Hitchens through the looking glass

Kevin Higgins reviewed a book on controversial critic Christopher Hitchens in Issue 52 (June 2013).

Richard Seymour, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (Verso)

In this full-frontal assault, the late Christopher Hitchens gets a dose of his own strong medicine. Richard Seymour presents the case against Hitchens to the world in forensic detail, in a manner that consciously parodies Hitchens’s own book-length diatribes against Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger. It is a trial in which the verdict was already decided upon before the first word of this eloquent prosecutorial tract was typed. Having convicted the late (and, for him, unlamented) Hitchens long before page one, Seymour closes with a quote from the nineteenth-century radical essayist Hazlitt: “He became ‘a living satire upon himself’.”

Seymour first used the long-form version of that quote against Hitchens when responding in The Guardian to the news that Hitchens had been posthumously honoured by the Orwell Prize:

Yet in his final years, Hitchens resembled nothing so much as the wretched apostate assayed by William Hazlitt—haunted by “the phantoms of his altered principles”, driven “to loathe and execrate them”, offering “all his thoughts, hopes, wishes, from youth upwards… at the shrine of matured servility”, becoming, at last, “one vile antithesis, a living and ignominious satire on himself”. And it is a sorry thing, but I suspect it is that Hitchens [my emphasis] who has been posthumously honoured…

In the course of these more than one hundred pages Seymour lands many heavy punches on Hitchens’s corpse. There’s the fact that he couldn’t be bothered to vote Labour in the 1979 general election, his apparent infatuation with (the now also late) Margaret Thatcher, his support of the Falklands war, his ambivalence about the British Empire and, of course, Iraq. High crimes and misdemeanours, to be sure. Before you lop someone’s head off, though, even if that head belongs to a dead man as it does in this case, it’s important to know exactly who is doing the accusing.

Seymour correctly points out that Hitchens had a tendency to avoid difficult issues, particularly in his best-selling memoir Hitch-22. For example, in 1998 Hitchens swore in an affidavit for the House of Representatives impeachment trial of Bill Clinton that his (then) friend Sidney Blumenthal had told Hitchens that Monica Lewinsky was “a stalker”, i.e. a woman obsessed with imposing her affections on Clinton’s hapless willy. Blumenthal telling Hitchens this lie was part of a Clinton administration attempt to spin the story against the woman on whose dress the President memorably ejaculated. It is possible that Blumenthal, who was given the job of spinning this story to journalists he believed would be sympathetic, did not know that it was a lie. In his own testimony to the committee, Blumenthal denied that he had ever smeared Lewinsky’s character in that way. He was not happy, to say the least of it, when Hitchens told the Republican-controlled congressional committee the truth. This wound to their friendship never healed. No surprise there. It is a little odd, though, that Blumenthal’s name appears not even once in Hitchens’s 424-page memoir. Surely there must have been something to say about this friendship that was sacrificed on the altar of a committee chaired by Representative Henry Hyde—a man who had previously argued that, though Oliver North may have lied to Congress, his cause was a noble one: fighting communism, which made all the lying and other skullduggery OK, if not even slightly heroic.

Such interpersonal issues aside, Hitchens was upfront about his previous political associations. In the aforementioned memoir he goes into some detail about his recruitment to and membership of “a small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”. Hitchens was an active member of said small, but growing sect while a student at Oxford University and for some years after. Until earlier this year Richard Seymour was also a long-standing member of the afore­mentioned sect. It is true, certainly, that anyone who has followed Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb could not but be aware of his political affiliation. But it would be possible for a newcomer to read his indict­ment of Hitchens from beginning to end and not be exactly clear about that.

A number of the leaders of this political tendency—including one who was apparently recruited to the group by Hitchens—are presented as witnesses for the prosecution in the chapter ‘Christopher Hitchens in Theory And Practice’. Ironically, Seymour has since fallen out with said Hitchens recruit because of a serious scandal which saw a leading member of the group accused of raping a female comrade. The leadership have been accused of covering the issue up, and Seymour has bravely taken to an oppositional barricade. One result of this has been that he, and many of his co-oppositionists, have found themselves outside the fold.

