Sunday, January 02, 2011

Reading Two Sets of Books, Understanding Neither: The Intellectual Life of Christopher Hitchens

Diagnosed with esophageal cancer after having written a memoir must have made Christopher (don’t call him Chris!) Hitchens smirk at his good timing. Hitch-22: A Memoir (June 2010) is not, of course, an autobiography. While one gains a heady appreciation of the author’s life in far away places and in the English boarding schools he attended as a boy, there are some things that are mostly absent—like Peter Hitchens (his Tory brother), his wives, and a thoroughgoing breakdown of what makes Hitchens tick (and why).

Of course, all of these things make their appearance in a largely thematic series of recollection based essays (“Fragments from an Education,” “Salman,” and “Edward Said in Light and Shade (and Saul)” to name but some of the more interesting). Hitchens is incredibly open about his mother and father and their less than perfect relationship, which lead to his mother’s rather unpleasant early demise at her own hands whilst fleeing with what seems to have been a rather disreputable ex-clergyman (who also killed himself). And the explanation of Hitchens’s intellectual development is strewn throughout a 422 page journey of somewhat epic proportions. But there is never a clear sense of how Hitchens decided upon his initial course of extremism on the Left, aside from old hat pronunciamentos on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the beginning (of wider escalation) of the Vietnam War. But those incidents did not turn everyone (including his brother Peter) into dyed-in-the-wool Socialists in his native Great Britain or anywhere else. So why does Hitchens pursue a life of Leftist “scribbling” when others among his colleagues in boarding school and then Oxford went on to a more mundane (and with the rise of Thatcher, of whom he has many good things to say, far more reasonable) Toryism?

We gather early on that Hitchens’s mother Yvonne was a more influential force in his youth than his father—affectionately called “The Commander” for his naval service during the war. What did that mean for Hitchens’s later life as a radical? Born in 1949, Christopher Hitchens seems to have had a somewhat common baby-boomer experience involving an indulgence on the part of his parents coupled with a complete lack of any commanding direction other than to “move up.” His mother knew primarily that she wanted her sons to attend good schools that would allow them, assuming they did well, to attend the highest universities. Beyond that however, Hitchens elucidates no guiding ethos bequeathed from either mother or father. This does not mean he thinks—or wants the reader to think—his parents were inept or deficient, but that they simply were not the sort of people who did the sort of child-rearing that made radical Leftism unlikely. Hence the brothers could, and did, end up on completely different ends of the traditional political spectrum without either of them having “rebelled” against their parents in any traditional sense.

Hitch-22 is stocked full of anecdotes about a wide variety of New Left figures whom Hitchens had many opportunities to know and cultivate over his decades as a writer for various newspapers and magazines (mostly on the Left and far Left of the English literary scene). His list of acquaintances and friends stretches from C.L.R. James, Isaiah Berlin, and Christopher Hill, to his bosom chums James Fenton, Martin Amis, and Salman Rushdie. Also among Hitchens’s acquaintances and (ex) friends are Gore Vidal, Edward Said, and Robert Conquest. There is no doubt that Hitchens has had an influence that goes far beyond his contributions to Vanity Fair. That said, it is clear in the pages of his memoir, that Hitchens’s intellectual development was a largely ad hoc affair. He attributes some of this to the intellectually lazy atmosphere of the chaotic times: “Did I really think that my examination in logic and philosophy didn’t matter much, because a revolution was in progress or at least in prospect? I did.” And: “This was the laid-back early 1970s and I had neither the wish nor the ability to be “judgmental.”” His reading schedule for many years was extremely derivative. By that I mean that apart from assigned texts in his very rigorous formal education, Hitchens seems to have been lead along in his reading by surrounding people and events. This is true of all of us to an extent, but I think it accounts for his immersion amongst the largely unread and unknown literature and poetry of the modern left. On the other hand, much of his development was guided by the external stimuli that greeted his wide open eyes and ears while abroad in the world’s most horrendous examples to leftist utopian folly. This is perhaps his most heroic quality as an intellectual, an honest commitment to the evidence the world presented him with. As one reads of his experiences in Cuba, Argentina, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, and elsewhere around the world, one gains an appreciation for the power of honest induction altering one’s larger network of axiomatic concepts.

