of hardheaded reasoning, but this at times appears to hide nothing but hard-core anger and hard-hearted callousness. But this, Hitchens would argue, is exactly what is necessary. His support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has always been more difficult to counter than most, because he refrains from justifying the wars on account of world safety or weapons of mass destruction or terrorism. He simply tells us that the people of Afghanistan or Iraq will be happier once their tyrants are gone. This argument still doesn’t seem to hold much water for Iraq, which each day seems to get more dispiriting and more violent ,and as the massive Intelligence failures (and failures of intelligence) become achingly clear; Hitchens is forced to lachrymosely cherish every thin whisker of ‘democracy’ he sees. In the most embarrassing passage of the book, Hitchens seems remarkably well-disposed towards Paul Bremer, at the time the administrator of Iraq, seemingly missing completely the arch smugness and the knowing indifference of that faintly despicable man. Afghanistan, on the other hand, was more immediately related to Al Qaeda, was in the grip of a fouler despotism, the offence against America rank and immediate, and much of the world seemed willing to give Americans this revenge. There is a painful truth in Hitchens’ comment that those who protested the Taliban’s treatment of women (or homosexuals, or the Buddhas of Baiman) are the same people who protested against the war that removed that oppression. ‘Tally Ho!’ Hitchens shouts as he scores a direct hit against the left (or at least those pious airheads who think that ‘Stop War!’ means anything other than ‘Go Genocide’ when not encumbered with a reference to a specific war).
All this is a shame, of course. For what the best of these political pieces display is the sort of talent that made Hitchens such a valuable ally of the left in previous years. In his piece on Cuba (written ‘Before September’) Hitchens is at his best; here he cools the furnace a little and shakes his head sadly at the absurd spectacle of Castro feebly prancing in a military uniform while his economy collapses around him. What makes this really good political journalism, though, is not his indictment of Castro for betraying his revolutionary heritage – that’s a point that would be obvious to most; rather it is the way he looks back on Cuba’s past not as some communist idyll but as a successful revolution which achieved many positives while at the same time containing many off-putting elements – the chauvinistic obsession with sport and the military for example (no wonder Hemingway was happy there). It is in pieces like this, where Hitchens’ moral compass is firm and his bile present, but contained, that he most resembles his hero, Orwell.
It is with something like relief that one turns to the opening section, Love, and reads the pieces Hitchens has written on the writers he most admires – Proust, Borges, Joyce – and on the complexities and rewards of more maligned writers like Churchill and Kipling. This literary focus has become more pronounced in Hitchens lately, and seems to have improved as much as his political writing has declined. The piece on Joyce, on the occasion of Bloomsday (June 16th, the day that Ulysses takes place), is refreshing for its complete lack of academic earnestness, Hitchens instead keeping faith with Joyce’s own scurrilousness. We find out that Joyce chose June 16th because it was the first time he had ever received a hand job from a woman who wasn’t a prostitute. We’re reminded of the many references to hand jobs, both self inflicted and assisted, that Ulysses contains (when a fan approached Joyce in a café begging to kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses, Joyce reminded him that “it did a lot of other things too”). But there are still problems. Hitchens seems too content to skate the surface of Ulysses, too happy to provide biographical gossip where the reader yearns for a deeper engagement with the text. Martin Amis’ essay on the same book, written a number of years ago, showed that one could bring irreverence to a daunting novel without sacrificing seriously close reading. But then, Amis’ piece was for the Atlantic Monthly while Hitchens’ appeared in Vanity Fair – which has never seen a piece of gossip it would turn down.
Speaking of Martin Amis, in his memoir Experience he commented that he was Saul Bellow’s ideal reader, while his father Kingsley’s was Hitchens. It is unsurprising, then, that the writers that Hitchens is best on – Evelyn Waugh, Amis Snr, Greene – tend to be English and somewhat minor, at least compared to Joyce, Proust and Borges, each of whom get a weak adulatory essay. Hitchens seems to be dominated by the latter writers, too cowed to face them front on, where as he is able to hospitably engage with those very ‘English’ writers much more fruitfully. It might be surprising, then, that the best literary essay is on a great writer, and it’s Amis’ hero, Saul Bellow. This essay was published as the introduction to the Penguin edition of The Adventures of Augie March. This essay gets to the heart of Bellow’s achievement in that novel, nailing both its verbal exuberance and thematic majesty perfectly. He also successfully skirts the danger of great-book ranking inherent in a book essentially ‘about’ Americaness. A minor quibble: on new years day Augie is in a friend’s house in the Chicago inner-city, not by the water, so the comparison between that image and a similar one in The Great Gatsby falls somewhat flat. That novel, too, was concerned with ‘America’, but was more ambivalent than Bellow’s book, and it is to Hitchens credit that he is able to explain the difference between the two without forcing himself to take sides in the America as land of opportunity/brain-dead blank-slate argument.
This is a big book, and there are many rewards that have gone unmentioned in this review, but I also feel that there could have been some culling. What might seem powerful on a website can seem footling between the covers of a trade paperback. His shrill, aggressive hatchet job on Fahrenheit 9/11 makes some valid points but is drowned out by the masculine hyperbole that Hitchens seems to favour when he’s out hunting (“Any time, Michael, my boy. Let’s redo Telluride [a previous debate]. Any show. Any place. Any platform. Let’s see what you’re made of”), the faults of which do not need to be dwelled upon. An essay such as that one (and there are numerous ones like it) might be diverting, but if, as Hitchens has stated, he desires to follow Orwell in making political journalism an art, then he simply has to aim higher. That the best essay in this collection is the deft, nuanced appreciation of Augie March shows that Hitchens is not merely an entertaining gunslinger; the unfortunate thing is that is he often behaves as if that’s all he is.