Review: Arguably: Essays By Christopher Hitchens by Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, €39.60 hardback
Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00
IT would be hard to have to give a bad review to the book of an author who is about to die. Christopher Hitchens tells readers about his plight towards the end of the short introduction to Arguably.
"About a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live." Luckily, this work is vintage Hitchens -- by which I mean that however contrarian and shocking the writing is, its verve, wit and occasional vulgarity are precisely what we would expect from one of the greatest social commentators and provocateurs of our age.
The collection gathers together Hitchens' essays from the past 10 years, ever since he departed from the left-wing stance of his youth for his current pro-Iraq war (and even pro-Dubya) position. He doesn't just write about politics though: the book spans literature and cultural commentary. My favourite section was "Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments". Here we find the article that angered so many feminists, "Why Women Aren't Funny" and a tribute to fellatio, "As American as Apple Pie". "There is another thinkable reason why this ancient form of lovemaking lost its association with the dubious and the low and became an American handshake and ideal," he explains. "The United States is par excellence the country of beautiful dentistry." Hitchens' style is that of a brilliant conversationalist at a cocktail party; and although he is fearless in approaching certain earthy subjects in print, you get a sense that in person he is probably even dirtier. Don't forget that this is the writer who gave his pamphlet on Mother Teresa the title, "The Missionary Position".
His famous piece on torture resurfaces here too. Before undergoing waterboarding for the article, he worried, "I had had to produce a doctor's certificate assuring them that I did not have asthma but I wondered whether I should tell them about the 15,000 cigarettes I had inhaled every year for the last several decades" (a consumption that is the likely cause of his throat cancer).
After a brief version of the experience he offers his verdict -- waterboarding is torture -- and adds, "I find I don't want to tell you how little time I lasted." This short sentence hits the core of why Hitchens is such a successful writer. He tells readers his secrets, confesses to them his fears and embarrassments, and does his best to win them over without caring if he makes them angry (and probably relishing it if he does); the point of the exercise comes down to his intimate relationship with that elusive figure -- the "you" outside the piece.
Hitchens has certainly upset a lot of people. He dedicates Arguably to three heroes of the Arab Spring: Mohamed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu, men whose suicides sparked the rebellions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But it was in his attitude towards the rise of Islamic radicalism that he parted ways forever with many liberals. He dates his suspicions about Islam not to 2001 but as far back as 1978. After 9/11 he felt that the American left was passive and politically correct in its readiness to blame US foreign policy for the attacks, whereas the real enemy came from outside, from Muslim fanatics.
You can see why Hitchens' particular take on Islam might seem offensive. He swats blindly at members of a Muslim audience listening to a lecture by Prince Charles in which the prince expressed a favourable attitude towards their religion, saying that he imagines their faces bearing "wolfish smiles". Yet his overall assessment of the Arab world is more nuanced than remarks like this would suggest. In a piece on Iran he reveals an appreciation for its ancient culture. "For what was Persian culture famous?" he asks. "For poetry, for philosophy, for backgammon, for chess, for architecture, for polo, for gardens, and for wine."
There is definitely a sense that, however sparkling, Hitchens is a difficult man to live with. Of one former friend, Gore Vidal, he says bluntly: "I have no wish to commit literary patricide, or to assassinate Vidal's character -- a character which appears, in any case, to have committed suicide." The book's dedication to the Arab Spring fighters shows his determination to foreground politics over the personal -- his wife and children have to wait for the book's acknowledgements for their mention and due thanks.
About Ireland he has a few things to say. In the pointedly titled essay, "Is the Euro Doomed?" (2010) he praises the European Union and explains that he thought it was a good idea from the start. Once Ireland was part of the same customs union as the UK, the border would become irrelevant, removing the purpose from the conflict in the North. (However, he does think that the euro is doomed.)
One of the special things about Hitchens' writing is his love of language. As he puts it in the title of an essay, "Words Matter". We should listen to him when he critiques the modern use of the word "like" as a filler, the "little cringe and hesitation and approximation" which suggest anxiety about making a basic statement. He has an empathy for its users that is only slightly ironic. The word helps "young people who are struggling to negotiate the shoals and rapids of ethnic identity, the street, and general correctness".
For someone to whom words matter -- and a man with a reputation for drinking and smoking too much -- his description of his sentiments towards death is strikingly metaphorical. "Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another," he says, "it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending."
Hitchens' mother used to tell him that the greatest sin was to be boring, and he has by a long way avoided that fate. This 752-page doorstopper, full of passion and irony and humour, is a testament to Hitchens' achievements. Whether you love or hate him, his provocative voice has steadfastly refused to take the beaten track, and when it is gone, all sides of the debate will be the poorer.
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