For my birthday I was given Arguably, a large collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens. Up until recently I thought he was some kind of stuffy, ex-leftist conservative of no interest to me. How wrong I was! He has views I disagree with - he thinks the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a worthwhile action – but the man is worth reading (and hearing when the ABC airs interviews with him).
In recent times he’s become notable because of his strong commitment to atheism, which is backed up by his spirited criticism of religion (including his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Spoils Everything); and in more recent times his impending death (from cancer of the oesophagus) has some people ogling – if one can ogle in an intellectual sense – at how his philosophy will prepare him for death.
My recent interest in him came about in peculiar circumstances. My 84 year old mother was in hospital a few weeks ago undergoing heart surgery. It was supposed to be a fairly simple procedure: keyhole surgery on her aorta to deal with an aneurism. The heart surgery went fine, but somehow the blood flow to her left kidney ceased, and what should have been a day in intensive care turned into one and a half weeks as various organs began to fail. Poor mum was connected up to a plethora of tubes and machines.
She’s always been a reader – like no one else I’ve ever met – and has a huge library. So my sister and I found ourselves having to read to her in hospital. It happened that Mum’s neighbour Judy had lent her Hitchen’s latest book Hitch-22: A Memoir. So this is what we read to her over a number of days.
We had to read loudly because of the machines and Mum’s ailing hearing; which of course meant we had to improvise around a few ‘fucks’ and other explicit language. And strangely, we found the hospital staff fascinated - our readings almost became public! And we too found the stories gripping and the writing excellent. So, when mum came out of hospital and my birthday came around, my sister bought me his book of essays.
What’s immediately impressive is the guy’s output - dozens of books and pamphlets, essays and collaborations – but it’s also backed up by a colossal amount of knowledge. It’s like he’s got a spare brain that reads while he can do other stuff like live!
The main motivating factor behind Chris Hitchens is the idea of reason. One can only wonder where reason hid when he was a Trotskyist for many years during the sixties and seventies, (and clearly reason abandoned him when he backed the invasion of Iraq and made absurd claims about BinLadenism as being “a barbarism that…no less menacing than Nazism and Stalinism”) but it seems he’s evolved into something of a modern enlightenment man. His fascination with the American Revolution has led to years of research and writing on the subject of the U.S founding fathers. He also writes about Edmund Burke, the British (originally Irish) enlightenment politician who, while being dismissed by some as an eccentric Tory, produced many apposite warnings of the coming revolution in France.
An essay about humour entitled Why Women Aren’t Funny could easily be misinterpreted as misogynist when it’s simply a whimsical attempt to analyse the sexual function of jokes; it hinges on his spurious idea that women, being bearers of children and generally more attractive than men, have nowhere near as much need to invent jokes as men. This and a few other essays can be skipped for better essays about Evelyn Waugh, Steven Spender, Orwell, Kipling, Wodehouse, Prince Charles (whom Hitchens excoriates as a nutter and dullard) Saul Bellow, Anthony Powell, Nabakov, Updike, Twain, Lincoln, Jefferson, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, European Economics and even Harry Potter.
Yes, Hitchens has aligned himself, on certain issues (an important point) with North American Neo-cons, but this is simply not enough reason to dismiss and consequently not read the guy. I get so irritated at friends and colleagues who can’t even begin to read or listen to a person who has made a political move they don’t like. They’re missing a lot by not reading Hitchens.
It reminds me of an experience I had recently at a writers festival in Geraldton where, amongst a group of interesting authors, journalists, story-tellers and illustrators was the conservative Australian journalist Piers Ackerman. While he made many statements I and many others found laughable, including the suggestion that the invasion of Iraq may have contributed to the Arab Spring and the liberation of Libya, I have to admit the man has something to offer: knowledge, analysis and wit. Were I to ignore a man because of his political opinion, I would never have talked to my own Grandfather or my Uncle Brian, a passionate and emotional fellow whose love of cricket and music far out-shone his political conservatism.