‘Hitch 22,’ Christopher Hitchens
I only really knew Hitchens as one of the leading ‘New Atheists‘ best exemplified by this youtube clip of himself, cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, neuroscientist Sam Harris and evolutionary biologist (and believer-baiter) Richard Dawkins sitting around, drinking and discussing the dangers of religion. Since I read my first Sam Harris last month, saw a talk by the fascinating philosopher-scientist Dennett at Hay last week, and recently blogged on Dawkins being in my Top 10 of authors, it made sense to finally post a review of pretty much the first book I read when I got to Guatemala six months ago, Hitchens‘ autobiography, where I discovered that he is as much known for his political leanings as his religious ones.
Early on in this collection of uneven reflections, ‘Hitch’ gives us this quote:
“‘Until you have done something for humanity,’ said the great American educator Horace Mann, ‘you should be ashamed to die.’ Well, how is one to stand that test?…”
But what a great test to measure yourself by!
The book contains a plethora (one of my favourite words, incidentally), of interesting ideas and trivia, from linguistics:
“The Maltese tongue is a dialect version of the Arabic spoken in the Maghreb…If you happen to attend a Maltese Catholic church during Mass, you will see the priest raising the Communion Host and calling on ‘Allah,’ because this after all is the local word for ‘god’…”
to the Oxbridge divide:
“‘At least Oxford spies for us,’ as one portly academic once put it to me,’while Cambridge seems to prefer to spy for the other side’…”
A typically vivid metaphor on visiting Cuba to see (and soon become disillusioned by) the revolutionary spirit there:
“Once you have been told that you can’t leave a place, its attractions may be many but its charm will instantly be void. A cat may stay contentedly in one spot for hours at a time, but detain it in that spot by grasping its tail and it will try to tear out its own tail at the roots…”
Describing his early political education, and the understatement inherent in the catchphrase of the ”other half,’ (which Hitch would be pleased to know is now represented by the more accurate 99%):
“…some of the visiting preachers on Sundays were unpolished ministers from tough working-class parishes, who gave us some idea how the other half (actually very much more than half) lived…”
On the 1968 uprisings in France:
“I shall never forget how the workers at the Berliet factory rearranged the big letters of the company name to read ‘Liberté‘ right over the factory gate…”
I guess the razor makers at Gillette weren’t taking part, otherwise they could have been joined by ‘Égalité.’
(OK, I know it doesn’t quite work, but I found it funny).
The humour comes through in many places, not least in this genius footnote when he describes:
“…a Gogol-like ghost job which I held for about six months before its editor said something to me that made it impossible to go on working for him. *
* ‘You’re fired,’ were the exact words as I remember them…”
On legendary English writer (and drinker) Kingsley Amis:
On appreciating (and eventually moving to) the land across the pond:
“A crucial part of seeing America was also seeing how many Americas there were…”
On Salman Rushdie and the fallout of The Satanic Verses:
“He ignited one of the greatest-ever confrontations between the ironic and the literal mind: a necessary attrition which is always going on in some form…”
and on the same subject:
“It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”
A better balance-sheet of life I can’t think of right now.
At one point in this wide-ranging memoir, we learn a shocking fact about the increasing mental instability of Saddam Hussein:
“He had a whole Koran written in his own blood…”
And finally, the most touching chapter, (in contrast to early extravagances, such as an entire section dedicated to debating whether he is a Chris or a Christopher), was on a US soldier who died after enlisting partially based on reading Hitchens‘ writings. The author became close to the soldier’s family after his death, eventually attending the funeral service when, as he describes with a beautiful, heart-breaking phrase:
“…tears seemed as natural as breathing…”