The Devil’s Advocate

Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably assembles various essays and reviews from the last decade or so of his life.  One piece begins by quoting an Anthony Burgess novel*:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the Archbishop had come to see me.

Hitchens comments, “One knows at once who is the object of this pastiche.”  Oh, does one?  In my family, one might typically respond to this sort of thing with “Well smell me, Princess Grace!”  Mr. H, after what he considers a couple of superfluous hints, does eventually tell us that he’s talking about W. Somerset Maugham, a biography of whom is being reviewed.

You can see why this quote appealed to Hitchens—it has the bad-boy panache that is one of his own talents, and sets up the contrasting opening of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge:

I have never begun a novel with more misgivings.  If I call it a novel, it is only because I don’t know what else to call it.

Point taken, Mr. H—that is rather distressing.  Anyway, that’s what you get with Hitchens, one minute he’s dug up a critique of Maugham by P.G. Wodehouse (yes, really) or is dismembering the creepy cult of JFK, the next he’s snapped into insufferable twit mode, and you want to reach out and hit his Reset button.

I was surprised and relieved to find many of the pieces in Arguably pretty much untainted by his obsession with the Iraq War, which he did not merely support but made the central cause of his public life.  It was, as S. Johnson would say, the Cleopatra for which he lost the world and was well content to lose it.  Well, maybe not content; he may have failed to realize how thoroughly his persistent pro-Bush harangues would erode his rumpled Cambridge smartass charm.  It was all very puzzling.

I think I now have at least some idea what got into him: he thought he was George Orwell, If Orwell published anything on a topic, Hitchens will quote it, and if he didn’t, then he will quote a few unpublished sentence fragments, as he does in writing about Evelyn Waugh.  You could hardly do better than Orwell as a model of integrity and authenticity in political writing, but the key for CH is that, when it came time to fight Hitler, Orwell was an enthusiastic hawk.  Hitchens clearly saw himself bravely facing down a rabble of mealy-mouthed appeasers in a just and necessary cause,though I wish I could ask him how hard he had to squint at G.W. Bush before he started to look like Winston Churchill.

This idee fixe crops up only obliquely in most of the pieces here, as an acrid aftertaste (my brothers once dropped a couple of their little green plastic soldiers into a pot of tomato sauce, and that probably created a similar effect).  CH seems to share to a surprising degree the fondness for violence evident in Rebecca West’s enthusiastic Serb nationalism or John Buchan’s relish for World War I.  Occasionally things just get weird, as when CH is appalled, like any good atheist, to find evangelical Christians using their positions in the US military to spread the faith to other soldiers or even to civilians in Afghanistan.  I guess having the President refer to the war as a Crusade wasn’t enough of a hint that this might happen?

I should be able to cheer along with CH’s atheism, which I share as much as any reader is likely to, and yet instead of daring raids on the con men and bullies who use religion to exploit and dominate, we too often get crabby grousing at liberation theology or Graham Greene (he seems to have a special grudge against Catholics), reminding one of a terrier let loose to worry a flock of sheep.

It may be said that I am not the pot to be calling the kettle a crabby grouser, and I don’t want to leave a wholly negative impression.  Hitchens mostly makes a real effort not to bore the reader, and he mostly succeeds; these are not trivial things.  I got quite a bit of pleasure from his trashing of JFK and John Updike, and from his praise for Ben Franklin and P.G. Wodehouse.  I do wish that he had lived long enough to snap out of his Bush fixation and recover some political self-respect.


*Earthly Powers (1980)

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4 Responses to The Devil’s Advocate

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    Crabby grouser–that’s the expression I’ve been looking for all these years to describe my lack of enthusiasm for CH. Thank you! And you’ve never been as crabby as he used to be, so it’s more the kettle calling the pot. I’m glad that you can appreciate some things about him even while calling him by his true name.

    • Roy says:

      Knowing how much you dislike him, I wondered if you’d read the piece at all. He has been seen as a kind of heir to Gore Vidal (by both Vidal and himself), and there’s a piece in the book where he mourns GV’s fall from a wag to be reckoned with to an irrelevant crank. De te fabula narratur, dude.

  2. Mary Evelyn White says:

    I don’t know CH and his writing and it looks as if I’m not likely to make his acquaintance. Very funny comments, though. I’m glad that you suffer through these people so that we don’t have to.

  3. beth mchugh says:

    Well said, Mary! Thanks be that I have Roy to do the pre-work for me….then I can just read his highly entertaining posts! I really did enjoy this one, Roy….I actually never paid enough attention to CH so only saw a little of his pro-GW writing…maybe I stopped looking at anything of his after I realized his stance on that topic. Narrow minded of me, I realize…thanks for some enjoyable education here!

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