Sunday, July 4, 2010


That Hitch's sins caught up with him just as his autobiography was being reviewed is a fact that should give him solace; it's a dramatic coincidence, will keep things busy for now, and should bury under an unassailable excuse the coming decline of interest in him. For the rest of us, it is fortunate that the reviewers weren't tempted to pull their punches; there are some marvelously unpleasant takes, like Runciman's (which is accurate) and Jennifer Senior's (which starts out well but runs out of steam and cattiness) and Decca Aitkenhead's (frankly nasty but entertaining), that probably wouldn't have been written if he'd come out with the cancer any earlier than he did.

I've got some obvious points of affinity with the Hitch -- Auden, Orwell, wordplay, politics, contrarianism, and slovenliness come to mind -- and used to be a fan, esp. of the Mother Teresa book, but I'm afraid I've soured on him since then. It doesn't have much to do with politics; the Iraq war was not an important issue for me, and to his credit Hitchens has not been racist about "Islamofascism" unlike e.g. Martin Amis. I think his real problem has been that he let himself go soft, and has never properly faced up to this. I would attribute it to the fact that both his heroes, Orwell and Auden, were bad influences on him, having been soft on themselves in orthogonal ways; they both provided precedent for aspects of his fundamental laziness, and his using them in this way was ultimately, I think, a mark of bad character.

As far as I know the Hitch-Auden connection hasn't been dealt with anywhere, so I suspect I'll come off as riding a hobby-horse here. (The Orwell connection, otoh, one can just assume as Hitch wrote a book about Orwell.) I assure you it's true though. Hitch's Atlantic book reviews are studded with Auden quotes, and he often brings Auden up for no good reason (e.g. while spanking Somerset Maugham for being seedily gay). Hitch is/was also close friends with James Fenton, who was once going to be the next Auden. The NY'er piece about Hitch sounds remarkably like, e.g., Robert Lowell on Auden in Manhattan -- the squalor, the martinis, the tendency to grow prematurely old and repetitive -- and I don't think the imitation was entirely unconscious.

What Hitchens never developed was the intellectual restlessness, the compulsion to introspect and revise, and the fidgety playfulness with ideas, that kept Auden's table-talk and essays interesting. Auden was essentially both creative and donnish, and his worst moments are partially redeemed by the sense that he was trying to do something with the ideas he was playing with. His posturing was tentative and experimental: one cannot imagine him getting all pissy at a dinner party and saying, e.g.,
I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off.
On the other hand, this kind of refusal to engage nuance was precisely the sort of thing Orwell would do. (Exhibit A: "Inside the Whale") But Orwell was never part of the cocktail-party circuit; had he been, he wouldn't be remembered today; whether this was a conscious decision on his part or sheer luck I have no idea. The difference is that Orwell wasn't posturing as such: rather, he was an extremely (perhaps overly) serious ideologue whose obsessions were forced on him by circumstances, rather than the desire to come off in a certain light. He was clever or fortunate enough to have original obsessions, or brave enough to put himself in situations where such obsessions are likely to form; one cannot, however, imagine him as a traditional Romantic like Byron, getting into scrapes simply in order to show off.

A quick (consider the hour!) if glib way of completing this thought is to say that Auden was a fox, Orwell was a hedgehog, and Hitch has combined the worst of both traditions -- he has tended to adopt causes in a shiftless improvisatory way, like a fox, but to cling to them with an obstinacy and lack of introspectiveness that are forgivable only in hedgehogs, whose beliefs have deeper sources. Some analysis along these lines no doubt accounts for why he never wrote anything of real distinction; yet, as cautionary tales go, he is not a particularly terrifying one. As Runciman says:
His has been an enviable life: not just all the drink and the sex and the travel and the comradeship and the minor fame (surely the preferable kind), but also the endless round of excitements and controversies, the feuding and falling-out and grudge-bearing and score-settling, the chat-show put-downs, the dinner party walk-outs, the stand-up rows. Christopher Hitchens has clearly had a great time being Christopher Hitchens.


zbs said...

I find him less intolerable now that it seems to be increasingly widely accepted that his opinions have no real value. If his purple writing was better I would probably also be sympathetic but these days it's rather poor by any standard. I know you don't intend to really compare him on an even plane to Auden or Orwell, but the quality of the thought and the prose really never comes remotely close to either.

Unknown said...

Ha, I read this in your reader feed and didn't even realize you wrote it! Well done. I was a bit shocked when initially, because normally people don't express opinions. Actually, my first thought was "Christ, what an asshole."