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Declarations of independence

Political pugilist and cultured critic, new collection displays Hitchens in full

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
By Michael Washburn
August 28, 2011

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Susan Sontag famously wrote that intelligence was “really just a kind of taste: taste in ideas.’’ Over the past decade, Christopher Hitchens has proven Sontag’s pithy bit of pretension true, though not in ways she would have foreseen. Pundits typically achieve notoriety precisely because they promote the prevailing prejudices of either the right or the left. Hitchens, one time Fleet Street rabble-rouser and rhetorical pugilist of the left, turned against his former fellow travelers. Hitchens vocally supported the Iraq invasion and has renounced many of his former lefty precepts in favor of a set of hawkish foreign policy positions. On the left he’s considered a neo-imperialist apologist for the Bush administration. The right doesn’t want him either. His undeniable intelligence seems tasteless to many; his devaluation shows that, for some, intelligence is really just taste in ideology. Sadly, this debate over his perceived political apostasy may be his legacy.

I don’t care about Hitchens’s politics. Or, rather, his sometimes-shortsighted political opinions are secondary to why one should read him. One reads him despite his reputation as someone who wants to drink, argue, and tear the ornaments off the tree, because he is, first and last, a writer, an always exciting, often exacting, furious polemicist. This fact, the most salient thing about him, often gets neglected in the public jousting.

“Arguably,’’ Hitchens’s new collection, forcefully proves this point. Consisting of three kinds of writing - literary journalism, political commentary, and cultural complaint - “Arguably’’ offers a panoramic if somewhat jaundiced view of the last decade or so of cultural and political history. Oral sex, Abraham Lincoln, water-boarding, and theocratic irrationalism have probably never appeared in the same book (let alone the same sentence), but Hitchens mounts stylish, spirited attacks or defenses of these and a hundred other topics. What he attributes to Orwell can be said of Hitchens: that his work gives explicit shape to “the idea that ‘mere’ writing of this [journalistic] sort could aspire to become an art.’’ Hitchens is best as a literary and cultural critic. For several years he has published lengthy reviews in The Atlantic, The New York Times Book Review, and other notable publications, sometimes several a month. Without fail, Hitchens brandishes his pen with vicious lucidity.

His remarks on Gore Vidal are typical of the flair and muscularity of his writing: “One sadly notices, as with the foregoing barking and effusions, the utter want of any grace or generosity, as well as the entire absence of any wit or profundity. Sarcastic, tired flippancy has stolen the place of the first, and lugubrious resentment has deposed the second.’’ Or when after dismantling the American Camelot fascination while reviewing a hagiography of JFK by Robert Dallek, Hitchens punctuates Dallek’s assessment thus: “It is pardonable for children to yell that they believe in fairies, but it is somehow sinister when the piping note shifts from the puerile to the senile.’’

Hitchens goes far beyond scathing rhetoric. At his best, he writes masterful compressions of intellectual and cultural history. An essay on Karl Marx’s years as a reporter in the United States shows abiding passion for American history while furnishing an often neglected internationalist perspective on the Civil War and on the States’ influence on Marx. This is a lot for a book review, mind you. Hitchens isn’t always at this best, though, and for some reason he has included some questionable pieces.

Take, for instance, the Arab uprisings. Hitchens dedicates “Arguably’’ to Mohemed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor who immolated himself, setting off the first of this year’s unrest. Hitchens writes, “In preferring a life-affirming death to a living death-in-life, the harbingers of the Arab spring likewise hoped to galvanize their fellow subjects and make them aspire to be citizens.’’ Hitchens then reprints a 2007 essay that nearly gushes over the gentleness and enlightenment of the Tunisian autocracy. This is not dynamic tension.

And many of “Arguably’s’’ political dispatches have a ripped-from-the-headlines aura. They’re smart first drafts of history, but they’re dated. How much does two pages on North Korea written in 2005 bring to the table today, Hitchens’s effortless elegance notwithstanding? There’s nothing wrong with these pieces. Nor is there really anything wrong about Hitchens being in error. He’s a writer, not a seer.

But why include pieces that diminish an otherwise excellent collection? One admirable reason immediately presents itself: A full and honest accounting of his legacy that emphasizes his writing, not internecine squabbles.

“Arguably’’ arrives with a pall cast over it. Last year, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. His prognosis is bleak, and this may very well be his last book. If this is the case, this vast, erudite, startlingly impressive collection of his daily labor offers a fitting last call for one of the most talented and productive of that dying breed, the freelance print-based man of letters.

Michael Washburn is a research associate at the Center for Place, Culture, and Politics at the City University of New York. He can be reached at michael.a.w ashburn@gmail.com.

ARGUABLY: Essays By Christopher Hitchens

Twelve, 788 pp., $30