But when Seymour wrote this book, he was still a true believing member, and happy to quote as reliable witnesses people whose word he clearly, in the light of recent catastrophes, no longer accepts as gospel. The testimony of a serving member of a far left group against someone who has departed the fold is, quite simply, never to be believed. Particularly when it is based in any part on warmed-over anecdotes by old-timers who, dammit, always suspected that deep down he/she was an incurable bourgeois hound from the get-go. It is not enough to say that the ex-member is no good now: it must be proved that he/she was always dodgy. In such a campaign of reputational revision, no smear is inadmissible. The converse is also the case, as Seymour would now no doubt have to agree: if you are a serving leadership loyalist in such a group—and the one in which Hitchens and Seymour served their time is not at all unique in this regard—then even if you happen to have dead children buried beneath a conservatory which you are forever extending when you’re not out selling papers or attending branch meetings, this will not be spoken of. Until you resign your membership. I exaggerate… perhaps.

Once the reader knows that the Richard Seymour who wrote this book is several rungs below the jilted ex-husband on the reliability as a witness league table, you can give his case against Hitchens its proper weight. Hitchens was someone who tended to lurch about the place at speed politically, and make things up as he went along. He was wrong about many issues, and when he was wrong, he was very, very wrong. For example, his attempt to excuse the Bush administration for its monstrous mishandling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans was, well, shite talk pure and simple.

Hitchens was a man drawn to the grand idea—a hangover from his days in that “small, but growing post-Trotskyist, Luxemburgist sect”, no doubt—and when reality got in his way, the deeper the hole he was in, the more furiously he dug. His polemics against religion, in God is not Great and elsewhere, leaned too heavily on only part of Marx’s famous quote about religion being “the opium of the people”. The rest of it says that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions.” In other words, as long as there are oppressed creatures in a heartless world, then many of those oppressed creatures—in the absence of a better offer—will continue to imbibe the religious opium. This is not to say that such use of opium a good thing, or that it shouldn’t be argued against. But you’re not going to wean people off such super­natural hopes by mere argument alone.

Seymour appears to dismiss Hitchens’s famous polemic against Mother Teresa on the grounds that she was an easy target. In what way? In 1995, the year Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in theory and practice was published, the book’s subject was not only still alive but the most successful religious conwoman in the world. She had been a friend of the Haitian dictator Baby Doc Duvalier and of the deranged Albanian Stalinist leader Enver Hoxha. She had accepted financial support from the convicted Savings and Loans fraudster Charles Keating. She was lauded for her work with the poor in Calcutta, though this was to an overwhelming extent illusory. She campaigned not only against abortion but also against all forms of family planning in, of all countries, India. That November she stopped off in Dublin to join the call for a No vote in our divorce referendum. Mother Teresa was an ultra-reactionary pest whom the world showered with prizes, including the Nobel Peace Prize, though she never even claimed to do anything to promote peace. Her speech at the award ceremony in Stockholm in 1979 was all about the evils of abortion. I’m currently compiling the shortest list in history: Irish liberals and lefties who took Mother Teresa to task. So far, there are no names on it. Not even my own. Hitchens’s smashing of the icon that was Mother Teresa is a book which should be force-fed to everyone who thinks that Michael D Higgins is very brave in the way he’s speaking out right now, or that Mary Robinson is an important ethical voice for our time.

