Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Review: Arguably – Essays, by Christopher Hitchens

When Christopher Hitchens—the British-born, American-based polemicist and author, famous for his antitheist screed God is Not Great—died in December 2011, a certain pall fell over the intellectual circles in which I travel. For those who quietly (or not so quietly) embrace humanism and see the Enlightenment as the pinnacle of our species’ achievement, Hitchens was a kind of patron saint. In recent years, his regular TV appearances have been rendered into shareable YouTube clips, showing him in the full bloom of his genius as he eviscerates some gormless religious fanatic or other. He was also unafraid to skewer feminists, academics or other ostensible allies should they get a bit too far up his kilt. Indeed Hitchens, who spent decades identifying himself as a socialist, alienated many on the traditional Left by coming out in favour of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. But whether you liked him, hated him, felt betrayed by him, or merely feared him, there was no denying that his was one of the great minds of the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.

Arguably, published after his death from esophageal cancer, collects the last ream and a half of Hitchens’ geopolitical writing, literary criticism, long-form profiles and other journalistic ephemera, spanning from about 1999 to just a few months before he died. I use the term “ephemera” only partially pejoratively here: these articles, most of which first appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate, and The New Statesman, do possess a certain Grub Street grind to their tone and raison d’etre. A lot of the pieces in this book—in fact, I would argue almost half of them—really aren’t worthy of the annals of posterity, and will stand more as quickly crafted artifacts of a certain period of history, rather than imperishable or definitive analysis of our modern times. But it doesn’t really matter. Even when hacking out a couple thousand words on Hugo Chavez, the conflict in Afghanistan, the latest Harry Potter novel, or the death of Benazir Bhutto, Hitchens is sharper and more succinct than the next 10 best nonfiction scribblers combined.

He was, without a doubt, the go-to journalist when you wanted to gain a panoramic view on some geopolitical issue. And therein lies his great strength: he was a true polymath, someone who could take so many disparate pieces of knowledge and weave them together into a cohesive whole. He understood, with great profundity, how the butterfly effects of history could ripple through our civilization and shape the world we now live in. Writing in a period when most alleged intellectuals willfully pigeonhole themselves and see the world through a singular prism, Hitchens was ever-expansive, able to bring to bear the wisdom of poetry and novels on all manner of the world’s geopolitical strife. He was the type of writer where context was everything; he believed wholly in the idea that the world was a knowable place if you were willing to work hard at knowing it. Arguably captures much of this genius and generosity. If you want to challenge your opposition to the Iraq war, learn the idiocy behind the term Islamophobia, understand the broader context of the 2008 economic collapse, or learn about seismology’s relationship to democracy, than this is the book for you.

Or, if those topics are not your thing, you can still pop by to see what Hitchens thought about P.G. Wodehouse. Or John Updike. Or the underhanded way that waiters pour wine. Or why women aren’t funny. (Actually, Hitchens’ tongue is so deeply in cheek in that piece that its tone falls wildly out of step with the rest of the book.) Or why he admires Graham Greene. In fact, his two pieces on Greene—one a review of a 2005 biography, the second an introduction to a new edition of Our Man in Havana—provide some of Hitchens’ juiciest bon mots. The following passage captures Greene’s catholic approach to travel splendidly:

A journalist, most especially an Anglo-American travel writer, will run the risk of disappointing his editor if he visits Saigon and leaves out any reference to quiet Americans, or turns in a piece from Havana that fails to mention the hapless Wormold. As for Brighton, or Vienna, or Haiti—Greene was there just before you turned up.

It goes without saying that, in a book this huge, there are going to be plenty of disappointments. Take, for example, Hitchens’ two “travel” pieces on North Korea. While he isn’t exactly wrong in dismissing the country outright as a slave state, he does miss the opportunity to put the North Korean situation into a broader historical context, to elucidate how 35 years of Japanese occupation in the first half of the 20th century really shaped that regime’s self image and unique approach to totalitarianism. Hitchens has no qualms providing Islamic dictatorships with generous helpings of context, but his analysis of North Korea feels thin and cursory by comparison.

Or take his piece on J.G. Ballard, the prolific British writer of science fiction and futurism, who died in 2009. The article is labeled a review of Ballard’s posthumously published The Complete Stories (a misnomer, by the way; there are several tales missing from it); but if Hitchens’ piece is meant to be an analysis of Ballard’s corpus of short fiction, it falls well short of that. If it’s meant to more of a profile of the man, then it also fails. You’ll find far better portraits of Ballard elsewhere, including Martin Amis’ hilarious profile of him in the 1993 essay collection Visiting Mrs. Nabokov.

Speaking of Martin Amis, there is a lengthy review of his Koba the Dread included in Arguably. Even if you weren’t familiar with Amis’ novel, this review is interesting to read as an act of journalistic objectivity, since it’s well known that Hitchens and Amis attended Oxford together and were long-time friends. Most book editors would balk at allowing one half of such a relationship several thousand words to review a book written by the other half of such a relationship, but Hitchens puts on an absolute clinic of fairness, detachment, and analysis. He definitely gives Amis his due—there’s no denying his position near the very top of contemporary English-language literature. But in instances where Hitchens feels Amis’ prose has fallen down, he says so—pointedly, unsentimentally, as if he were just another writer and not someone Hitchens has known personally for decades. The piece left me wondering if I myself could ever review a book by a friend I’ve known since my university days with such cold-eyed grace.

In the end, when reviewing Arguably, one must set aside these literary profiles/criticism and once again acknowledge Hitchens’ true métier: his geopolitical writing. Whether tackling the historic phenomena of Nazism and Stalinism, or writing about the current-day situations in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, Hitchens’ breadth of knowledge and depth of engagement have few peers. His piece “Imagining Hitler” is inspired: he shows how senior German officers were aware of the Fuhrer’s madness long before it ever dawned on Winston Churchill. His lengthy piece on Rebecca West puts the early 20th century collision of anti-Semitism and jihadism into a thoroughly enrapturing context. His piece “The Persian Version” is a great primer into the mentality that shapes modern-day Iran. And his vitriol at the murder of Theo van Gogh is pitch perfect.

We could even close by showing how his analysis of contemporary Pakistan skirts the persistent accusation against Hitchens, that he was a misogynist and not especially interested in women’s points of view. In an article about the U.S. government’s complicated relationship with Pakistan, called “From Abbottabad to Worse,” his opening paragraph contains this incredible salvo about Pakistan:

Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal or religious kangaroo courts, even if a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.

Succinct. Cold-eyed. Articulate. Infusing your brain with context for a broader issue. And a cri de coeur against moral relativism that will (hopefully) place its writer on the right side of history. This is, I think, a fair way to sum up Arguably. Hitchens’ enemies—and he had many—may have wanted to take him down, but it’s hard to see, based on the book at hand, how any of them came close to even touching him.

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