Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Passion of Hitch


"A life that partakes of even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called "meaningless" except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so." (p 331)

Christopher Hitchens was a passionate reader, thinker, speaker, and writer. I share his passion, but not all of his passions. Some of those I share include a passion for reading (widely and deeply), and an intense dislike of hypocrisy of all kinds. His memoir chronicles a life that began the same day that mine did although, unlike mine, it has ended--all too soon. While I have read many of his essays and biographical sketches (among these I would recommend his Letters to a Young Contrarian as a good introduction to his thought),  the catalyst for reading his memoir was the tribute for him that, thanks to the wonder that is CSPAN BookTV, was broadcast on television a week ago as "A Tribute for Christopher Hitchens"*;  one example of the all too few oases of value in the TV  wasteland that with the ubiquity of Cable has only grown larger over the years.

The memoir chronicles his personal history with a bent toward intellectual history. The passion of his living shows through in his writing with excitement for the reader both from his adventures in political warfare and his experience in the literary realm of reading and subsequently writing.  He developed an uncanny ability to see and understand both sides of an argument, making his own positions stronger in the process.  One moment that epitomizes this is his epiphany when, as a student at Oxford in 1968, he visits a camp for international revolutionaries in Cuba.  Even there, left-wing as his views were, he could not tow the line and had the audacity to question the unreflexive adherence to whatever opinion emanated from Castro, the "revolutionary leader".  Ironically he remembers the aimlessness of a whole day when, with Russian tanks entering Prague, the communists in Cuba had no official view until their leader revealed the official line.  To what extent his memory was tempered with hindsight the reader will have to judge for himself, but given his outspoken often contrarian views the picture of his role in that time rings true.
His roles as student, lecturer, foreign correspondent, polemicist of ideas (usually contrarian and always well-thought), and more fill the pages of a book that must be read by all who have appreciated his presence in the battlefield of ideas over the last few decades.  Perhaps the best example of the many facets of his critical and literary life was his move from England to America. In doing so, becoming a regular contributor for The Nation magazine as a Brit in America, he seemed to become a sort of left-wing version of Alistair Cooke and William F. Buckley melded into one outspoken contrarian commentor.  This is the Christopher Hitchens that I first encountered in essays and on television and his version of the journey is fascinating.

I share his love of literary giants like Orwell and Proust, not to mention the great writers who were his personal friends like Rushdie, Amis and McEwen.  And I appreciate the way he could effectively stand up against hypocrites of all stripes and, usually, irrational beliefs. His was a life bred in the exciting world of ideas and one that in his words makes for a great memoir. I would encourage everyone to make some room for Christopher Hitchens in their reading life.

*A tribute to author Christopher Hitchens who died on December 15, 2011.  The event, hosted by Vanity Fair magazine, includes Mr. Hitchens' family, friends, and colleagues.  The numerous speakers include Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Victor Navasky, Sean Penn, Peter Hitchens, Mr. Hitchens' widow Carol Blue, Graydon Carter, and Martin Amis.   The tribute takes place at the Great Hall of the Cooper Union in New York City. (BookTV)

Hitch - 22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve Books, 2010.
Letters to A Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens. Basic Books, 2001.


Sam Sattler said...

I am a longtime admirer of Chris Hitchens and enjoyed the frankness and honesty displayed in Hitch 22. He left us all too soon, and I miss knowing that he's around preparing something new for the rest of us to think about. Nice review, thanks.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. I share your admiration for many of Hitchens' qualities, especially his ability to arouse our minds with devastating prose.