Entries in hitchens (5)


Book Review: Hitchens' *Mortality*

This is a review I wrote for the Ottawa Citizen of Christopher Hitchens' postumous book about dying of cancer. I loved the Hitch, but I didn't love this book. It's worth reading, like everything of his. But I thought he blinked, a bit. 



Christopher Hitchens, McClelland & Stewart $22.99 Hardcover, 107 pp

Christopher Hitchens' 2010 memoir Hitch-22 is packed with gossip, jokes, confessions, and arguments, with the tenor and tone shifting wildly from ironic to sentimental, crude to sophisticated, learned to juvenile, frequently within the same page or paragraph. But for all the clever turns of phrase, the stiletto reasoning, the unfair erudition, you don't actually discover much about what made the Hitch tick.

In fact, it is only on page 330, well over three fourths of the way through the book, that Hitchens condescends to reveal something of himself. The moment comes in his answers to "The Proust Questionnaire," a form of self-interrogation (and a popular feature from Hitchens' employer, Vanity Fair magazine) that asks you to answer questions like "What is your idea of earthly happiness?" and "what is the quality you most admire in a woman?"

The key moment of self-disclosure comes in the second question, "Where would you like to live?". Hitchens' fully-armed answer: "In a state of conflict or a conflicted state."

From his earliest days as a Trotskyite university radical, Christopher Hitchens was a man who lived to argue, to debate, to fight. The problem is, for an ideological combatant like Hitchens, the end-of-history '90s presented something less than a target-rich environment. As a result, he seem destined to spend his life as a bit of a fringe figure, picking odd little fights with Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa, where the viciousness of the attack seemed completely out of proportion to the alleged crimes.

The attacks of 9/11 changed everything, as the world was launched once again into a state of high-level polarized conflict. The novelist Martin Amis wrote that if 9/11 had to happen, he was glad he was alive to see it, but it was his boyhood chum Christopher Hitchens who immediately signed up as one of the most enthusiastic combatants.

It was the post-9/11 intellectual climate that motivated Hitchens' two big intellectual shifts: the one that made him infamous was his Slurpee-sucker cheerleading of the neocons as they bullied George W. Bush into invading Iraq; the one that made him famous was his relentless assault on all forms of religion that began with his 2008 book God Is Not Great.

And there things might have stayed for a long while, with Hitchens settling comfortably into a highly public role as the scourge of believers everywhere, leavening his anti-jihad jihads with more of the fun little assignments his editor at Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, would send him on: get your back waxed, Hitch. Have yourself waterboarded. Write about blowjobs or how women aren't funny.

But suddenly he got metastatic cancer of the esophagus, diagnosed on a book tour, the very day Hitch-22 hit the best-seller list. Suddenly, but surely not unexpectedly, since Hitchens liked to drink and smoke as much as he liked to argue. As he writes in the first essay in this short little book, Mortality: "I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me."

Equally predictable was the way Hitchens set about giving his disease the complete writerly treatment. He begins with a sneer at what he calls "one of the most appealing clichés in our language," namely, that people don't have cancer, they battle it. He then sets about informing the reader that for a cancer patient, "the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water."

Given what follows, this is enormously disingenuous. Mortality consists of seven short chapters about Hitchens' "year of living dyingly," beginning with an essay that tracks his forced march from what he calls the country of the well to the land of malady, and ending with a scattered collection of thoughts, epigrams and quotations that he continued to jot down right up till the end.

Together they might as well be called "Christopher Hitchens versus Cancer," with the increasingly sick Hitch taking on one set of enemies after another. Whether it is the false hope of new therapies, the curse of losing his voice, the thin line between torture and treatment, or the idiotic thesis that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, the tone of the book is relentlessly combative. And because it is Hitchens doing the fighting, it is always smart, insightful and entertaining, with one or two gorgeous turns of phrase on every page.

There is a problem, though, which is that while you learn a lot about what it is like to have terminal cancer, there is very little about deeper theme that is promised in the book's title. Hitchens has little comment on the perverted irony of dying of the same disease that killed his father. There is virtually nothing here about his wife and kids, what his illness means to them and what they mean to him.

He doesn't appear interested in exploring what it is like to face the psychological - and not just intellectual - consequences of his atheism, which is guaranteed extinction. On the questions of his legacy, what people will think of him in a decade, or a century, Hitchens seems unconcerned.

In fact, the reader has to wait until the very end for any trace of mortality as a theme to creep into the book, and in all three examples it is a matter of Hitchens cribbing from other writers. There's a flick at Larkin's poem, Aubade. There is a beautiful quotation from Alan Lightman on how death is the enabler of freedom. And a line from Saul Bellow: "Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything." All three of these references trump anything Hitchens is able to conjure on the subject. Why this is the case is unclear, but Mortality is ultimately defeated by the writer's reluctance to say much at all on the subject at hand. Perhaps it is because Hitchens, the ultimate combatant, could not, right to the last, accept that he had finally found himself in a fight he could not win.

This is too bad, because as big a loss as his death has been for so many of his admirers, there is more to dying than cancer. What came to the Hitch will come to us all, in one form or another.

And for those of us who are less courageous, less stoic, less resolute, in the face of what Larkin devastatingly called "the anaesthetic from which none come round," it would have been nice to have had Hitchens to lead the way, as he did so often when he was alive.



Was Blair vs Hitch fixed? (UPDATED)

I was one of the lucky few who managed to get a ticket to the debate in Toronto last night between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens, put on through the Munk Debates. If you missed it, you can stream the conversation online. It's worth watching it just for the opening seven minute statement by each man, both of which I thought were top notch. 