George Galloway was another of Hitchens’s victims. His debate with Galloway about the Iraq war at Baruch University, New York in 2005 was a classic heavyweight contest in which no stone was left un­thrown. Unlike Mother Teresa, Galloway answered back. In an inter­view broadcast after Hitchens’s death, Galloway gloated that now Hitchens knows that God is indeed great. It should have been absolutely possible to both oppose the Iraq war and to say that George Galloway is an egomaniacal charlatan with a serious addiction to French-kissing the buttocks of any sordid little tyrant who’ll let him. Yet I can only think of one person on the entire British left who consistently said that it was so: Peter Tatchell, the legendary gay rights campaigner who also very actively opposed the Iraq war. The vast majority have been not at all keen to examine the phenomenon that is Ungorgeous George, and resented Hitchens for his attacks on their hero.

Yes, most will admit, Galloway is flawed, but he’s on the right side. The thing is, though, he’s not. He presents a programme on the Iranian regime’s propaganda station Press TV, opposes a woman’s right to choose, and openly supported the Iranian police and militia when they shot dead a young Iranian woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, during their crackdown on protests against the rigged presidential election in 2009. In 2010 Galloway described Bashar Assad’s Syria as “the last castle of Arab dignity”. It depends what one’s definition of dignity is, of course. Ireland’s recent discussion about abortion has been bad, but it could have been worse. As well as having to suffer Breda O’Brien and Caroline Simons, just imagine what it would have been like if Mother Teresa was still alive and George Galloway lived in Galway. For such small mercies are we truly grateful. Seymour doesn’t choose to discuss Hitchens’s great debate with Galloway. No doubt it didn’t suit his grand anti-hegemonic political scheme.

Unhitched is well written, if a little verbose in places. Indeed, Seymour’s writing style calls to mind that of Hitchens himself. To read this book is to look at Christopher Hitchens through the looking glass: one cannot help wonder where on the political spectrum its relatively youthful author will end up? So Seymour is a good writer and possesses no small amount of courage. He has that in common with his subject. But to paraphrase 1970s crooner Dean Friedman, he’s not as smart as he’d like to think he is. Certainly, he convicts Hitchens of not having a coherent political alternative to those on the left whom he savaged. But Hitchens was never a writer of manifestos: he was a smasher of sacred statues, statues which for the most part absolutely deserved the smashing he gave them. And his words will live after him.

For example, the Catholic hierarchy has implied that politicians who vote for the government’s X Case legislation may face ex­communication. It reminded me of one point Hitchens made in one of his many debates about religion:

Like many Nazi leaders, Josef Goebbels started off as a practising Catholic and was the only one to be excommunicated—not because of his Nazi crimes but because he married a woman who was not only a Protestant but divorced. So, we do have standards, then!

Wouldn’t it be delicious to see some whispery-voiced cleric reminded of this fact during the Irish abortion debate? A good boy like Fintan O’Toole would never even think of saying such a thing. Michael D Higgins might say it in private, at a fundraising dinner party at which known Trotskyists were present. Hitchens, on the other hand, would say that and worse to the whole listening world. And for that, if nothing else, we must love him.

Borges, Balzac and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Kevin Higgins reviewed a book of essays on the relationship between literature and politics in Issue 12 (March 2002).

Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the public sphere (Verso)

To say that the relationship between literary criticism and Marxist politics has been fraught with difficulties is something of an understatement. More often than not the nuanced, dialectical approach used by the likes of Marx and Trotsky to unravel the world of literature in all its many-sided com­plexity has been (and for the most part still is) elbowed aside in favour of a crude reductionism which has its origins in the Stalinist crackdown on literature and art in the late 1920s. Even today, those who review books (or films) for left-wing publications tend to operate on the basis that if a book is ‘objectively speaking’ on the right side of the class struggle then this, in and of itself, must mean that the book in question is a ‘good book’ deserving a positive review. And the reverse is also held to be true: T S Eliot’s poetry couldn’t possibly be a patch on, say, Jimmy McGovern’s Dockers because, after all, T S Eliot was a reactionary. In the minds of some, any comrade who takes a few hours out from the class struggle to read The Wasteland or The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is probably in serious danger of ending up on the Fine Gael front bench, or as Primate of the Church of Ireland, or some such grotesque bourgeois deviation.

