“He does not so much split his infinitives as disembowel them.” (Rebecca West on Dr. Lionel Tayler, The Clarion, 1913)
CONSIDER THIS INTERACTION recorded by Ian Parker about the late Christopher Hitchens in The New Yorker:
And then the young doctor to [Hitchens’] left made a passing but sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, the 2004 Presidential candidate; she said that he had been unfairly treated in the American media. Hitchens, in the clear, helpful voice one might use to give street directions, replied that Dean was “a raving nut bag,” and then corrected himself: “A raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag.” He said, “I and a few other people saw he should be destroyed.” He noted that, in 2003, Dean had given a speech at an abortion-rights gathering in which he recalled being visited, as a doctor, by a twelve-year-old who was pregnant by her father. (“You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said, to applause.) Dean appeared not to have referred the alleged rape to the police; he also, when pressed, admitted that the story was not, in all details, true. For Hitchens, this established that Dean was a “pathological liar.”
“All politicians lie!” the women said.
“He’s a doctor,” Hitchens said.
“But he’s a politician.”
“No, excuse me,” Hitchens said. His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour. (Hitchens’s friend Martin Amis, the novelist, has chided Hitchens for “doing that horrible thing with your lips.”) “Fine,” Hitchens said. “Now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”
“That’s wrong!” they said.
“You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side.” His tone was businesslike; the laughing protests died away. “I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off. You think a doctor can lie in front of an audience of women on a major question, and claim to have suppressed evidence on rape and incest and then to have said he made it up?”
“But Christopher . . .”
“Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”
This is very confusing. When Hitchens died ten years ago, his many friends heaped praise on the pyre. So where in this boorish altercation is that “fine, funny orator,” “quietly self-parodying,” (Ian Parker)? Is this an example of the “master of the extended peroration, peppered with literary allusions, and of the bright, off-the-cuff remark” (William Grimes)? What happened to the “brilliant speaker and debater,” “in conversation incomparably interesting and engaging” (James Fenton)? Did I miss the “elegance, wit, and brilliance” (Victor Navasky)? The “mischievous laugh,” “mock outrage,” “devilishly clever,” “devastatingly pointed phrase,” “…striving for some conversational prize in erudition” (Meryl Gordon) must have passed over my head. Did the transcriber fail to underline that this exchange was uttered in “that insouciantly charming tone of his” (Fred Kaplan)? Were these women unaware that he was “the thinking woman’s crumpet” (Joanna Cole)? Is this some hidden example of his “intense personal generosity and kindness” (Hussein Ibish)? Did he pick a fight with two young women in the absence of “starting fights with God, assuming there is one, which he doesn’t” (Alexander Chancellor)?
I cannot see any of that. What I see is a mean drunk, the fuel for which has been amply and admiringly documented; a wolfish domesticate. The misogyny is plain on the surface: The need to dominate, the dismissiveness triggered by disagreement, the sexist apodo, the abrupt fellatory vulgarism. The constellation of logical fallacies (I count six) that must have been learned while studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Balliol College of Oxford University in the late 1960s.
Reading Christopher Hitchens after this very unnerving dust-up it is impossible not to see his sexism everywhere. Visiting Afghanistan in 2004, he is “obsessed with women” which manifests itself in the actually common and prosaic revulsion that consumes Europeans confronting the veil. “My sex obsession got the better of me again” meeting a female Afghan doctor who survived detention under the Taliban to become the only woman candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan. He “made bold to inquire” about “a headscarf that didn’t seem all that comfortable”: “How long have you been wearing that? Have you always worn one?” He writes:
Her downcast-eyed yet stirring reply was that, in her days as a medical student, she had worn what she liked. This was a nervous compromise. Even her revolutionary candidacy was, in a sense, being conducted with male permission.
This would be very funny – “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad” (Mark Twain) – but for the wager Hitchens solemnly places at the very top: “the future of democracy may be at stake.” These are abstract stakes for him but very much not so for the woman sitting in front of him.
Back in the gender-liberated citadel of American democracy he crumpets on. Asked “what’s it like to be a minority of one,” when it comes to his ill-considered stance on invading Iraq, he responds, “It washes off me like jizz off a porn star’s face.” To his wife: “Darling, you would be so much more convincing if you were dressed.” About Ann Coulter: “If I can’t fuck up Ann Coulter before lunch, then I shouldn’t be in this business.” In Vanity Fair he wrote a thoroughly unnecessary and unconvincing paean to head and its alleged American character. His opening salvo, as it were, was a complete misread of Lolita as an erotic novel – his commonplace error compounded by a shuddering appropriation of the world’s most famous book depicting child rape to rhapsodize about oral sex. He stumbles forward (“Stay with me,” he begs the reader. “I’ve done the hard thinking for you.”). Rhetorically he asks why Nabokov refused to apply the English translation of souffler as if there were some profound Platonic form to be elided from the text. In reality, the answer is easily available given Lolita’s colorful publication history: even when self-scrubbed of explicit descriptions of sexual acts, the first edition had to be printed by a French pornographer rather than an English or American publisher. Hitchens considers the virtues of the gay hummer – he partially admits to such activity in English boarding school – which is not a very brave or original argument to make in 2006.
