The long-expected, or if you are the National Portrait Gallery egregiously pre-empted, death of polemicist and writer Christopher Hitchens occurred today. Hitchens had been diagnosed with terminal end-stage oesophageal cancer in July 2010 and in a recent interview with Richard Dawkins, it was increasingly obvious that the disease had been taking its merciless toll. Despite this it is indicative of the sheer vitality of Hitchens ire and indignation, that even whilst riddled with cancer he was able to produce high quality writing, with his trademark polemical clarity, incisiveness and scabrous wit. It is the snapping anger of the man that will be most missed, particularly the way in which he tended to meet pomposity with pomposity, never-failing to address the rapidly accruing modern-day shibboleths within our globalising culture.
Hitchens dedication to critiquing the various different disguises that totalitarianism might take made him a prolific columnist for the likes of Vanity Fair, The New Statesmen and The Nation. Notionally a Marxist socialist with Trotskyite internationalist leanings, Hitchens, in later years, increasingly drifted toward the classical liberal socialist positions of people like George Orwell or Bertrand Russell. Many colleagues and like-minded commentators felt somewhat betrayed by Hitchens uncomfortable fawning around the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 War on Terror. However, despite this blind spot when it came to Bush, Wolfowitz, Chaney and Co., Hitchens remained incredibly cogent when it came to arguing against those who would sacrifice necessary ‘freedoms’ for the implementation of doctrine.
Quite late in his career Hitchens earned his largest public following for his very public criticism of the ‘totalitarianism’ of organised religion. His 2007 bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, argued for an atheistic understanding of human existence and attempted to puncture fatal holes in organised theocratic thinking. It’s a perfect exemplar of the articulate, powerful, but curiously insubstantial manner in which Hitchens best polemical pieces seemed to operate.
Until recently I had failed to grasp the importance of a figure like Christopher Hitchens. Having been exposed to the powder-puff conservative paranoia of his younger, more hawkish, brother Peter Hitchens, I’d frequently adopted the habit of zoning both Hitchens’ out of my consciousness, as if they were in fact one, and the same, person (now a little more portly, now a little more angular and avian). Such benightedness was really unforgivable, as the two Hitchens, on closer inspection, seemed to share little more than an uncanny physical resemblance, a penchant for arguing and a relatively stern conservative upbringing as the offspring of a socially mobile father. Of the two siblings Christopher was always more enamoured with the flamboyance and panache of his mother’s personality, something that seems to have been a defining difference between his brother and himself, making him a far more appealing transatlantic personality.
I actually began to tune in to Christopher Hitchens far more receptively after having read his thorough dissection and ritual disembowelment of Tom Wolfe that featured in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in The Public Sphere (London:Verso, 2000). Hitchens was here asking, nigh on demanding, that the careful reader observe a two-way connection between writer and politics. Most people would accept to some degree a writer’s personal politics will dictate their sphere of interest in terms of writing, but what Hitchens argues goes further, demonstrating that a writer’s work then engages with the political process, either implicitly or explicitly, by lending support to dominant ideologies, or through critiquing them. This was all very Saidian, but for Hitchens the distraction of ideology being a politically left concern was one of the fundamental flaws in the formulation of the political as something distinct from the cultural or aesthetic. With the increasing relativism, both cultural and moral, applied to criticism at the end of the twentieth century, Hitchens was strongly arguing for a necessary space in which the political could enter back into the aesthetic and cultural as a means of demonstrating, or possibly prompting, engagement with the essential ideas and issues of the times. This is perhaps one of Hitchens most important points, as it addresses a way of considering the world that has drifted out of fashion since the days of Orwell, namely that there is a continuum between political conviction and aesthetic creation, with both navigating their way toward some kind of notion of ‘truth’.
Far from agreeing entirely with Hitchens every vituperative polemic, I have found myself at least challenged to consider where my own ideological complacencies lie, vis-a-vis whatever the issue is that he is writing about, or discussing. Individuals like Hitchens who so jealousy guard the right to write or say anything well are a rare commodity, nowadays. The danger of any public life is that it ossifies the individual leading it, making the political everything and thus castigating any perceived incoherencies in a person’s positions and pronouncements. The very necessity of public critics and intellectuals like Hitchens lies in their unwillingness to simply toe the line and hold fast to the ideas of the past, whilst simultaneously ensuring that a critical voice isn’t diminished in these times of liberal-conservative political hegemony and post-Capitalist cultural disconnect.
The Best of Hitchens on the Web
1) The Hitchens Zone – An exhaustive assortment of articles, videos and general information resources, featuring Hitchens lengthy radio doc on George Orwell.
2) Vanity Fair Index – Christopher Hitchens contributed to VF for many years and the magazine has done its best to collate much of that material and other media on their website.
3) The Guardian: Books – The literary section of The Guardian newspaper has done a good job of catalouging their love/hate relationship with Hitch.
4) The New Statesman – The left-leaning weekly news and opinion digest has frequently published Hitchens work down the years and has an extensive on-line index.
5) The Daily Hitchens – A well maintained unofficial website, that does a good job of covering his material on atheism in particular.