I won't rehash how it went down -- as all of the news reports have it, Hitchens won handily. Despite his illness (and he was clearly flagging toward the end), he had more energy and fire than did Blair.  As the BBC reports, the former UK prime minister came across as somewhat defensive, and before the evening was a third over he'd conceded almost all of Hitchens' main points. In particular, Blair didn't seem to get that religious leaders working today to solve problems they had caused, from Ireland to Africa to the Middle East, is hardly an argument in favour of the resolution.

But maybe part of the problem was with the resolution itself: "Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the world." The way that is phrased, it can't but put religion on the defensive, by assuming it has to make its case. Religion, on this phrasing, is guilty until proven innocent. 

But what if, instead, the resolution had been "Be it resolved that atheism is a force for good in the world." In this case, Blair would have had the first kick at atheists, and he could have done what Hitchens did, and simply retailed the horrors done in the name of atheism during the 20th century. He might even have pressed Hitchens on his own erstwhile Trotskyism; Blair's failure to press this point was a  bit perplexing.

Overall, Blair didn't seem interested in the more metaphysical or even political arguments in religion's favour. Instead, he seemed content to simply list the places he'd visited where believers were doing good works. And while Hitchens boasted of having lots more "stuff" in the can, Blair seemed either ill-prepared, or simply unreflective. And so it was left to Hitchens to defend religion on the grounds that it brings us in touch with the numinous or ecstatic dimension of life, something that didn't seem to have occurred to Blair. But I'm certain that had the resolution been framed differently, with the atheist having to justify unbelief, the result might have been the same, but the debate would have had more spark. 

I think that one problem with how the debate evolved was the poor quality of the questions from the audience, especially from the select group sitting on stage. The only decent question was from the last person, who asked each man to say which point of his opponent he found most persuasive or difficult to rebut. This brought out the only seriously reflective moment of the night from Blair, where he talked about the difficulty of reconciling belief with some of the darker and more pleasant parts of scripture. And from Hitchens, it elicited the wonderful excursion on the numinous. 

But otherwise, the questioners on stage didn't seem to have done their homework, or to know much about the intellectual backgrounds of either Blair or Hitchens. (Or maybe it is just that the moderator, Rudyard Griffiths, did a bad job of choosing from the questions that were asked -- I don't know how the questions were chosen). 

But here is what I would have asked Blair:

1. How did you come to convert to Catholicism as a grown man? Did you have an epiphany or some sort of experience? Was it a rational decision?

(UPDATE: @munkdebates reminds me this is off-resolution.)

 2. What connection, if any, is there between the purported universalism of your faith and the similar universalist claims of liberalism? Is religion the handmaiden of liberal internationalism?

Here is what I would have asked Hitchens:

1. How do you explain the horrors done against religion and religious believers in the name of unbelief in the 20th century?

UPDATE: Did Hitch answer this? I know Blair raised it, but I don't recall Hitchens answering it. 

2. How do you reconcile your claim that religion poisons everything with your obvious delight at discovering that you are jewish? Aren't you doing exactly what you accuse your opponents of doing, namely, grasping on to ancient promises and blood ties as a way of cementing your identity?

UPDATE: @JRMARLOW tweets that this was sort of addressed here


Hitchens: More than just an atheist

I have little piece today in the Ottawa Citizen on Christopher Hitchens. It took me a while to think of something vaguely novel to say about him, this is what I came up with:

But what is most remarkable about Christopher Hitchens is that, for all his faith in the power of the pen, he fundamentally gets that logic alone has its limits, that sometimes debate can be futile. Hitchens grasps that the body itself can be an argument, and that sometimes the most effective way of challenging authority is the charmingly adolescent gambit of simply getting in its way.



On Hitchens vs Blair

Thanks to a friend with more perseverance than I have, I've snared a ticket to the upcoming debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens in Toronto. It is part of the popular Munk debate series, and apparently they'll debating the question of whether or not religion is a force for good in the world (regardless of whether or not God "exists".)

I'm excited, but that excitement is tempered by mixed feelings. Blair was one of my political heroes when he was elected for his first term -- he always struck me as a more principled and engaged politician than his Canadian counterpart Jean Chretien, whom I had come to despise. But Blair was far too credulous of the claims of the Bush regime over Iraq, and at the end of his tenure he became a morally decadent money grubber.

As for Hitchens, I find it somewhat annoying that he's become a posterboy for atheism, and lumped in with the Dennett/Dawkins/Harris crew. It isn't that I disagree with that crew, not at all. It is just that I think it does a disservice to what Hitchens is on about. As someone put it about Hitchens, his anti-theism is less about belief, more about obedience -- what Hitchens has always railed against is the obedient mind.

That is why I'm bothered by the topic of the Blair-Hitchens debate. I pretty much know what each man's answer to the question is, and I don't expect to be much enlightened by it. Instead of the artificial schoolboy construct of the debate, I'd much rather see them talking about the Iraq war, its justification, its conduct, and its aftermath.



Some interesting links

1. A rather annoying interview with Christopher Hitchens conducted by the extremely annoying Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic. As if the big issue is whether Hitch will discover god on his deathbed.

2. Stephen Hawking can't make up his mind. First he said that humans need to be worried about rapacious spacefaring aliens come to steal our natural resources. Now he says that species is most likely to be... us. He's rapidly turning into David Suzuki.

3. In praise of the enlightenment, from City Journal.

4. An adman quits to find his soul -- an authenticity quest. (via @ajkandy)