Hitchens was at least as famous for his enemies as for his friendships. He emigrated to the United States in 1982 and quickly ingratiated himself with the ruling class of Washington, D.C. It is telling that most of those who wrote eulogies for Slate’s Hitchens tribute tell banal anecdotes rather than assess the character of the man. This suggests to me that Hitchens didn’t have friends so much as potential adversaries. As Meryl Gordon describes him, in “Washington society these days, he’s like a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger.” In other words, a very dangerous man. In his career he managed to estrange Eric Alterman, Colin Robinson, Alexander Cockbridge, Michael Kinsley, his own brother Peter (for four years), his first wife (until after the baby), and most famously, Sidney Blumenthal. In most of these cases the split was the result of personal or political differences, which means Hitchens was willing to abandon friends and family over his opinions. That is the very essence of the fanatic whom Hitchens insisted he hated.
Never mind. Hitchens was an acolyte of George Orwell, who like Hitchens was not a uniquely gifted or capable writer. Still, profundity can emerge from prose but only if the source itself is pure. Orwell’s canny judgment – of the reality in front of him and its moral implications – distinguished him among his generation. It also separates Hitchens most starkly from his hero. Hitchens was wrong about almost everything he ever wrote about. Orwell was right about fascism and communism at the same time. He was right about socialism. He was right about the Soviet Union. By contrast Hitchens was wrong about communism, Trotsky, Iraq (twice!), “Islamofascism,” Mother Teresa, Paris Hilton, female humor, and atheism. On those subjects where he coincided with historical judgment, he was late to join an already crowded field. So he discovered The Clintons were corrupt the year after the president was impeached. Henry Kissinger was deemed a war criminal 26 years after the end of the Vietnam War. George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were good men and very smart. In other words, all of his opinions about important public subjects were wrong, tardy, or commonplace. And this is because instead of being a moralist, which is the role of a great writer like Orwell, Hitchens was mercenary. He had no moral core beyond the fight itself. He was a pugilist. Fighting was all he knew how to do, and if he was not fighting, the vacuum was plain. And like a boxer taking too many roundhouses to the skull, the constant fight did not improve his judgment.
Still, I continue to search for this reputed rhetorician, the “easiest job in journalism” (June Thomas), “who didn’t need much editing” (Jonathan Karp), the sharp insight, cutting moral judgment, or mordant summary that define a keen observer and vital journalist. Or at least that is what very many other writers publishing in legacy media insist is there. What I find instead is slack prose, literary cliché, and astonishing ignorance. While Hitchens accurately if obviously describes Kabul in 2004 as “battered and filthy” he also reads too much meaning in a restaurant sign titled “Shame,” ignorant of the anglicization of the Dari word for “dinner”. He cites “David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia” for no apparent purpose, in addition to Harry Flashman and Rudyard Kipling, the default settings to any discussion of colonialism. What on earth does this mean: “A Kuwaiti woman, who hadn’t wanted to dismount from the bus, found her privacy and modesty invaded by a small lad who nevertheless proffered a sharp knife.” In 1992, he asked the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ilija Izetbegovic – while under active mortar fire – his opinion on the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued in 1988.
To borrow a phrase, I now know what his standards are and that’s all the difference in the world.
It was this Christopher Hitchens who was asked, for reasons unknown, to write an introduction to the 2007 Penguin single-volume edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. All the precipitate pugilism, simmering misogyny, masculine toxicity, and inattention are manifest here. On the surface, at least, it appears that he knows what he is doing, which is a hachet job disguised as an encomium. By treating a clear superior as an equal, he boosts himself up a notch by taking her down. But given his record outlined above, I cannot confidently say that’s what he meant to do.
I will give Hitchens one point: he was right about Bosnia and the whole of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. And he was courageous, at least, visiting the country during the war in addition to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Romania in 1989. He wrote compellingly, if not originally, about the siege of Sarajevo as early as 1992. But while his reportage crossed the conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels, he reported what better observers than he – Samantha Power, Christiane Amanpour, Pierre Hazan, Roy Gutman, among many others – were seeing at the same time. And then he made his career-ending error, also quite common among ex-leftist interventionists, by extrapolating what should have been done in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Rwanda (in the last country a fait accompli by the time he writes about it) to Iraq in 2003. Here again his judgment is not just poor but unoriginal.
