May 2010

Essays

Swinger

By Dennis Altman
'Hitch-22: A Memoir' by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, 352pp; $35.00
'Hitch-22: A Memoir' by Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, 352pp; $35.00
Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Hitch-22’

At one point in Hitch-22: A Memoir (Atlantic Books, 352pp; $35.00) Christopher Hitchens writes: “As 1968 began to ebb into 1969 … people began to intone the words: ‘The personal is political’. At the instant I heard this deadly expression I knew … that it was – cliché is arguably forgivable here – very bad news.” But what is the point of writing memoirs if the personal is irrelevant? We read Hitchens’ memoirs, as opposed to his essays, to better understand a man who opposed the first war on Iraq while barracking for the second. But for Hitchens, personal politics is equivalent to the worst excesses of identity politics, which he derides. His position assumes an ideal rationalist, on whose judgements of the world the lived experience of race, sexuality and gender has no bearing.

Hitch-22 is a deeply personal account of Hitchens’ parents and his youth, alongside a charting of his political itinerary. Indeed, the central narrative of the book is his transition from ultra-leftist to defender of the Bush administration, an about-face that was influenced by a visceral emotional reaction to the attacks of September 11 and the horrors of Saddam’s Iraq. As he writes of the welcome reception of American troops in southern Iraq: “I will not be made to deny the evidence of my own eyes.” Of course, we have all watched sufficient television police procedurals to know how unreliable such evidence can be.

Along the way it is clear that Hitchens has travelled widely, met large numbers of interesting people and learnt much from firsthand experience. A prolific writer and commentator, he has bullied his way into the pages of most of the significant English-language publications of the past 40 years, and has influenced public debate on topics ranging from religion to American foreign policy. He is known widely for his savage profiles of figures such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger; for his public persona as a heavy-drinking wit; and for his feuds, most recently with Gore Vidal. The sheer verve and intelligence of his writing has ensured his inclusion in most lists of the world’s most influential intellectuals over the past several decades.

A Trotskyist activist in his youth, Hitchens now defends the American empire against which he once railed. He acknowledges that: “I didn’t so much repudiate a former loyalty, like some attention-grabbing defector, as feel it falling away from me.” Much of Hitch-22 analyses the slow loss of leftist allegiances, and its inseparability from his conscious decision to become an American. Hitchens took out American citizenship in the aftermath of September 11, declaring the US “my country after all”.

Shaped by the British Marxist Left, Hitchens was as prone to fall for its romantic excesses as the people he now assails. In his twenties, he duly went on a pilgrimage to Cuba; you can detect the seeds of his disaffection from community orthodoxy in passages about this period. When he moved to the US in 1981, it was to work for the Left press. But the myth of ‘America’ was ultimately too powerful to resist, and in 2004 he backed George W Bush over John Kerry.

Until the moment of Hitchens’ conversion, the book follows a strictly chronological order. But his discussion of the first Iraq War in 1990 follows his narrative of the 2001 bombings in the US, all the better to emphasis the extent to which his political views are reflective of deep emotional attachments. The case he makes for invading Iraq is strong, but it was not the case made by the Bush administration. Hitchens claims a role in creating the mood for “regime change” in Iraq, alongside a small group of other democratically minded activists and Paul Wolfowitz, the one member of the Bush administration he writes of fondly. A hard-nosed utilitarian might have argued that the possibilities for human suffering caused by invasion would be less than those of Iraq remaining under the rule of Hussein, but Hitchens, though deeply critical of aspects of the American occupation, says little about the aftermath of the war. You wonder how many of those civilians he saw cheering the invading troops “with his own eyes” are still alive today.

There is much to be admired in Hitchens’ commitment to certain basic principles of human dignity, as well as his willingness to travel, as he puts it, to countries “where there is either too much law and order or too little”. Hitchens is not a real neo-conservative; he disagrees strongly with the neo-conservative defence of Israeli irredentism, and he regards all forms of organised religion as an unpleasant and dangerous illusion.

A cynic would claim Hitchens has sold out to the lure of power and money, but Hitchens makes a powerful case for seeing some consistency in his shifts. A turning point was the Falklands War, when Hitchens found himself supporting the British government because of his loathing for the appalling junta that then ran Argentina. “Thatcherism,” he writes, “was the rodent slowly stirring in my viscera: the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right.” This follows one of the best anecdotes in the book, a meeting with Thatcher that becomes overladen with sexual innuendo: Thatcher ordering him to bow before her and then smiting him on the rear with a parliamentary order paper.

Despite some quite moving and evocative writing, the memoirs are remarkably infused with the language and the sniggers of his English public school. Perhaps unsurprisingly two of his favourite authors are PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh; Hitch-22 echoes the adolescent homo-eroticism so typical of Waugh. It is remarkable that in 352 pages of memoirs – in which there are long discussions of his male friendships – one of his two wives is ignored, and the other appears only in a couple of sentences, the first time when she rings to alert him of the September 11 attacks. Other than his mother, the only women who rate more than a passing sentence are Thatcher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Susan Sontag.

On the other hand, a whole chapter is devoted to the “refulgence” of his love for Martin Amis, though he hastens to assure us: “I can more or less acquit myself on any charge of having desired Martin carnally.” The “more or less” is particularly striking in view of his admission that he slept with Martin’s sister, Sally, who “had the same coloring as the brother I was beginning to adore”. We are now in the territory of bad softcore porn, reel two coming when he and Martin go to a Manhattan brothel together – and, predictably, Hitchens hates the experience.

In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Hitchens returned to his obsession with Gore Vidal, once his close friend, now a bitter enemy because of Vidal’s increasingly unrestrained rantings about American foreign policy. Hitchens says little about their estrangement in Hitch-22, but he does find space for a long description, presumably second-hand, of Vidal and former Labour MP Tom Driberg cruising for men together in Rome. At this point, Hitchens begins to sound like an old-fashioned queen, recounting gossip in a deserted bar.

The absence of women in his memoirs reinforces the feeling that, in his move from Trotskyism to neo-conservatism, Hitchens missed some of the most significant social and political shifts of the past three decades, in particular feminism and environmentalism. The occasional obligatory comments about the extraordinary abuses against women committed in the name of various gods seem less deeply felt than his vituperation against Bill Clinton’s “disgusting crimes against women”. Someone who really cared about crimes against women would surely find a better target than a slightly sleazy, overweight, middle-aged man with power.

Hitchens acknowledges many people for their help, but interestingly no specific editor for this particular book. This is unfortunate: a good editor might have cut out 100 pages, pruned the moments of self-indulgence, reminded Hitchens that abuse is not equivalent to analysis and asked for a little more introspection. Read Christopher Hitchens, certainly, but not necessarily Hitch-22.

Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman is vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books include Queer Wars and Death in the Sauna.

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