I don’t know if Christopher Hitchens left written instruction, but the publication date of this sixth collection of his essays seems pointedly to have been designed to miss Christmas lists. I had forgotten that among the things Hitchens, the contrarian’s contrarian, sought to dismantle was the festive spirit; there are two reminders here of that particular heroic and unwinnable campaign. The rhetorical onslaught of each is instructive of the method. As ever, Hitch begins enjoyably anecdotally, in one case (Bah, Humbug, an essay from Slate of 2005) with a sharp account of being physically barred from a Bible belt talkshow for observing that “Christmas trees, Yule logs, and the rest were symbols of the winter solstice holidays before any birth had been registered in the greater Bethlehem area”, in the other (The True Spirit of Christmas for the Wall Street Journal in 2011) by revealing that (of course) he knew all the words to Tom Lehrer’s unhappy holidays carol, and sang them loudly in the presence of any holly and ivy gathering, as evidence of his “root-and-branch resistance”.
Like all great essayists, Hitchens was at his best when least entrenched
Hitchens proceeds in both essays (he was not above a little seasonal recycling) to employ his Jesuitical arsenal of historical and literary allusion to advance the case that living through an American (or British) Christmas was analogous to existing in a “one-party state”. In the latter essay, he goes to some lawyerly length to address the “most Scrooge-like of questions: is there a constitutional issue here?” As often with Hitchens, the brilliance of the self-righteous anger, and the engaged wit of the delivery, makes you think he is joking. He is not, entirely. He sums up by arguing “angels and menorahs on the White House lawn are an infraction of the Establishment Clause” and inviting a close reading of the letters of Thomas Jefferson on the subject.
There is another thing to notice about the Wall St Journal essay: it was published on Christmas Eve, nine days after Hitchens died. The anti-Yule invective was not only his last word on the subject, but also another final, defiant two fingers to those believers who predicted deathbed recantations of the aggressive and studious atheism in which he placed his faith. Where William Blake breathed his last enraptured and transported by visions of Jerusalem, Hitchens, that other wayward nonconformist, appears to have found comparable solace in the fine precision of single malt reason.
Christopher Hitchens: 'I was right and they were wrong'
Few writers have ever allied themselves to doubt with as much vehement certainty. One of the pleasures of this collection is the frequent sense that Hitchens’s voice still haunts the news and will long continue to do so. He rattles his chains repeatedly at Hillary Clinton, for example, as an addendum to his fabled antipathy to her “no one left to lie to” husband. Indeed, reading the two broadsides directed against the Democratic leadership frontrunner during her campaign of 2008, in which she was characterised as “indifferent to truth, willing to use police state tactics and vulgar libels against inconvenient witnesses, hopeless on healthcare and flippant and fast and loose with national security”, it is hard to imagine how she has had the nerve to stand again. There is, sadly, in this volume no record of Hitchens’s views on Donald Trump, an evisceration he would no doubt have relished, and you are left to imagine which dog he might have had in the fight in the circumstance of a Trump-Clinton presidential head to head.
Elsewhere, much that Hitchens foretold has come to pass. The canonisation of Mother Teresa (“a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud”) would have confirmed all he understood about the ways of the world, not least his strong sense that no bad deed goes unrewarded (Henry Kissinger comes in for further special mention in this regard, also). You are reminded, too, that the author was ahead of the game in filing a suit against the US National Security Agency because of evidence that “it was engaging in widespread warrantless surveillance of American citizens” (this was in 2003, a decade before Edward Snowden) and was condemned by the Bush administration for “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”. The essay Power Suits, which addresses these questions, shows Hitchens at his most rigorous and obsessive; it also reveals how he became involved in the story that disclosed how only last-minute intervention from Tony Blair prevented US plans to blow up the al-Jazeera TV network headquarters in Qatar.
Christopher Hitchens: a fearless master-stylist and a pain in the neck | Simon Jenkins
It is a measure of Hitchens’s gift for triangulation that he could allow such revelations to exist alongside his qualified support for the “war on terror”. He backed himself into many corners with his arguments in favour of armed struggle against the “forces of al-Qaida, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein”, insisting on viewing the latter, as in that sentence, and in line with his then president, as a united front. Significant parts of this book inevitably trace the subsequent fallout from such provocations of critics both on right and left. In Hitchens’s favour was the fact that his personal campaign against the threat posed by Wahabism was pretty much a lifelong cause; he was calling Sunni extremists fascists 20 years before Hilary Benn got in on the act.
Much of this argument is conducted in what might be called the Late High Style of Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair. Hitchens often gave the impression of knowing almost everything, and his monthly platform in that magazine, not best known for self-effacement, encouraged full licence of that facility. Sometimes, reading these pieces, you sense caveats and objections being continually shouted down before they are even raised in your head.
In many ways, like all great essayists, Hitchens was at his best when least entrenched; when you could watch him deciding what he thought as his words advanced across the page. There are fine examples of this drive-by method: a wonderful deconstruction of the myths of Che Guevara, a couple of stabs at Orwell, and such contrived delights as the three-part confrontation of his English teeth and dietary regime with American dentistry and spa culture (his account of the submission of the hirsute Hitchens nethers to the torture of Brazilian waxing will live painfully long in the memory). Likewise, for different reasons, his thoughtful investigation of the motives of Gertrude Bell, the Briton who drew the original borders of Iraq, and arguably set in motion all that followed.
Hitchens was the keenest student of unintended consequences and his writing remains most alive when conveying the ironies of postcolonial history; ironies that had long led him to conclude, in the well-chosen final words of what may be the final collection of his work, that “internationalism is the highest form of patriotism”.
And Yet… is published by Atlantic Books (£20). Click here to order a copy for £16
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