Hitch-22: my take

June 13, 2010 • 11:23 am

Short take:  if you aren’t an admirer of Hitchens, or don’t follow him as a detractor, this is probably not worth reading.  If you follow him, by all means read it, but save your money by taking it out of the library.

After the sapience and wit of God is Not Great, I found Hitch-22 a bit of a letdown.  True, this memoir has its good bits, most notably the chapter on the Rushdie affair, but it also falls into the inevitable trap of autobiography: the desire to rationalize bad decisions and embellish one’s life.

You will find, for instance, a long and unconvincing justification for Hitchens’s support of the Iraq invasion. You will read of innumerable occasions when, Hitchens modestly admits, one or another of his acquaintances dedicated a novel or poem to him.  (This may reflect what he admits as his besetting flaw: insecurity.)  There are many paeans to his BFF Martin Amis, and yet barely a mention of Hitchens’s wife and children.   The highly-praised chapter his mother and her suicide in Athens I found rather lifeless; although—like all of Hitchens’s prose—it didn’t fail to be interesting, it did fail to live.  Ditto on his chapter about his father, whom he dubs (because of his career in the Navy) “the Commander.”  I’m not sure whether this reflects the distance between parents and children mediated by the boarding-school experience, but in the end one gets the impression that Hitchens is much more comfortable discussing ideas than people.

Perhaps I’m being unfair here.  Besides his discussion of the Rushdie fatwa and the many cowards in high places who failed to come to Rushdie’s defense (or blamed the fatwa on his own writings), he has good tidbits on Susan Sontag, on his youthful experience in a Cuban labor camp, on his interview with Oswald Mosley, and on the many pompous twits he encountered on his way from Oxford to Fleet Street.

If I could sum up the book in one sentence, I suppose it would be: you had to have been there.

After this mild letdown, I wondered if, agreeing with much of his politics (save the Iraq business), I had overrated Hitchens’s writing.  I’ve read most of what he’s written—the Orwell book, the Clinton book, the Mother Teresa book, at least two volumes of his essays, and of course God is Not Great, and remembered superb prose and incisive arguments.  I therefore borrowed the last book from my host’s library and dipped back into it.  And, lo, there was the Hitchens of yore: witty, intelligent, funny, and thoughtful.

Those who dismiss God is Not Great as a strident and humorless jeremiad are wrong.  None of the faithful who have counterattacked—not Terry Eagleton, not John Haught, not Karen Armstrong—have produced a book with a tenth of Hitchens’s wit or writing ability.  It is not Hitchens but his fleas who are strident and humorless.  I invite you to reread this book (and of course to read it for the first time if you haven’t already), and if you don’t find it a good read, and a provocation to thought, then there is no hope for you.  It’s my firm conviction that many of Hitchens’s critics, save those who rightly argue against his stance on Iraq, are motivated largely by his eloquence and wit, qualities which they lack but would dearly like to have.

34 thoughts on “Hitch-22: my take

  1. Bugger – that’s a bit of a pity. I was going to get it but this is about the third review that expresses disappointment.

  2. Yes indeed about the writing. It’s absolutely Topp – the guy is a genius at the essay and the article.

    The memoir…yes…it does sound somewhat offputting. In my case that’s partly because one of the things I have always liked about Hitchens is his ferocious interest in a great many things external to himself. I think I don’t much want to read a whole book where he talks about himself.

  3. In interviews, Hitchens has said that he left his wife and children mostly out of the book out of concerns for their privacy. However, those who are no-longer living, he considered fair game.

  4. In God Is Not Great he has a section in which he discusses the religious influence on Saddam’s reign. From what I gather, isn’t his main support of the initial invasion the overthrow of Saddam? Because right after that, he acknowledges how much worse it got when al-Qaeda moved in behind the overthrow. I guess I need to find out what he actually wrote on the invasion — I don’t see him as a big supporter of US Military activities, just an opponent of the Saddam regime.

    1. My take was that Hitchins saw Saddam being left in power as a worse evil than Bush using military force to remove him.

  5. I am now second on the library consortium’s list of people waiting for the 8 copies of this book.

  6. What about his ‘Portable Atheist’ then? I know he was editor rather than writer, but is it worth getting?

    1. Definitely! A good compendium of historical atheism, with some great previously-unpublished pieces.

  7. Thanks for the review. I am interested in some of his ideas, but I have little interest in him (personally) and I found his rationalizations for the Iraq invasion and for his support of President Bush to be tiresome.


    “gee, that is the joke that stupid people laugh out”: stupid people can flip off people.

      1. It isn’t that people thought they were smarter than Bush, it’s that he was so obviously unworthy of the office he occupied.

  8. I always find reviews of writing with comments like this as odd, “The highly-praised chapter his mother and her suicide in Athens I found rather lifeless; although—like all of Hitchens’s prose—it didn’t fail to be interesting, it did fail to live.”

    It’s strikes me as a fancy way of saying you didn’t like it, but you don’t know why.

    Should it not have been written about? If it should have been, how should it have been written in order to “live”?