Hitchens, as becomes clear in reading, is no systematic philosopher. One gains the sense that for Hitchens, systematic philosophers are somewhat anathema. Perpetual skepticism of all claims to certainty is the sine qua non to the rational man trying to live the good life. The constant theme of the book (hence the title) is his self-admitted propensity to try to have life both ways—the respectable radical, later the radical conservative (this in the stale and fundamentally inaccurate sense of Left vs. Right). And now as he enters his final years he battles both religious fundamentalists and moral relativists, but he does this on a quick-sand epistemology of uncertainty. Of course, this is Hitchens having it both ways, again. Listen to Hitchens in a debate and he is anything but uncertain. But when he has to write it all down to himself and others, he’s left with the relativist’s lame shrug. “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties. It is not only true that the test of knowledge is an acute and cultivated awareness of his little one knows (as Socrates knew so well), it is true that the unbounded areas and fields of one’s ignorance are now expanding in such a way, and at such a velocity, as to make the contemplation of them almost fantastically beautiful.” For what purpose would one contemplate questions for which certain answers were never possible? Hitch-22 indeed.

Immediately after basking in this allegedly beautiful prospect of an infinitely unanswerable universe (which is small comfort to all of humanity laboring under real questions of epistemology, ethics, politics, etc.) he then rather blandly claims: “It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them.” What unalterable convictions? How do we know there is no totalitarian solution? How do we arrive at an unalterable conviction which we would be willing to die for in a world where the only absolute is that we cannot actually be certain of anything? Logic would seem to point out that he has asserted a grand contradiction (how can one be certain that nothing is certain?), but if Hitchens was aware of the problem he decided to leave it be, rather than acknowledge what is a tremendous conundrum. And a rather obvious and silly one at that.

What is truly tragic in all of this is that Hitchens is very well meaning, seems to have a strong sense of right and wrong (though much of his conception of right is still a default leftism that he imbibed over a lifetime of Trotskyism), and goes out of his way to condemn, when no one else will, the morally fatuous shysters that plague modern American culture. He also mercilessly attacks his own former friends and comrades on the Left who are willing to countenance any atrocity so long as it is perpetrated against the West, but who become apoplectic if a western power (invariably the United States) defends itself. Perhaps this tragic impotence is phrased best when Hitchens writes: “To have spent so long learning so relatively little, and then to be menaced in every aspect of my life by people who already know everything, and who have all the information they need...More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation.” His reliance on the Left to stand against totalitarians (he’s a devotee of Orwell and, bizarrely, the rather loathsome creator of the Red Army Leon Trotsky) was repeatedly disappointed as of course it would be. This, it seems, has merely added to his posture of uncertainty—indeed, his certainty of it.

The human need for a means of answering the important questions of life—where am I? how do I know? what should I do?—cannot be answered with a shrug, a wink, and a glib comment that all things are uncertain except those things which we happen to like for some reason. It is amazing that Hitchens fails to detect the similarity between this contradictory state of affairs and the religious mysticism he so stridently and correctly excoriates. Religions only offer certainty for very specific particulars. For anything requiring serious explication religions simply offer the epistemological copout of faith. If that fails, most fall back on the threat of force (“Do this or be punished”). Hitchens himself could and would offer answers to anyone asking these questions, but his answer to the follow-up of “how do you know this is what I should do? why should I do this and not that?” would be what precisely? At least your local crazy shaman could offer an answer. For a man who has seen as much of humanity as Hitchens has, he should know better that in the effort to win the minds of others, a shrug is not a suitable answer. A paean to the beauty of uncertainty will not comfort a person struggling to survive. As an old revolutionary, he should know this almost instinctively.

