"It is not possible for long," Christopher Hitchens writes in his memoir, Hitch-22, "to be just a little heretical." And no polemicist delights in his heresies as much as Hitchens does.
For almost four decades, this columnist for The Atlantic, Vanity Fair and Slate has made a prominent literary career out of unapologetically calling things as he sees them, whether that means skewering the reputations of religious leaders (the outspoken atheist and author of God is Not Great famously called Mother Teresa the "ghoul of Calcutta") or enumerating the depredations of political ones (both Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger are, to Hitchens, "indescribably loathsome"). But rarely has the Hitch taken such exacting measure of his own life, his own shortcomings and contradictions: He tells us that a 2008 typo in the magazine of London's National Portrait Gallery, which mentioned the late Christopher Hitchens, prompted his lengthy reflection on all three.
Of his early life, Hitch writes with wit and surprising candor, right down to his adolescent crushes on other boys and the "vigorous" sessions of "mutual relief" that took place in the dorms of his English boarding school. (The cruel, sadomasochistic humiliations visited upon the school's underclassmen by its prefects also bring to mind George Orwell's "Such, Such Were the Joys.") As with his hero Orwell, those years were important to Hitchens for two reasons: They toughened him up considerably, rendering him almost invulnerable to any criticisms the world could later throw at him, and they inspired his lifelong hatred of totalitarian regimes. "Those who live under [a dictatorship]," he writes, "must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not. (The only rule of thumb was: whatever is not compulsory is forbidden.) Thus, the ruled can always be found to be in the wrong."
From there, Hitchens traces his education at Balliol College, Oxford, his early years as a political journalist writing for The New Statesman and his life-changing friendships with Martin Amis, James Fenton, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, as well as his parting of ways with Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. The author devotes one particularly moving chapter to the bravery of his good friend Salman Rushdie, who, in writing The Satanic Verses, "ignited one of the greatest-ever confrontations between the ironic and the literal mind" and has had to fear for his life ever since. And who else but Hitchens can recall both reading to Borges at his home in Argentina and being spanked by Margaret Thatcher? (Not only did she spank him, she also called him "naughty," which might be the kindest of the criticisms any head of state has leveled against him.)
The development of Hitch's social and political sensibilities, from his revolutionary zeal as a member of the International Socialists to his eventual disillusionment with what he now feels is a feckless, callow post-9/11 American left, is, as one would expect, the real core of Hitch-22. Despite his remarkable erudition, elegant prose and sharp humor (especially about himself), all of which make him an entertaining read, the former Nation columnist and lion of the left fails, unfortunately, to answer a few basic questions about his confounding position on the Iraq War, namely: If the removal of Saddam Hussein is a moral issue, as Hitchens insisted it was back in 2003, then how is sending thousands of young men and women into an un-winnable war not a moral issue? How can Hitchens, who protested the Vietnam War, who writes so eloquently about the preservation of civil liberties and the freedom of expression, who despises "dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation," call Jimmy Carter a "pious, born-again creep" and essentially give the Bush administration a pass? "I am sorry for those who have never had the experience of seeing the victory of a national liberation movement," writes Hitch in reply, "and I feel cold contempt for those who jeer at it." One wonders what Orwell, who wrote often about the evils of colonialism and the tendency of one dictatorship to be supplanted by others, would say to that.
What makes Hitchens a fascinating polemicist—his loyalty to principle—all too frequently cripples his political analyses, some of which seem to be written from the inside of a perfectly circumscribed moral shoebox. Just because the United States can, doesn't necessarily mean that it should, and (as in the case of the Iraq War) just because it should, certainly doesn't mean that it can.
But it's Hitchens' extraordinary rhetorical gifts and fearless certitude that make him such a compelling read. And for those who are puzzled or infuriated by where his self-righteous dogma has led him, it's nonetheless a bracing intellectual and moral exercise to engage with his bellicose vision of freedom.
Editor's Note: Quail Ridge Books informed us Wednesday that Hitchens has canceled his tour due to a personal private matter. There's no word at this point if the tour will be rescheduled or not.
Christopher Hitchens will appear at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, 3313 Wade Ave., Thursday, June 17, at 7:30 p.m. Frank Stasio of WUNC's The State of Things will moderate a discussion with Hitchens. Tickets are available for the signing line with purchase of Hitch-22. Visit quailridgebooks.com for more information.