Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

"If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes across the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. The post-Kennedy period is often written up as a 'loss of innocence', a judgement which admittedly depends for its effect on how innocent you thought America had been until a quarter of a century ago. But, while Presidents had been slain before, they had generally been shot by political opponents of an indefinable if extreme sort, like Lincoln's resentful Confederate or McKinley's inarticulate anarchist. Moreover, the culprits were known, apprehended and questioned. With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where informative technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicized; where the bias is always in favour of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza."
-- Christopher Hitchens, 'Where Were You Standing?' TLS, November 1988.

I remember exactly where I was standing: in the living room on the farm where I grew up. The news had just come up on the teeve as a 'News Flash' (remember them?). I was ten. I also remember exactly where I was when I read this paragraph. It was the winter of 1992 and I was sitting in the living-room of my friend R's flat in Balmain, overlooking Sydney Harbour, with the sun coming in through the window. R was in the kitchen making coffee, and I had idly picked up the copy of Hitchens' For the Sake of Argument that was lying on the table and opened it on the page where this paragraph appears.

I thought I had been struck by lightning. I really did. This, it seemed, was what writing could do if it tried.


iODyne said...

My first Hitchens exposure was via Vanity Fair and I have them all, now to be published as a collection titled MORTALITY.
Ian McEwen's tribute in The Guardian is a lovely read, and Toby Young does a good one in The Telegraph.
All Hitchens' lit pals can relax now, as I suspect they tried harder knowing he would read their efforts.
I do wish he had quit smoking when his father had the same death.
As to his detractors, so sure of their God in their Heaven, I can only think that if they are correct, then CH is now giving the Almighty and almighty debate.

WV suggests that fuvophyr is the term for that situation.

Anthonyl said...

Seeing the title of that essay, I presumed it was the one I recalled where he did that neat and startling inversion: "Like everyone else of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was standing on the day that President John Fitzgerald Kennedy nearly killed me". He is referring to October 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis. He goes on to say "Such was the relief at finding that the next day was not going to be the last that, like almost everyone else, I forgave Kennedy for gambling with my life".

But on checking, I realise that quote comes from his earlier collection, Prepared for the Worst, whose essays still live on in my mind, and which I discovered at the end of the 1980s, around the same time I discovered his then-colleague from The Nation, Alex Cockburn - each discovery due to the serendipity of a casual job checking-in books at the University library.

Anyhow Marshall, as a vehement spruiker for the slaughter in Iraq, Hitchens may have a few tens of thousands of souls to have an almighty debate with before he even gets around to debating the Almighty.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

The guy's just died, Anthony, and holding him personally responsible for the dead in Iraq is drawing a very long and badly designed bow. I notice you don't mention his longstanding campaign against the death penalty; why do you think that was any less effective than his writing about Iraq -- and yes, I too am an admirer of Prepared for the Worst and I too thought he'd gone a bit mad over Iraq, though I could see exactly what his reasoning was, mainly because he explained his position so very lucidly and logically, unlike almost anyone else on either side of that debate. Perhaps I blame him less than many because I am so very with him on the subject of autocratic and fundamentalism religion, or indeed any organised religion. If one wants to point the finger about megadeaths through history, there's the place to start.

Anthony said...

Kerryn, I wasn't "personally blaming" Hitchens for the dead in Iraq. Marshall alluded to his role as a polemicist in the anti-theist cause; I wanted to point out that as a polemicist he had also taken sides in debates that many of us might find repellent. And yes, he was an eloquent polemicist against the death penalty, which neither Marshall nor myself mentioned, and he took on a number of other causes. None of these stances define him. Marshall's reference and mine are each equally partial.

It is well-nigh impossible to give a full appreciation of someone in a comment on a blog post. I had hoped that my original comment acknowledged that Hitchens' prose, over 20 years ago, was a revelation - as it was to you - whilst noting my estrangement from a key position he took in the final decade of his life. Hitchens, I gather, would have been the last person to insist that I emphasize the former at the expense of the latter.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Apologies. I've seen a lot of hateful woolly thinking about Hitchens online since he died, mostly written by people who'd never heard of him before Iraq and still know almost nothing about him, and I've got a bit touchy about it. You're right, of course.

Ann ODyne said...

I can assure you that M Stacks does not even know what a polemicist is, and she didn't mention the war, being of the generation raised on Don't Mention The War. May I add that the President waited for CH to go before doing this -
'KUWAIT CITY, Dec. 18 The last batch of US combat forces in Iraq departed on Sunday morning and crossed into neighboring Kuwait, marking the end of nearly nine-year military presence in the war-torn country'

all war is really bad for women and really good for bu$ine$$, so I am anti-war.
I bought Hitch 22 the moment it was available and the reading pleasure was so intense I read it twice. I'm not sure that it was just his opinions that gave the pleasure.

paul walter said...

Jack Ruby intervening by shooting Oswald in the guts robbed the world of a chance to understand and accomodate what had happened. I recall a very warm morning in Elizabeth North, just back from the shops and a copy of the News, photo with the figures in the limo.

It's dawned on me that Hitchens was only four years older than me and the Wiki had enough to say of him for me to identify with him, as to Orwell and the Trots, to name a couple of many things.
Where did he go wrong with Iraq?Did he think the Americans would liberate the place, win the people over with a bit of yank generosity, efficiency and know-how?
I had hoped so.
First thing, get electricity, water and other basic infrastructure up. The people, liberated from the tyrant, would adore them.
Instead, the US went through the place like bikies on a rumble.
As to his contribution to literature, I know very little, doh..
I do remember he irritated me a number of times with Tony Jones on Latteline over Iraq, seemed a bit extravagant in his manner, maybe jet lag?

Link said...