Unfortunately he bypasses a potential way of answering this problem during what is a rather serious and solemn part of the memoir (reflecting on the death of an American soldier who had been so inspired by Hitchens’s case for the war in Iraq that he enlisted) with a glib and unserious remark: “But Mark Daily wasn’t yet finished with sending me messages from beyond the grave. He took a bag of books with him to Iraq, which included Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, War and Peace, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (so, nobody’s perfect), Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, John McCain’s Why Courage Matters, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four.” This young man took a rather eclectic group of books with him to Iraq, one of which was Ayn Rand’s very serious and enlightening 1957 classic about the producers of the world going on strike when confronted with their enslavement to an ever encroaching state that demanded their subservience to the rest of society as a moral absolute (the plot in a very distilled and unsatisfying economy of words). Rand was a Russian dissident who, like Hitchens, emigrated to the United States dreaming of skyscrapers (Hitchens writes in one of the book’s most outstanding passages: “not long after leaving Cambridge and arriving in Oxford I began to have a recurrent dream. There was nothing especially subtle about it from the imaging point of view. I simply found myself somewhere in Midtown Manhattan, looking up at the skyscrapers. But the illusion was always accompanied by a feeling of profound happiness, and a sensation of being free in a way I had never known before. American music and American culture were much more pervasive in England by then, and much more non-conformist than they had been in the early days of TV, so that I had an early exposure to the great conundrum that has occupied me since: How is the United States at once the most conservative and commercial AND the most revolutionary society on Earth?”) and freedom unlike anything she had known under Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. She was a woman who adhered to and adored the Enlightenment at least as much as Hitchens could ever hope to do. She had to battle the relativists, the religious fundamentalists, the rising Conservatives on the right, as well as the altruistic socialist forerunners of Hitchens long before Hitch was a babe suckling at his mother’s breast. She wrote serious and philosophically important literature and non-fiction and yet Hitchens’s has the certainty left to cast her off as a chink in this young man’s character because he took her magnum opus with him to Iraq?

This stands as the most inexplicably egregious error of the book not to mention a very uncharacteristically inappropriate remark about a dead man Hitchens so obviously admires and respects (rightfully so). It illustrates Hitchens’s own cowardice in the face of secular certainty (falsely associating certainty with the irrational religious and the secular totalitarians, he condemns it reactively wherever he sees it, with certainty!), his own inescapable allegiance to the altruism of revealed religion (though his is distilled through allegedly secular socialist mumbo jumbo to steal Kipling’s apt term), and his ultimate failure to take account of the broad sweep of ideas and literature instead favoring the very narrow and esoteric world of his ideological comrades. Martin Amis may be a very fine novelist as well as his best friend, but Hitchens cannot seriously maintain that Amis has had an influence anywhere near Ayn Rand’s. That goes for Fenton and Rushdie as well (the latter would be almost entirely obscure had he not stepped on the toes of fanatical Islamists). This is unfortunate, not for me as an admirer of Ayn Rand’s but because she anticipated and articulated every single one of Hitchens’s most apropos insights well before he had to learn them through the grimmest possible experiences, including what is perhaps his most important historical realization about political revolutions: “In the course of all of them, even if not without convolutions and contradictions, it became evident that the only historical revolution with any verve left in it, or any example to offer others, was the American one.” She also offered up what are perhaps the most definitive condemnations and refutations of mysticism and relativism that we have in any language. They are, quite seriously, the stoutest defense ever fielded for Western Civilization and they came from a refugee of the East. But alas, he’ll have none of it.

But Hitchens has always lived in a world where, like Janus, he looks both ways. The conservative Leftist radical is an annoyance to his comrades, while the radical neo-conservative is hated by all. Unfortunately for Hitchens, moderns sense hypocrisy in operating with two sets of books. Being a Janus is to be condemned not lauded. As well it should be.

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