Farewell Hitch

Required: too much courage

George Scialabba

If a hall of fame were established for contemporary book reviewers - well, why not? There's one for ad executives, poker players, and probably porn stars - Christopher Hitchens would very likely be its second inductee. (James Wood, of course, would be the first.) About an amazing range of literary and political figures - Proust, Joyce, Borges, Byron, Bellow, Orhan Pamuk, Tom Paine, Trotsky, Churchill, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Israel Shahak, and a hundred others - he has supplied the basic information, limned the relevant controversies, hazarded an original perception or two, and thrown out half a dozen fine phrases, causing between fifteen and forty-five minutes of reading time to pass entirely unnoticed. His very, very frequent political columns have occasionally seemed tossed off, it's true; but his books about Cyprus, the Palestinians, the British monarchy, and the Elgin Marbles are seriously argued. Though he lives in Washington, DC, and is said to be very fond of fancy parties, he has famously insulted and called for the incarceration of a sitting President and a ubiquitously befriended diplomat and Nobel laureate. And he appears on all those self-important TV talk shows without wearing a tie. How can you not admire someone like that?

Actually, it's not so difficult, I've discovered. All the someone in question has to do is begin thinking differently from me about a few important matters, and in no time I find that his qualities have subtly metamorphosed. His abundance of colorful anecdotes now looks like incessant and ingenious self-promotion. His marvelous copiousness and fluency strike me as mere mellifluous facility and mechanical prolixity. A prose style I thought deliciously suave and sinuous I now find preening and overelaborate. His fearless cheekiness has become truculent bravado; his namedropping has gone from endearing foible to excruciating tic; his extraordinary dialectical agility seems like resourceful and unscrupulous sophistry; his entertaining literary asides like garrulousness and vulgar display; his bracing contrariness, tiresome perversity. Strange, this alteration of perspective; and even stranger, it sometimes occurs to me that if he changed his opinions again and agreed with me, all his qualities would once more reverse polarity and appear in their original splendor. A very instructive experience, epistemologically speaking.

Then again, it's not just his changing his mind that's got my goat. His and my hero Dwight Macdonald did that often enough. But one may do it gracefully or gracelessly. Even when all the provocations Hitchens has endured are acknowledged (especially the not-infrequent hint that booze has befogged his brain), they don't excuse his zeal not merely to correct his former comrades but to bait, ridicule, and occasionally slander them, caricaturing their arguments and questioning their good faith. Not having recognized a truth formerly ought to make you more patient, not less, with people who do not recognize it now; and less certain, not more, that whomever you currently disagree with is contemptibly benighted. Besides, if you must discharge such large quantities of remonstrance and sarcasm, shouldn't you consider saving a bit more of them for your disagreements - he must still have some, though they're less and less frequently voiced, these days - with those who control the three branches of government and own the media and other means of production?