Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hitch-22: Action Hero

I first met Christopher Hitchens some thirty years ago, in the offices of The Nation magazine. Hitchens was working with Hamilton Fish, then the publisher, whom I had arranged to meet for lunch to talk about a documentary film project. Hitchens was standing next to Fish, by his desk in the office, when I arrived. I'm sure he doesn't remember meeting me...but I remembered him as the personification of the stereotypical a dashing young Englishman, thin, with hair, voluble, and full of energy. He was much shorter than Fish. But already well-known as a Nation writer, for his leftist rallying cries. "I just saw Christopher Hitchens," I thought to myself.

The next time we met was in Washington, DC, at a "Stand Up For Denmark!" rally he had helped organize in front of the Danish Embassy in 2006.  This was during the Mohammed Cartoon Crisis. He was more florid, balder, fatter and older--but still voluble, full of energy, and dashing. The rally was small, and he nodded hello to everyone, including me.

Over the years,  I had heard rumors about Hitchens--about alcoholism, (contested) discovery of Jewish roots, divorce and remarriage to a young heiress. Closer to home, one of my father's deathbed wishes was that I read Hitchens' athiest manifesto: god is Not Great.  He sent me a copy that I had to discuss with him during one of our last visits together.

So it was with considerable interest that I read Hitch-22. What was most interesting, it seemed, was Hitchens' attempt to paint his self-portrait as a literary man, a man of letters, a serious writer, an artist--rather than a political journalist, pamphleteer, and promoter. It appeared to be his attempt at his own Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The book reads like one last gasp of Modernism. In that sense, Hitchens has shown himself to be a traditionalist--product of his public school days reading of The War Poets, his time as a literary editor at the New Statesman, and his hanger-on approach to the likes of Martin Amis, apparently hoping some of the "literary" quality he so admired would rub off.

Why didn't Hitchens write novels or plays or poetry? George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, two of his admired predecessors, did. He says in this memoir that he couldn't--but that sounds like a cop-out. My guess is that he would have liked to--but would have had to deal with the uncomfortable modernist ambiguity, ambivalence, and alienation that suffuse almost every page of Hitch-22. To do so would have made it increasingly difficult to pursue his political blasting operation, attacking Kissinger, Mother Teresa, and God.

The nuance, subtlety, and sensitivity Hitchens shows flashes of, when he writes about the painful double suicide of his mother or the stoic alcoholism of his father, is a far cry from the posturing provocateur that is his public face. Here is a writer who it seems would rather have been D.H. Lawrence.

It is this hidden Hitchens, the no longer enfant, no longer terrible, who emerges from the pages of this carefully-constructed memoir (others have noted the omissions). Hitchens tries to show himself not as a political propagandist or adventurer, rather as a sensitive person...one who has grown. Just as the young Joyce of Dubliners was not the later Joyce of Ulysses, the young Orwell of The Road to Wigan Pier not the later author of 1984.  Hence, the level of excruciating and embarrassing detail, his public school "crushes," his sordid lifestyle.

Of course, given the news of Hitchens' recent cancer diagnosis, reading the memoirs of this particular engage British intellectual has a special impact.  One wonders, if he manages to beat the odds, would he turn away from politics altogether...towards introspection-- or silence, exile, cunning?

Which brings one to the odyssey of Hitchens' political life. If anything, this is the least satisfying part of the book. He clings to some politically correct shibboleths--anti-Zionist, pro-Socialist--while abandoning others--Saddam Hussein's Iraq, multi-culturalism. Reading of Hitchens evolution from Trotskyite to Neo-conservative fellow traveller (not such a change of colors, perhaps, for weren't a number of founding neo-conservatives themselves Trotskyites?) one is struck by a lack of reflection. In contrast to his personal life, where there is constant angst, Hitchens' political life is one in which there is constant action.

Such a commitment to action, documented in photographs as well as text, gives Hitchens' life interest and piquancy straight from a boy's adventure novel--he fights with neo-Nazis in Beirut! he travels to Cuba for the Revolution! he leads anti-war demonstrations in England!

And it explains, likewise, his shift to Bush defender post-9/11--he goes to Iraq with Paul Wolfowitz!

For, in the end, it is action rather than ideology that matters, or at least once mattered, to Hitchens.

That's why he can write fulsomely about friendship with Saddam Hussein apologist Edward Said at the same time he describes the horrors of Ba'athist Iraq--Said was where the action was in New York literary circles.

That's the hitch, in Hitch-22.

The fashionable intelligence that radiates from this book (from a contributor to Vanity Fair, after all), as well as the evidence of a philosophical change of gears in his serious attention to mother, father, and schooldays--not to mention Jewish traditions--make it all the sadder that Hitchens may not be able to develop into the writer of poems, plays or novels that he seems to devoutly wish to be.

After reading Hitch-22, I'm very glad that I didn't lead his life. But I'm very glad he has shared it with his readers.

Now, I'll join those praying for a miracle...