This stylish man: on Christopher Hitchens

“I once had the easiest job in journalism: editing Christopher Hitchens,” tweeted his Slate editor June Thomas, shortly after his death. A short tribute, but a touching balance of the personal and the professional; and also, an accidental summary of the thing I hate about his work. Christopher Hitchens wrote with such an assured and powerful voice – exactly the same voice he spoke with – it’s easy to believe that editing would require only the lightest touch. All the words are correct, and in their right places. Nothing needs changing, except for the fact that whole pieces could benefit from being run through with a red pen.

Continue reading

Past Papers: A frothy-lipped Cerberus of godlessness

For some reason, I didn’t bring this with me when I moved from Blogger to WordPress. But after reading Richard Seymour‘s dismantling of the Hitchens position in The Liberal Defense Murder, I’ve decided it deserves another run out.

The problem with atheists, according to one line, is that they’re just so pleased with themselves. John Gray, in an essay for the Guardian review, lumped Dawkins, Hitchens, Pullman and Amis together as “atheist fundamentalists” and accused them of “never [doubting] that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things,” and being “certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody.”

To me, anyway, Pullman and Dawkins are in awkward company with Hitchens and Amis. The former are pugnacious but gracious, and conduct intelligent dialogues with critical theologians: Dawkins converses with the Bishop of Oxford in a spirit of friendly intellectual competition, Pullman disputes atheism on stage with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and these exchanges model good relations between the theist and atheist worlds.

Dawkins and Pullman evangelise their atheism with sound arguments and vigorous example, and they are persuasive: the case they both make is that beliefs do not earn respect on account of being religious, and the fact that a stricture is supposed to derive from some specious deity does not exempt it from analysis. Decision-making is always done best on a rational assessment of the evidence, and teaching children to espouse irrationality as part of their education is a very bad thing.

This is pretty moderate stuff, but Dawkin’s commitment to it is enough to get him labelled Darwin’s pitbull; in that case, Hitchens’ approach makes him a frothy-lipped Cerberus of godlessness. He is not exactly out to make converts. Compare his cover with Dawkins’: yes, they both go with declamatory capitals, but Dawkins’ cover has an elegant font in thoughtful white space, whereas Hitchens’ chooses something with all the aesthetic sensitivity of a John Grisham cover.

The embossed lettering in the style of cast-bronze on bloody-red marble is a study in aggressive ugliness; so is the “case against religion” made within. (Although, just in case the hideous front had somehow tricked you into thinking Hitchens was some sort of lowbrow pamphleteer, the front matter of the book is a barrage of high culture: a Goya engraving! some underlining in the style of a nineteenth-century title page! a dedication to Ian McEwan! three, yes three, epigraphs from Oxford World’s Classics!)

So now we know that Hitchens is an educated man, we can all get on with agreeing with him or despising him. That’s how the opening sentences of the book envisages the reader-response, anyway:

If the intended reader of this book wants to go beyond disagreement with the author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course) then he or she will not just be quarrelling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who – presumably – opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Miss Jean Watts.

Already, Hitchens has riled himself up into an orgy of self-importance and pretentious diction. Deformities! Animated! Affirm! Ineffable! Defiling! (If anybody on Vanity Fair is looking for a synonym, I suggest that they check Hitchens’ belly, because he has apparently swallowed the thesaurus.) If you believe in God, knocking Hitchens would be like knocking God – a rhetorical flourish which I’m sure Hitchens thought would be cutely contentious, but comes off as supremely cocky. (What if the affronted believer holds with some form of deity who operates obscurely rather than creating directly? Hitchens didn’t think of that. Oh well.)

And then he wraps it all up with a tender pat on the head for his first RE teacher, which I think is meant to tell us that Hitchens is in fact a decent person beneath the bluster, but actually comes off more as the big man being patronising to one of the many, many people-less-brilliant-and-rich than himself.
The digression into the world of Little Christopher is for a bigger purpose than a cheap smirk at his “pious old trout” of a teacher, however. It is actually another opportunity to show everyone how terribly clever the author is:

At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and chlorophyll. The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else. I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself. I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way around.

Oh young Hitchens, how wise you were to simply know – and while there is an almost-witty parody here at the moment of divine inspiration from which spiritual biographies tend to embark, I suspect that the lack of humility is absolutely genuine. Here are some other things a nine-year-old child might “simply know”: bogies are good to eat and a joy to flick, Ben 10 is brilliant, and nobody else in the world is as important as you are. Perhaps the intellectual health of the nation could be ensured by encouraging small children to horde up their first intuitions, and then at a later date, splurge out whole reams of experience which has confirmed them. Even if Hitchens is correct (and given that adaptation has been resoundingly proven, he is), this is a pretty tawdry way of making his point.

So Hitchens has already shown the force of his intelligence: there’s an ad-hom attack on potential disagree-ers in the first paragraph, and a vigorous assertion his authority as an Extremely Clever Man. It is from these two fine forms of reasoning that Hitchens will argue the rest of his case…

Edited to change title (see comments for explanation).