Tuesday, January 10, 2012

An overdue lament

This is a long-delayed post, almost a month late. All things being equal, I was a little surprised at how affected I was by the death of Christopher Hitchens. I woke up the morning his passing hit the news to his voice—my clock radio blared him mid-invective, playing one of his more notorious anti-theistic speeches on the barbarism of circumcision, and my first thought was “My god, he died.” My second thought was that it would probably have irritated him that I prefaced my realization with “my god.”

My first real encounter with Hitchens’ writing came during my research for my dissertation, when I quoted an essay of his (collected in his book For the Sake of Argument) about Norman Mailer’s CIA conspiracy novel Harlot’s Ghost. The best part of it, unfortunately, had to be dropped into a footnote:

Harlot’s Ghost exhibits the typical Mailer touch of the ongoing question of self-definition of one’s manhood in a particular context, for which the undercurrent of homoeroticism is a constant and alluring tug. British writer Christopher Hitchens tells of the danger of questioning Norman Mailer’s heterosexuality to his face: paired up with Mailer on a talk-show once, Hitchens apparently prodded him a little too strongly on the question of just why, in novel after novel, the practice of sodomy figured so prominently. Why, Hitchens inquired, did Mailer seem so fascinated “by its warped relationship to the tough-guy ethos”? Apparently Hitchens pressed too hard—to the point where Mailer became incensed at the implication that he went in for such behaviour himself. While stopping short of offering to fight Hitchens, he some time later vented his ire in a vengeful interview with the magazine The Face, declaring that he had been attacked by “the London faggot literary coterie.” (Mailer named Hitchens, Martin Amis and Ian Hamilton as the vanguard of this “coterie.” Hitchens says that he and Amis considered writing a letter to The Face saying “that this was very unfair to Ian Hamilton, but dropped the idea.”)

What I love about this anecdote, even more now than when I first stumbled across it, is how clearly I can imagine Hitchens deftly pressing Mailer’s buttons. It’s a shame that, given the plethora of miscellany available on YouTube, I cannot find that particular clip.

I was soon to become more familiar with him in the aftermath of 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq war, his advocacy for which Hitchens lost many friends and became branded as apostate by former colleague on the political left. Hence in my first real exposures to his polemics, I found myself in constant disagreement with his arguments. But however infuriated his writing in favor of the invasion and prosecution of the war made me, I could not help but be impressed by his argumentation and style. As has been said by many of his opponents, the experience of reading Hitchens when you vehemently disagree with him is to say “I know you’re wrong! Now, just give me a day to get my evidence together,” because however violent the disagreement, one found oneself being persuaded by the force and rhetorical flair of his argument.

Hitchens never gave an inch on Iraq. Unlike many advocates of the war who later recanted (such as his friend Andrew Sullivan, another polemicist I greatly admire), he defended the essential rightness of the invasion until the end; and in fact doubled down in his memoir Hitch-22. But here’s the thing: I strongly encourage everyone to read his chapter justifying his support for that campaign (actually, I encourage everyone to read it entirely), not because he convinced me, but because he is so good at stripping away the pieties liberals and leftists are good at cloaking themselves in. I don’t think he makes an ironclad case, but he does make you think.

And in the end, that is what I will miss most about Hitchens’ writing—the fact that when I disagreed with him, he nevertheless made me face the weak elements of my position or, more significantly, those arguments I was channeling rather than constructing. In a lot of ways, I am just as happy to never have met him. He was notoriously pugnacious and pugilistic, combative, and frequently hostile. My own mild and milquetoast demeanour, I suspect, would not have gone over well with him.
The longer I spend in academia, the more I value those who fill the role of public intellectual—and the more that species seems to be passing from the earth. Hitchens was among the best, and he nicely summarized his personal philosophy in Hitch-22:

How … I am asked, do I find meaning and purpose in life? How does a mere and gross materialist, with no expectation of a life to come, decide what, if anything, is worth caring about? Depending on my mood, I sometimes but not always refrain from pointing out what a breathtakingly insulting and patronizing question this is. (It is on a par with the equally subtle inquiry: Since you don't believe in our god, what stops you from stealing and lying and raping and killing to your heart's content?) Just as the answer to the latter question is: self-respect and the desire for the respect of others—while in the meantime it is precisely those who think they have divine permission who are truly capable of any atrocity—so the answer to the first question falls into two parts. A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called 'meaningless' except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one's everyday life as if this were so. Whereas if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities… but there, there. Enough.

Even better is this:

I’d tell you to rest in peace, Hitch, but that really isn’t your style.

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