Monday, December 19, 2011

Unhitched

It’s unlikely that anyone who reads – or, even better, thinks – will not have taken note of, and been affected by, the death on Thursday, December 15th, of Christopher Hitchens. I would guess that I have read only a fraction of the words that have flowed and eddied around Hitchens’s death, and life, since he went on his way. And it’s also true that someone more erudite and better-read than I will make appropriately cogent observations on the man, and all that he was about. Which was, even to my modest intellect, a very great deal.

Ian McEwan – one of my favourite writers, I am quick to add – in a piece in the New York Times on Friday, called him a “consummate writer” and “brilliant friend”. I know nothing about the latter, of course, but can only agree with the former. Hitchens had, to use the old phrase, a way with words. It was his way with thoughts, though, that made him different, and – depending on one’s point of view – better than the average run of thoughtful scribblers. Other one-word appraisals of him were less positive and adoring, but no less apt: “polemicist” and “contrarian” are two.

I first came across Hitchens somewhat late in his day. That was in 2002 when the CBC – or maybe it was PBS – aired the documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger, based on Hitchens’s book of the same title. Both the book and the documentary were, and probably still are, controversial. It takes a brave and singular man to designate a former U.S. Secretary of State and Nobel Peace Prize winner as a war criminal. Which is what Hitchens did. Kissinger, to no one’s surprise, didn’t like the designation. He tried to sue Hitchens, but the suit went nowhere. The documentary makes for fascinating viewing; the book for equally fascinating reading.

It was Hitchens’s book on religion that made him a household word, though. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a title that will catch almost anyone’s attention. Especially in the United States, Hitchens’s adopted and much-loved country, where religion and politics (and by extension government) make for a potent brew, and at a level that we here in Canada view with – dare I say it – a mixture of incredulity, amusement and alarm. We don’t have anything like it, not really, even if there are concerns still that the Conservative (and conservative) Harper Government has evangelical roots that might someday start sending up vigorous shoots in parts of our country not really familiar, or comfortable, with the species.

But to bring this piece about Hitchens more into line with the ramblings of a writer of fiction, I will add a line from Sandra Martin’s obituary in the Globe and Mail. “Even as a child, Mr. Hitchens knew that he didn’t have the true “stuff” to write fiction or poetry”, even though he numbered among his closest friends any number of celebrated writers of celebrated fiction. Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and the aforementioned Ian McEwan among them. But if he could not bring himself to actually write fiction, he never hesitated to offer incisive comments on the output of those who could, and did.

One of those he commented on and wrote about at length was George Orwell – Eric Arthur Blair in real life. (By coincidence, Hitchens’s middle name is Eric.) I suppose one could say that Orwell was an earlier version of Hitchens himself; an intellectual who produced sharp commentary on the society he lived in. (Arthur Koestler commented that Orwell's "uncompromising intellectual honesty … made him appear almost inhuman at times…”, and that description seems to fit Hitchens also.) Unlike Hitchens, Orwell also wrote great and memorable fiction. He was also an ardent social-democrat who excoriated the Soviet Union in Animal Farm. His other great work, of course, was Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Why 1984, someone once asked? Well, the book was finished in 1948, and Orwell reversed the last two digits to place it far enough into the future to allow one’s imagination of society’s evolution to run rampant. Or so I read somewhere.) So Orwell went at least one better than Hitchens in the writing field.

When Hitchens did his abrupt political, and I thought at the time, moral, about-face in 2003 and supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he almost lost me, and for good. But I got over that, even if I have never gotten over the actual war. But, then, neither, I would argue, has the United States. Much of my reading of Hitchens, and most of my viewing of him courtesy of YouTube, has taken place since 2003.      

And happily – an odd word to use, perhaps, in the context of a man’s death – Hitchens was so prolific that I will never want for something “new” of his to read. His most recent tome is the collection of essays and pieces, Arguably. I will pick up a copy soon, and dip into it at random whenever I need to be reminded that there is great writing, and interesting thought processes, out there to savour.


4 comments:

Rick Blechta said...

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Donis Casey said...

I greatly admired Hitchens, as I admire anyone with the guts to say the truth as he sees it.

Vicki Delany said...

I was an admirer ofHitchens; however I can not forgive him for not only supporting the Iraq war but continuing to support it. To me that taints his entire legacy. He made a few dumb statements, which anyone can forgive, but not that. Much the same, actually, as Michael Ignatieff although Ignatieff did take some of his support back.

Rick Blechta said...

I don't know... I always saw Hitchens as a bit of a bully, at least in his personal appearances. He'd yell. He'd interrupt. He was not a nice debater. Perhaps it was the booze talking.

But I certainly do agree on his ability to put words together. I found myself thinking, How did he think of putting that sentence together that way? Brilliant!

Thanks, Tom.