By contrast Rebecca West, like Orwell, did not lack for good judgment in anything other than her personal life. She was right about feminism, suffrage, socialism, fascism and communism (at the same time), Yugoslavia, Germany, Italy, World War II, the meaning of treason, and Margaret Thatcher. Unlike Hitchens, her astute observation came from a moral core. While he kept looking for the fight and adapting his sophistry to the argument, she argued for what she truly believed in. She was also intensely loyal to friends, even those (like H.G. Wells and her own sisters) with whom she had difficult relationships over the course of her tumultuous life.
In his introduction, Hitchens logs a small handful of the standard panegyrics to build rapport with the reader and establish that West is worth his time. From this low mezzanine he slowly descends into his very English oblique reproach. While no author is beyond scrutiny – although, ironically, Hitchens’ literary estate does not apparently believe that – introductory writers do not normally disparage their subjects. Whether Hitchens saw this opportunity or not, he took to it with his patent combination of latent misogyny and misapprehension as amply documented above.
One of the strange and irrelevant strands Hitchens picks up stems from his hackneyed student days as a “Baillol Bolshevik” at Oxford. That is when he realized Joseph Stalin’s genocidal paranoia was no longer socially acceptable in polite company. So he shifted allegiance to the original communist martyr, Leon Trotsky, who did not live long enough to direct the repressive and failed political and economic experiment of the Soviet Union. Like a tic from the old days, he lays Stalinist sympathies at West’s feet. This is bizarre and untrue. Hitchens quotes a vague reference to Soviet agriculture policy to pin on West support for its murderous collectivization. Additionally, he rather specifically notes “her complete failure to anticipate the rise of Yugoslav communism during the Second World War.” This is nonsense. Following her British Council visit in 1936, as part of the official report to her sponsors she warned that Yugoslavia risked being “overrun either by Germany or, under Russian direction, by communism; which would destroy its character, blot out its inheritance from Byzantium.” West in fact denounced Stalin, the Soviet Union, and communism. More importantly, she helped regime apostates like Emma Goldman, who came to England following her departure from the Soviet Union and her deportation from the United States.
Hitchens continues to descend. He attacks West’s work as “not history. It is not even journalism. It is passion.” Elsewhere, he accuses her of “gushing” romantically about the peoples of the region. While there is certainly an argument to be made about Orientalism and the Western Gaze, he does not make it here. And in any event, Hitchens might know more about gushing passion than he would let on. As his friend Martin Amis wrote about him (while he was still alive): “Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly.” Gushing indeed.
Hitchens takes as easy bait West’s preoccupation with sex and gender. He luridly focuses on West’s use of “impotent,” a word that appears very rarely in the book. He revels in her account of the homespun trousers of Macedonian Albanian men adorned with exaggerated representations of the male member. His sexism then precipitates. He gleefully touts West’s “ability to detect a pure bitch at twenty paces” in her criticism of Austrian Archduchess Sophie. “Against this woman,” he writes, West “deploys a rhetorical skill that is perhaps too little associated with feminism”. With the viscera of modifiers slip-sliding across the butcher’s table it is not precisely clear exactly what he means. In any event he appears to be set off by West’s ultimate cut: “[Sophie] was also a great slut”. I will skip the etymology of this term but it is likely it meant something completely different in 1941 than Hitchens thought it did in 2007. All of this was purely unnecessary, the result of scratching at some subdural burr. I would not dare to suggest it has anything to do with his mother abandoning his father and committing suicide with her lover in Athens in 1973.
Hitchens’ creepiness extends and pervades. He blames West, as did so many men during the 1990s, for influencing Western inaction in Yugoslavia. He blasts her sincere defense of English-ness, a plaint she also shares with Orwell. This, Hitchens argues, “must count as one of the most halting and apologetic proclamations of patriotism ever uttered.” This is extremely hard to take given his own, very English, overreliance on modifier mash-ups, meandering subordinate clauses, and maddening imprecision. He states “the book fails certain tests as a history, and even as a travelogue, and …it has little predictive value…and it shows some ‘unreliable narrator’ characteristics.” “[W]hy should it remain a classic?” he asks rhetorically. His own “tentatively offer[ed]” (halting?) response is that Rebecca West is very very smart, and she “makes a sincere and admirable effort,” and that she “understands that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for.” In other words: clever girl! But it is hard to stomach that epithet as applied by a dilettante who was neither.