As a younger man I thought I liked J.R.R. Tolkien. Then I met people who really liked him. I’d read books major and minor, had opinions on whether balrogs had wings, and taken a remarkably large amount from a Oxford philologist’s fantasy, but I didn’t speak a lick of Quenya or Sindarin, couldn’t name Aragorn’s ancestors between Arvedui and Arathorn, and most damningly had been utterly defeated by The History of Middle-earth. This was a set of twelve large volumes forming a syllabus on the development of The Lord of the Rings; mythology, protomythology, drafts of the work, drafts of the mythology, you’d have to be an actual scholar or a crank to get through it all. It was beyond me but you’d be stunned how many people ate it up, or affected to. No scrap was worthless if it came from the pen of the master, not even juvenilia poems of the First Age which were, frankly, crap. This is a whole new level of fandom.
With every passing year I feel the same about Christopher Hitchens. I was not an early Hitchens adopter, getting in with the other atheists in the early part of the century. But once I was in I was in. I own and have re-read all of his books save the first two, on Cyprus and the Elgin Marbles. None of us know most of the output of Hitchens’s 40-year career but I’ve put a damned good dent in it. Many of his interviews and debates are on YouTube and I’ve enjoyed several. I’ve also found myself flipping through a Hitchens collection, noting a book he discussed that I otherwise would have missed, going out, and buying it; his latter reviews were rightly criticized for not being about the book at all, but the greatest compliment you can give a reviewer is doing that sort of thing more than once. In short, I would call myself a fan if I hadn’t heard from the real ones.
Today’s Hitchens fandom is something else. It was bad enough during his lifetime, when god Is Not Great was doing crazy business and auditoriums would be filled through the nave with undergraduates applauding every microwave-warmed witticism directed at whichever clergyman or pundit or ex-Prime Minister or younger brother had the nerve to face him that day. That was adulation of an undeniably great writer, mingled with a great deal of tribal loyalty. It was the atheist crowd who made Hitchens, by the standards of his trade, rich and famous, and they never ceased to cheer their most eloquent champion (and pay for the privilege) even when most of Hitchens’s time went to other topics.
His death saw this attitude expand beyond from the consumers of commentary to the producers. Countless eulogies, where writers he’d never mentioned in a trillion-word career chummily called him “Hitch” and noted his famous consumption of alcohol, nicotine, and literature like school chums while simultaneously garlanding themselves in self-effacement, were ghastly but inevitable and probably kindly-meant. (Far better were the too-few of his enemies with the guts to pick up a pen and rhetorically cremate the fucker. That sort of irreverent brio is, after all, what drew most of us to Hitchens in the first place.) Unfortunately, the initial wave of grief was not the high water mark.
Four years after Hitchens’s death the admiration of undergraduates, Twitterers, YouTube commentators, and the other ordinary people is still intensifying. The word “Hitchslap,” meaning Hitchens scoring against a political opponent, remains current among the disciples, and fresh examples are uploaded to this day. Hitchens’s brother Peter, an equally intelligent and scarcely-less witty columnist in England with a voice frighteningly like Christopher’s but quite opposite political and religious views, has made a stock routine out of people who tweet or e-mail him things like “the wrong brother died.” (Critic: “How could you and Christopher possibly be brothers?!” Peter: “Same parents.”)
Nor have writers calmed down. Many still can’t simply quote him, like they would anyone else, and even those who do give it the air of a name-drop. Rather creepy looks into his old books from one of his old outlets, Vanity Fair, are perhaps understandable but still unpleasantly voyeuristic, even idolatrous. Perfectly competent columnists, like the National Post‘s Robyn Urback, have felt the need to pay homage to the master while discussing people Hitchens probably had never heard of. American author Thomas Mallon uses Hitchens heavily in Finale, a 2015 novel set during the Reagan presidency which sees Hitchens turns vast swathes of Washington to rubble with the clusterbomb of his wit. At the time Hitchens was a comparatively obscure columnist on The Nation, hostile to Reagan but new to the United States; what matter? Even in fiction the Hitchslap is iconic.
For these partisans the latest collection of Hitchens’s essays, And Yet…, is God-sent. Hitchens released several collections of journalism in his lifetime and died months after Arguably, the last. A small book of essays about the terminal cancer which understandably preoccupied him in the end, Mortality, soon followed. You would think there was little enough left, and yet… the fine folks at Simon & Schuster have rustled up work that slipped through the gaps or that Hitchens himself didn’t want anthologized and filled a handsomely-priced cover with it. (And Yet… costs more than Arguably did in hardback, is less than half the length, and the editors needed to be inclusive to get that far. It’s still a better deal than Mortality, which charged primo rates for a collection you could read over lunch if you had the stomach.)
I have not yet read it, though I’ve read nearly all of what’s in it. This is not a book review, it is a review of reviewers.
In the New York Times Dwight Garner somehow slobbers all over Hitchens while reserving specific praise for a 2006 eulogy to the late Oriana Fallaci, an interviewer who never took it easy on even a decent subject. He read the words but failed to read the lesson. In Maclean’s Brian Bethune at least acknowledges that Hitchens was a man of strengths and weaknesses, but his review, too is adulatory. Bethune has the excuse of space: he makes the commonplace but accurate note Hitchens tried to live up to the example of George Orwell while acknowledging Hitchens didn’t always succeed, but simply couldn’t go on any further. A National Review editor calls Hitchens “Often Wrong, Always Forthright;” the review was initially posted titled “Left-Wing but Honest” which is almost too bang-on Orwell to stand. And hey, look who it is in the first paragraph!