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives.

Regarding Christopher

The more I read about him, the more my visceral dislike for the man seems justified and I am further disinclined to pursuing what he wrote.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Well, nobody's holding a gun to your head. I didn't say I approved of him, I said I thought his writing was amazing. This post is specifically about his gift for the craft of writing, and for the speed and felicity with which he put what he saw and thought into words. Though I'm quite sure everything Pollitt says is true, nothing of what she says changes the actual quality of the way he put words together, which I found and still do find inspiring independently of the fact that if I had those gifts I'd use them to very different ends. I'm not joining the cheer squad in this post, just doing what is the decent thing to do when somebody dies: remembering the best of them. But I'm not joining the chorus of haters, either. Tribalism on either or indeed any side of any issue fills me with irritation and boredom.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I should also say that I think the piece you linked to is very good. I certainly never took anything Hitchens said or thought about about women seriously, and the whole Dixie Chicks 'fat slags' thing is as she says quite repulsive, especially considering that (a) none of them is even remotely fat and he is sinking to the depths of Kyle Sandilands here in assuming that if you want to really revile a woman you call her fat regardless of whether she is or not, and (b) he was an unattractively tubby lad himself, like Kyle. Perhaps, in both cases, there is some self-hatred and projection going on here.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Also, just to clear up any confusion about this slightly incoherent thread, Marshall Stacks and Ann O'Dyne are the same person. "Marshall Stacks" is an amplifier joke, I do believe.

Anthony said...

If Marshall Stacks is an amplifier joke, what type of joke is “Ann o’Dyne”?

The Katha Pollit piece is excellent.

(Digression: she won me over with her essay (in the New Yorker, I think) about taking driving lessons as a late adult learner. I say this as someone in his mid-forties who hasn’t learnt to drive. That essay was then published in a collection that included a remembrance of her father, a stalwart member of the American Communist Party who stuck by the Party through the Moscow show trials, the invasion of Hungary, the invasion of Prague, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. They always said you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, he said as he approached his death. He then added that he’d seen a lot of broken eggs, but he never got to see the omelette.)

"just doing what is the decent thing to do when somebody dies: remembering the best of them."

Good Lord Kerryn, you're the acme of decency. No, I mean that. I'll take that on as my mantra.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Anthony, you must, you really must, learn to drive.

Here in South Australia the legal driving age was 16 when I wor a lass (and I think it may still be, don't know for sure). I was all gung-ho to learn to drive, and my long-suffering parents sent me, on my 16th birthday at my earnest request, to the RAA to learn properly. Alas, I scored a sadistic teacher who was very very interested in schoolgirls, and used to slap me very hard on my lisle-stockinged thigh, exposed by the short hems of 1969, whenever I did anything wrong, and took me out into peak-hour traffic on my second lesson. I ended up so thoroughly freaked out that I had to be pushed into any car, and I mean as a passenger, for the next six months, and did not learn to drive for another 16 years. It was the hardest thing I have ever done -- and I speak as person who used to be a heavy smoker and went cold turkey, from 40+ a day to nothing with no pharamceutical or psychological help, in 1989 and haven't had a cigarette since.

I finally learned to drive at 32 on the advice of, of all people, my doctor. The fear. My God, the fear. But once I had my licence, I was a different woman with a different life.

The secret? Go to a professional driving school, and insist on a female teacher.

paul walter said...

Enjoyed his conversation with First Tuesday Book Club presenter Jennifer Byrne on TV tonight. Funny how you can start to warm to someone after they die, particularly mediated by the comprehension of the sort of atonement made in that type of death and the way it was faced up to.
Once you see he is another human being making his way through the dense scrub of life as you do, rather than someone who appears to be smirking at your incompetence, the sympathy is there and with the different attitude you didn't realise you lacked, it all looks different.
Being true to thine own self, played out in that sort of death which I see now was a fighting death, there seems some merit, a person who probably took considerable private time to derive from meditation of his own experiences, how life works and share that view in a considered way, with his fellow creatures.

Link said...

The world, as I'm sure you've noticed is absolutely chock-full with very good writers. Venerating the dead because they are dead is quaint and superstitious.

For women, Hitchens was an appalling little man, regardless of how well he could string sentences together. I must say I took your post to indicate some star-struck-edness with him. Because he only took half the world's population seriously and dismissed out of hand the other, his writing is in my mind completely without significance and will not stand the test of time.

As was his belief, he is now precisely nothing. So very fitting.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Yes, there are many good writers in the world though few, at least in English, can touch this paragraph. I have read many of them, written about many of them, and frequently put up posts about them; saying 'Oh but what about X' is ridiculous; it is quite possible to admire more than one writer's writing at a time, indeed I've been doing it all my life and I bet you have too. Your description of Hitchens indicates to me that you've read almost nothing he's written, so I don't feel obliged to take it too seriously. I don't 'venerate' him 'because he is dead', I admired HIS WRITING (not 'him') while he was alive and I still admire it now that he's dead. You say venerating the dead because they are dead is quaint and superstitious; I say viciously trashing the newly dead is ignorant and barbaric and doing so out of ideological me-tooism is worse. Vive la difference. But when I put this post up I knew it was only a matter of time before someone found it appropriate to come along and snark about all the things that were wrong with Hitchens, thereby completely missing the point of the post, so this conversation is now over.

boynton said...

I was reading 'Arguably' in September. His essay on Jessica Mitford inspired me to revisit nancy and the clan, and to borrow from the library the subject of his review, Decca's correspondence.
So I don't agree with the charge anyway, that he comprehensively disregarded women as worthy of his thoughts. Reading that and lately 'Hitch 22' has caused many such moments of admiration at his writing and breadth of knowledge.

WV: hemen