Friday, November 14, 2014

Arguably - Christopher Hitchens

a post from November 2011
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Writing is a craft and like all crafts it takes practice to become a master. Christopher Hitchens has been writing short form essays for 40 years now and he's gotten very good at it. So good that he may be the finest polemicist working in the English language today. In the crazy circus of contemporary letters it's nice to read someone whose prose uses the right word at the right time and whose cup foameth over with intellect.  Arguably, is his latest collection of book reviews and his longer pieces from Slate and Vanity Fair. Reading Hitch is like watching a skilled circus performer wow an audience with his derring do. Hitch often seems like a high wire walker who has no alternative but to keep going as turning back wd be fatal. The latter comes to mind when reading Hitch's attempt to square his advocacy for the invasion of Iraq with his acerbic and angry opposition to the first Gulf War in 1991. Hitch's logic is, at best, strained: 1991 had a clear casus belli, a clear UN mandate and a very clear mission and Hitch's pitch that the case for invasion was stronger under George W. Bush is bizarre. The Iraq essays are definitely the lowlight of the collection. Hitch argues with straw man pacifists and conspiracy theorists but he doesn't engage with someone like Tony Judt who is at least as well read as he is. I'm no pacifist but I don't see how any reasonable person can think the Iraq of 2011 is a better place than the Iraq of 2001 as Hitch repeatedly claims it is. 
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The finest parts of Arguably are the sections on literature where Hitchens shines a fresh light on some familiar texts. Hitch's enthusiasms are mostly infectious: WH Auden, George Orwell, PG Wodehouse, Gore Vidal's fictions, Philip Larkin's poetry. Hitchens is largely batting on his home field here and I wish he'd chanced his arm a bit by venturing into the rougher American terrain of Pynchon, DeLillo, McCarthy etc. But perhaps that's something that's just a bit beyond him. Although Hitchens took out American citizenship and knows the Constitution backwards no one will ever mistake the old chap for anything but an Englishman abroad. 
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Apart from the stuff on Iraq the weakest essays in Arguably are where Hitchens dips his toes into the world of science and mathematics, here he is especially credulous and even a little naive. Hitch seems to believe everything the Astronomer Royal or Stephen Hawking or Richard Dawkins has told him and hasn't the intellectual background to wonder whether these men are as significant as they think they are within their own fields. (Hawking and Dawkins for example have never come close to winning a Nobel Prize). Hitchens seems to think that science just exists "out there" without further need for interpretation and the work of Kurt Godel, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Feyerabend seems to have passed him by. Hitch is a little bit wide eyed when discussing people like Dawkins who aren't really scientists at all, merely science writers. Hitch's atheism is untroubled by Max Tegmark's work on infinity or Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis.  
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But ultimately these are minor quibbles which irritated me but might not irritate other people. Hitch has stage IV cancer of the oesophagus and has been fading recently. I hope he's around for a long time because I sure will miss him when he's gone. I'll miss his intelligence, his humour, his honesty, his insights and most of all the fact that even when you disagree with him you are usually too bowled over by his prose to complain very loudly.