It sounds like a cliché. “If Hitchens didn’t exist,” wrote Ian McEwan, “we wouldn’t be able to invent him.”
I’m looking at Christopher Hitchens’ latest book. On the front-cover he’s smoking and (my guess) sending secret smoke signals to neo-conservatives. And yet, in the world of politics, no-one appears more complicated than Christopher Hitchens because of his (cliché alert) complicated twists and sharp turns.
In Hitch-22 A Memoir, he writes under the chapter heading “A Second Identity: On Becoming an (Anglo) American,” about his hippy phase in the Vietnam period, and also about his identity-shaping experiences and the influential American figures he came into contact with (p. 216):
I went to see the Black Panthers, whose “breakfast program” for poor ghetto kids had degenerated into a shakedown of local merchants and whose newspaper now featured paeans to North Korea. I went to call on David Horowitz at the offices of the legendary radical glossy Ramparts, where he inaugurated what was to be four decades of comingled love/hate/respect between us by sneering humorously at my faith in the revival of the working class and recommending that I go to the International Socialists, which I had already done.
Hitchens is a big fan of humour, to be sure, and elsewhere, Horowitz has written about his experiences with the Black Panthers. But what strikes me about the British-born polemicist is that he often (not always) finds the “funny” in the “pain.” Indeed, after having lived through a post-Dickensian Dickensian boarding-school experience he casually observes (p. 62):
I have just looked up the gleaming new website of Mount House, and realized that if I have set all this down in my turn, it is because I was among the last generation to go through the “old school” version of Englishness. The site speaks enthusiastically of the number of girls being educated at the establishment (good grief!), of the availability of vegetarian diets and catering for other “special needs,” and of its sensitivity to various sorts of “learning disability.”
Hitch-22 is about one man’s rollercoaster-like political journey and efforts to embrace unpredictably with a smile. Certainly, he makes me think, although many of his views on religion are as digestible as razor blades dipped in honey. But moreover, he manages to upset people on both sides of the political aisle, which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily always a bad thing.
One can only imagine how boring the publishing world would be without people like Hitchens. Even the image of the polemicist smoking a cigarette without a care in the world is going to infuriate London’s antiseptic chattering classes – and that’s as funny as his devout faith in atheism.
Ben-Peter Terpstra is an Australian satirist and cartoon lover. His works have been posted on numerous sites from American Thinker (California) to Quadrant Online (Sydney, Australia). For more information see, Pizza Trays and Beer Bottles.