From Abracadabra to Zombies
by Christopher Hitchens
I was about half-way through Christopher Hitchens's eloquent memoir when the author canceled his book tour and announced that he would follow the advice of his doctor and undergo chemotherapy for cancer of the esophagus. I, like many others familiar with Hitch's habits, immediately connected his smoking and drinking with his cancer. It's natural to make the connection. Had Hitchens never smoked or drank alcohol would he have avoided this cancer? We'll never know, will we? Perhaps his unhealthy lifestyle had nothing to do with his current "health problem." Some may argue that it is pointless to engage in contrary-to-fact conditionals. Maybe. But there is one benefit to thinking about what might or might not have been had things been different: it serves to caution us against jumping to conclusions based on personal experience or confirming our biases instead of continuing the search for—dare I say it—truth. I bring this up because, if I had to identify the chief virtue of his memoir, it would be Hitch's careful collection and examination of evidence before drawing a conclusion or changing his mind. His eloquence and persistence are seductive, but it is his care about getting it right that stands out. I'm not saying, of course, that he always gets it right. I'm saying that being right matters to him. Unlike many of his critics, he is not lazy and does not hide behind the self-serving cheap shot or the ad hominem. At least he doesn't in his memoir. I am not a Hitchens expert, so I cannot attest to the integrity in his many other writings.
There are chapters on his mother and father, the key details of which have been repeated often enough so I will skip over them and say only that they are revealing and worthwhile and are written in a captivating style. There is an unevenness in the book. Some chapters are almost breezy and informal (e.g., his chapter on arriving in the U.S.), while others are didactic and somewhat tedious (e.g., his chapter on being a Trotskyite and going to Cuba). He says very little about his private life after he leaves public school unless it also involves one of his many interesting, and almost always literary, friends. There is nothing about his marriages and very little about his children. I don't know why there should be coverage of these areas, or of his liaisons with ladies, except to titillate the unquenchable perversity of those who think the most important job of a journalist is to expose the sexual activity of a public figure.
Instead of excursions into his family room or bedroom, Hitchens reviews his relationship with interesting places and people. The places might arouse in us a bit of caution before we set out to colonize other worlds: Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Sarajevo, Vietnam, Nicaragua (and the "contras"), Argentina (and "the disappeared"), Chile, Uganda (and the lovely Saudi Arabia that gave sanctuary to Idi Amin), Israel, the Palestinian territories, El Salvador, Cuba, the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and other places where thugs and deranged dictators enjoy or have enjoyed U.S. support as long as they were anti-communist or were thought to serve some "vital American interest." About the only hellhole dictatorships Hitchens doesn't discuss are Panama under Noriega, the Dominican Republic (Trujillo) and Haiti (remember the Duvaliers? Aristide?).
The people Hitchens writes about are mostly literary types. Among them are Salman Rushdie and Susan Sontag. The Rushdie chapter alone is worth the price of admission: we continue to suffer the deadly consequences of not confronting and dealing directly with a religious "leader" who issued a murder warrant for the "crime" of writing something the religious absolutist considered "blasphemous." Nothing sticks in the craw of the Hitch like "appeasement" of bullies and thugs. This message comes through repeatedly. You would think that freedom of speech would be a "vital American interest," yet George H. W. Bush considered the "Rushdie affair" to be devoid of American interest, a claim with as much truth in it as Ronald Reagan's assertion that in Russian there is no word for freedom. (Did Reagan really say this? I don't remember him saying it, but memory is a faulty tool. Reagan remembered being part of the film crew present at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps even though he never left the shores of America during the entirety of World War II. One of his favorite anecdotes, which I remember him delivering in a televised speech, was put forth as history when in fact it was from a Hollywood movie.)
Some reviewers of Hitch-22 have been put off by what they refer to as "namedropping." Of course, had Hitchens omitted reference to all the interesting and important people he mixed with or reported on as a journalist, they could then criticize him for writing a terribly boring book about himself. There is actually just one chapter devoted to Hitchens's personal life, where he talks about such things as his voracious thirst for the fruits of Bacchus. The chapter is not especially self-serving and is certainly not boring. His exploration of his mother's concealment of her Jewishness and his "Jewish-roots" search, combined with his exploration of Zionism and anti-Semitism, are compelling, especially when juxtaposed to his complex relationship with Palestinian-rights activist Edward Said (who gets a whole chapter).
Hitch-22 reminded me of several important things. My life, and the lives of most of the people I've known, have been pretty dull. (Don't take this as a complaint. There are billions of people who would gladly give up their life of strife for a dull existence as a middle-class American.) During my lifetime, there has been a succession of brutal, murderous dictatorships in countries around the world, signifying that little was learned from Hitler and Stalin except that they apparently make good role models for many aspiring thugs. Genocide did not end with the Holocaust. It continues to this day. To offset the horror stories of our history and thus bring joy into this otherwise miserable world, there are the men and women of letters and science. Otherwise, we'd be left to lovers and friends and small victories here and there for our only solace.
Hitch's literary prowess pours off of every page (to steal a line from Bob Dylan, Hitch's favorite musician/poet) and the devotion he has to literature inspires and illuminates this otherwise dark world. He allies himself with Richard Dawkins and the wondrous idea Dawkins is famous for: there is no designer of the universe, no plan, no goal, and yet you are here despite incredible odds against it. The uncountable men and women who will never exist far exceeds the number who have made it into the realm of being.* This exciting thought should evoke wonder and desire, it should incite a quest to know more and to make the world more just. Hitchens will not be found beating his head against the wailing wall. And just as he spits on all racists and absolutists, I spit on all those sanctimonious frauds who think his cancer has been caused directly by the homicidal maniac depicted in the Old Testament. I spit, too, on those pious hypocrites who express the hope that his cancer will lead him to god, whatever that might mean. If there were a hell, some of the opportunistic religious vultures like George Berkin would be perched there. Berkin thinks he has thought something profound when he writes: if God really wanted to “get” Hitchens, God would just ignore the man, and let him go his blissful way, unchallenged, to a peaceful death. I spit on you, too, George.
There will be some who will not read Hitch-22 because they do not like the author's politics or the fact that he has changed his mind when he believed the evidence warranted it. Fine. It's their loss and one wonders what such people do when the facts change.* There will be some who will not read it because they find him obnoxious or snobbish. Obnoxious? That's a personal preference call. Snobbish? Maybe they mistake his British accent for snobbishness, so their ignorance can be forgiven. There will be some who will not read him because of his atheism. These small-minded ones might be pleased to know that Hitch discusses atheism only in passing, and then only occasionally, in his memoir. To those who will not read Hitchens because of his morals: you are not worth commenting on and would not benefit from reading his work anyway.
I hope we do not lose this voice. There are few like it and fewer still preparing to emulate it.
In the meantime, Hitchens will no doubt continue to be an atheist in the foxhole, despite the pathetic wishes for his conversion by religious fantasists or the insipid philosophizing of those who cling to the infinitesimal possibility that their divine fantasies might be fulfilled.
Robert Todd Carroll
6 July 2010
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.