Thursday, January 31, 2013

Grappling with Christopher Hitchens

Keith Miller examines a trenchant critique of the late Christopher Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens: In the pantheon of journalists?
Christopher Hitchens: In the pantheon of journalists? 
The journalist, essayist and public speaker Christopher Hitchens, who died just over a year ago of oesophageal cancer, was no slouch when it came to the gentle art of making enemies. Liberal isolationists, religious fanatics, female comedians – all felt the wrath of his bombast. On a more intimate level, he had a talent for tiffs and squabbles, takedowns and feuds, that made Truman Capote look like a Buddhist monk. So it would perhaps be surprising if his shade were allowed to rest in peace for long.

Unhitched by Richard Seymour (Verso, £9.99) is the first book to cast a cold eye on Hitchens’s career in the wake of his death, and assess its possible legacy. It won’t be the last; nor, probably, the best. But by being the first it – courageously, maybe – risks being seen as the nastiest, trundling off the presses while its subject is still a few degrees above room temperature. Seymour claims that Hitch was a hypocrite: that his writing, his political allegiances and, most notably, his friendships were marked by professions of loyalty, and acts of desertion.

It is from his memoir Hitch-22 that two main, and interrelated, themes of Unhitched are drawn: the lifelong melodrama of friendship, and the idea that political life consists of a series of actions and gestures rather than a coherent programme of belief and commitment. A good example of this is Hitchens’s belief that being waterboarded for a story added the tiniest microgramme of weight to his opinion that it should be allowed in a country that claimed to be not only civilised, but also competent to export its civilisation overseas by force of arms.
That the second theme inflects on the first can be seen from the Rushdie affair, when the targeting of a British author by religious fundamentalists galvanised what had hitherto been a fairly lukewarm affection for Rushdie on Hitchens’s part – and vulcanised his opposition to hardline religious belief. It can also be seen in his repudiation of Edward Said (Hitchens’s hostile review of Said’s reissued Orientalism followed the latter’s death by about the same time-lag as Unhitched follows his); and in his denunciation of Sidney Blumenthal for perjuring himself in the Lewinsky inquisition, which cost him most of the few friends he still had on the American Left.

It’s the political triangulations that get Seymour’s blood boiling. A pattern of discarding causes when they ceased to be expedient, a willingness to kiss up to power while emitting torrents of bluster about his lonely duty to speak truth to it, can be identified even in the salad days of Seventies Oxford. Hitchens is quite funny about his youthful double life in Hitch-22, swapping his donkey jacket for a dinner jacket on the hoof between the barricades at Cowley and High Table like some arriviste superhero (he was quite funny about lots of things, though he could be eye-gougingly unfunny when he tried to be funny). But Seymour sees Hitchens’s tragic last act – the alliance with the neo-cons, the borderline racism, the ghastly statements about cluster bombs – as inevitable. 

Full article at The Telegraph

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