Of course George Orwell couldn’t always live up to the example of George Orwell either. (In his book on the man Hitchens does not miss this.) Comparing Hitchens and Orwell is fair play, and I’d bet my life Hitchens did it himself. Yet the comparison often tries to elevate Hitchens to Orwell’s level of seriousness. Orwell could be as droll as anyone, and he was certainly a polemicist, but while Orwell sought to give his views and change minds while viewing provocation as a not-unwelcome bonus, to Hitchens provocation was not only pleasure but part of the point. This is how Hitchens is still emotionally loved by readers in a way Orwell never was: Orwell argued, as clearly and as honestly as he knew how, while Hitchens took a poke at the bad guy. To put it simply, much of Hitchens’s fame came from the fact that he was such a good troll.
The best example is Hitchens’s witty, outspoken, and affirmative brand of atheism. god Is not Great asserted not only that atheism is moral but that religion is immoral. It was more than a troll, but it took Hitchens’s beliefs and torqued them as tight as the material would stand, and the outrage directed at it almost formed part of the reading experience. Great fun, and great reading, and it made the end of Hitchens’s career as lucrative, successful, and admired as any essayist can hope for. The smart modern undergraduate left, disdaining religion and chafing under restrictions left over from its days of power, loved it and loved him for it. Yet did anyone learn anything from god Is Not Great, apart maybe from a few specific examples picked from Hitchens’s vast reading to wave in the face of your Christian aunt? Did even one waverer emerge persuaded? It was an address to the flock, and a glorious one.
Hitchens was also, to put it unkindly, a warmonger, but in a more straight-argumentative mode. He enthusiastically advocated the second Iraq war, attacking Islamist terror on its home turf, “regime change,” and the export of democracy as a good in itself. He promoted the cause of the Kurds and, long before 9/11, wanted the West to intervene in their favour. He did not shy from the consequences, either in person or in print. Unlike many, he traveled seldom-taken paths to dangerous places of the world and got to know as best a flabby self-described coward could the level of the shit he wanted the flower of America’s youth wading in. He was probably one of the few anti-Islamofascist commentators in the United States to be beaten up by an Islamofascist gang. In addition, to pick an issue that’s gained in recent importance, Hitchens was a free speech absolutist, a to-the-knife defender of his friend Salman Rushdie against the fatwa, and an enemy of totalitarian thinking and “speech codes” anywhere he went.
Hitchens could speak against religion at a California university and be applauded off the stage by students who would immediately protest a cause Hitchens spent far more time on: the violent liberation of the Middle East. There’s no inherent problem there: everyone alive agrees with everyone else on some points and disagrees on others. It takes something special, though, to make such a fetish of a man for such slivers of his ideology. The Times review I quoted above approves each of Hitchens’s shots at Christmas and religious sanctimony without once mentioning the Middle East. National Review praises Hitchens as worthwhile reading for conservatives without noticing his opinions on God and Church. We all have authors we like and agree with but only conditionally; we even have heroes. We don’t, however, share videos of these authors like samizdat, or make faux-motivational posters with a quote from a stranger about thinking for yourself, or fawn over them in print in a way that requires you to pooh-pooh or ignore any deeply-held and oft-advocated beliefs which conflict with your worldview.
Now and again the provocateur would show his teeth. The reaction to his 2007 essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” was almost as good as the article itself. Right-on modernists who roared to the heavens when Hitchens devoured Christians, not because he was fair but because he was entertaining, utterly failed to handle Hitchens turning on one of their cherished princples: the absolute equivalence of male and female ability. Hitchens’s mode of attack should have been familiar to anyone who knew his work, and yet huge numbers of “fans” failed to pick up on it. Everything about it was terrific. Months into the controversy, Hitchens was still having fun:
Now [female comedians] are prettier and sexier and they wear less and care less about the proprieties, so what has been the achievement of my essay? It’s been to make sexier women try harder to amuse me. Well, that was my whole plan to start off with.
A self-described Hitchens fan, long marinading in his mockery in print and on video, missing what was going on there is inexplicable. Yet they did, and do, and when Hitchens comes up among his cultists that sort of thing is defended on unsuitable grounds, or more often ignored. Force it on their attention and brace for an explanation along the lines of “that’s the way he was,” which is true, but the rest of his œuvre benefits so little from this analysis that it looks like an excuse for behaviour the commentator doesn’t quite understand. Really big fans can overlook parts that don’t quite fit.
There’s no danger of any reader being confronted with awkward shots at lady comics in And Yet…. (Since it was already in Arguably.) The selection appears very safe. Then again, this makes sense, because Hitchens had exploded the dynamite back in 2011. What we are left with are the squibs and firecrackers, pretty and not valueless, but not the same. Just the thing to appeal to the reader more interested in cheering on boisterous Hitchslaps than looking too deeply at what they mean. I see Amazon.ca is already out of stock.