    1. Nitpicks like this irritate me intensely. It failed to live because I couldn’t conceive of his mother as a real, living person rather than as somebody who was just written about.

      1. The chapter is about his mother’s suicide and you describe it as “lifeless” and tell us it “failed to live.” That’s tactless.

  9. Haven’t read Hitch-22 so I can’t comment on your assessment of it, though I’ll take your advice if I choose to read it and take it out from the library. But I would like to comment on your last paragraph. I think it’s right on. god is not Great is a wonderful read, and it is not strident, and so many people claim, without giving a shred of evidence for the claim, nor can they. He does make a few mistakes here and there, but it is witty, clear, well argued, eloquent and challenging. If it doesn’t make you think, very seriously, about the shortcomings of religion, and its almost universally scrapbook quality, there’s no hope for you.

  10. Saw Hitchens on The Daily Show. Whether our views agree or differ, he is usually irritating. It’s good for me to consider whether he has thought through his argument or is gun slinging.

    While I doubt whether anyone is perfect, he may be the exemplar iconoclast.

  11. I love Christopher Hitchens, he says whatever he thinks and he thinks well.

    I was always against the Iraq war which has turned exactly as I expected it would. Nonetheless I understood at the time that its main purpose was to scare the crap out of the US’s many enemies and make them realise that there is a point past which it can’t be pushed. I think it has achieved that to some extent, whether it is worth the cost is another matter. I also suspect that the invasion of Afghanistan would have sufficed, though it is likely to be even less successful in the end.

    I think that as he ages he will see his support of Bush as an emotional reponse to 9/11 and his becoming an American. A rallying to the leader sort of thing and will distance himself from it.

    Anyway it is not possible to only support people who never say anything you don’t agree with, they really don’t exist. Even Richard Dawkins suggested “Brights” which makes me queasy. You have to go on the preponderance of their work and the attitude behind it. I think he’s very much on the side of the angels in this world.

    1. Which is why organizing us is like herding cats!
      I was in Madison for the FFRF annual meeting, in 2007. People asked Hitchens sharp questions, and ultimately many walked out on him. PZ Myers blogged it.
      It was election season, and he also crossed a few (I’m sure) by saying his favorite candidate was Guiliani.
      I like Hitchens a lot. But unlike the religious, we don’t have saints. Therein lies the problem.

    2. The problem with that line of reasoning is that we created one hell of a mess whose cost in blood and treasure is incommensurate with what was achieved.

      If anything, the outcome of the Iraq war revealed our achilles heel. The problem with a policy of “Oderint dum metuant” is that we’ve engendered the hate without the fear.

  12. Has anyone read his book on Thomas Jefferson? I`m looking for a book on the Founding Fathers and wonder if Hitchens would be the best choice to start with.
    I loved “god is not great”, but as a foreigner, maybe I should choose something more didactic.

  13. I’ll look out for Portable Atheist. Hitchins is a splitter all right – personally I think he is wonderful, and one of the most thoughtful, forthright and lucid writers out there. And yes, I can still disagree with him on certain issues. Others find him intensely irritating. If I may make a confession – I find Dawkins far more irritating and a far less interesting or compelling writer, even while I agree with most of the things he says. I have been recommending WEIT over TGSOE to those people not prepared to read both (yes, they do exist) and god Is Not Great over God Delusion. Having said that, I have been lucky enough to meet Dawkins a couple of times and he is charming and funny in person. If I met Hitch I might have to prepared to sacrifice my liver.

    1. Yeah, I hated the Greatest Show… It was terrible. I didn’t even finish it and I’m part of the “choir.”

      OTOH, I make my daughter read WEIT at least once a year as part of her homeschooling. (Ok, I’ve made her read it three times since it came out, but the point remains, it’s a very good book in explaining evolution and I really, really, really want to reinforce the concept so she can’t get bamboozled…)

  14. I really liked God is Great, and a fair number of Hitchens’s essays (his support of the Iraq war, and interventionist war in general not withstanding). But do I need to read about his whole life in general? Not really. I’m kind surprised he’d even write one now, while he’s still not really that old. I’d rather have him write something nice and biting about some of the non-Western religions instead.

  15. I’ve read and enjoyed quite a bit of Hitch and hope to read more. He’s going to have to take better care of himself. Smoking, drinking etc. and btw being photographed with a smoke in your hands has not been cool since the 50’s.

    1. I have a feeling Mr. Hitchens cares as little as it is possible to care about opinions like that. He doesn’t strike me as someone who takes prudish image concerns very seriously.

  16. This was a “cash in on my fame” book. So, of course, it suffers from the usual issues of autobiographies. But that’s not surprising, every (and I mean without exception) autobiography I’ve read in my life has been the same.

    So, maybe there are some autobiographies out there, somewhere, lacking this flaw. But I haven’t seen them.

  17. @Moses – try ‘Little Wilson and Big God’ and ‘You’ve had your time’ by Anthony Burgess. But you’d probably have to be a Burgess fan…in which case you probably have already read them

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