Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review: Hitch-22

Christopher Hitchens is best consumed in small doses. This makes him a wonderfully infuriating essayist. His memoir, Hitch-22, however is much longer than an essay and at times takes some dedication to plow through.

The memoir focuses on the upbringing and social scene that Hitchens became a part of. Following along is his stories of dinner parties and friendships offers a crash course in the names and personalities of the 20th century leftist public intellectual literati. Here is one example of the sort of banter associated with this set:

At all events there came a time when someone arrived late at a dinner party complaining of having been stuck at an airport with nothing to read but a Robert Ludlum-style novel. This didn’t seem worth pursuing until the complaint was refined somewhat: “ I mean it’s not just that the prose is so bloody awful but that the titles are so sodding pretentious … The Bourne Inheritance, The Eiger Sanction; all this portentous piffle.” Again, not a subject to set the table afire, until someone idly said they wondered what a Shakespear play would be called if it were Ludlum who had the naming if it. At once Salman [Salman Rushdie] was engaged and began to smile. “All right, Salman: Hamlet by Ludlum!” At once—and I mean with as much preperation as I have given you – "The Elsinore Vacillation.” Fluke? Not exactly. Challenged to the same for Macbeth, he produced “The Dunsinane Reforestation” with hardly a flourish and barely a beat. After this it was plain sailing through “The Kerchiefe Implication”, “The Rialto Sanction”, and one about Caliban and Prospero that I once knew but now can never remember.

The parts I found most interesting involved Salman Rushdie, Edward Siad, and Hitchens’s opinions on the war in Iraq. Of course, must also mention Hitchens and Martin Amis. This seems like a wonderful and true friendship. We get it. It is touching how Hitchens admires him, and knowingly compares his own literary abilities with those of his friend.

The parade of authors and poets and Marxist intellectuals gets a little wearisome at times. But still, few can do self-righteous rage of the intellectual liberal sort as well as Hitchens. Again, on Rushdi:
“When the Washington Post telephoned me at home on Valentine’s Day 1989 to ask my opinion about the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa, I felt at once that there was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship—though I like to think that my reaction would have been the same if I hadn’t known Salman at all. To re-state the premise of the argument again: the theocratic head of a foreign despotism offers money in his own name in order to suborn the murder of a citizen of another country, for the offense of writing a work of fiction. No more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment (on the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille) or to the First Amendment to the Constitution, could be imagined. President George H. W. Bush, when asked to comment, could only say grudgingly that, as far as he could see, no American interests were involved.

The description of the friendship and then falling apart (personally and intellectually) of Hitchens and Edward Said offers a wonderful description of the nature of such intellectual relations. The chapter on him is great, and it inspired me to look up and read Hitchens’s essay after Said's death. It, as well as other writings revealed by Google, make me think that I may not actually understand what Said is really trying to say in Orientalism.

Some of these best parts of Hitch-22 have appeared elsewhere. Also, there is no denying the negative qualities of Hitchens (he can come across as an ass and a misogynist). But, anyone who enjoys or loves to hate his essays would get something out of Hitch-22.

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