Roddy Doyle is judged to be more ‘politically relevant’ than, say, John Updike or Julian Barnes, merely because he writes about ‘ordinary working class people’, whereas they for the most part don’t. And indeed perhaps he is more relevant, at least in the sense that his subject matter means that socialists will probably have more to say about him than they will about most contemporary novelists. However, taken too far, this sort of approach to literature and art could, at least in theory, reduce us to the absurdity of saying that Brendan Grace is somehow a better comedian than Woody Allen merely because his subject matter is more ‘working-class’; or, per­haps a little more plausibly, that Rage Against The Machine are definitely better than Elgar was, because they sing “fuck the police” whereas he did nothing of the sort. Marx and Engels may have thought that, in literary terms, one reactionary Balzac, writing as he did predominantly about the French middle and upper classes, was preferable to a hundred socialist Zolas, writing about ‘the workers’, but such dialectical niceties tend un­fortunately to be lost on most of their followers.

In this context, Christopher Hitchens’ Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the public sphere is required reading for anyone even remotely interested in the relationship between literature and politics. And how ironic it is that this example of a dialectical (one might say almost Marxist) approach to literature should be provided by Hitchens: a ‘left’ liberal Vanity Fair columnist, who since September 11 has apparently lost the run of himself and become (along with silly old Paul McCartney) just another raving imperialist warmonger. It is, as Margaret Thatcher once famously remarked, a funny old world indeed.

The book is a collection of thirty five reviews and essays, which origi­nally appeared in publications such as The New York Review of Books, the New Left Review and the Times Literary Supplement. In the foreword Hitchens tells us about the influence Wilfred Owen’s devastatingly power­ful anti-war poem ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ had on him as a young man:

I shall never be able to forget the way in which these verses utterly turned over all the furniture in my mind; inverting every conception of order and patriotism and tradition on which I had been brought up. I hadn’t yet encountered, or even heard of the novels of Barbusse and Remarque, or the paintings of Otto Dix, or the great essays and polemics of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences; the appeals to civilisation written by Rosa Luxemburg in her Junius incarnation. (Revisionism has succeeded in overturning many of the icons of Western Marxism; this tide however still halts when it confronts the nobility of Luxemburg and Jean Jaures and other less celebrated heroes of 1914—such as the Serbian Dimitri Tucovic.) I came to all these discoveries, and later ones such as the magnificent Regeneration trilogy composed by Pat Barker, through a door that had been forced open for me by Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.

All the more ironic, then, that in the aftermath of September 11 Hitchens has apparently turned his back on the tradition of Zimmerwald and Rosa Luxemburg, preferring instead to accuse opponents of the War on Terrorism of being ‘soft on fascism’ in an article in The Spectator: a magazine which has in its time given refuge to every rightward moving crank from Kingsley Amis to Woodrow Wyatt.

A little further on in the foreword Hitchens points out that:

Many of the writers discussed here have no ‘agenda’ of any sort, or are conservatives whose insight and integrity I have found indispensable. I remember for example sitting with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires as he employed an almost Evelyn Waugh-like argument in excusing the military dictatorship that then held power in his country. But I had a feeling that he couldn’t keep up this pose, and not many years later he wrote a satirical poem ridiculing the Falklands/Malvinas adventure while also making statements against the junta’s cruelty in the matter of the desaparecidos. It wasn’t just another author signing a letter about ‘human rights’; it was the ironic mind refusing the dictates of the literal one.

This sort of talk will probably sound fairly alien to most left-wing activists, brought up as most of us have been on a diet of ‘Ken Loach good, Brideshead Revisited bad’. And yet it is far closer to Marx’s actual approach to literature—Borges perhaps being a kind of latter-day Argentinian Balzac—than anything you’re likely to read in an issue of a far left paper. A little more commonplace is Hitchens’ observation that:

In the case of the United States, we await a writer who can summon every nerve to cleanse the country of the filthy stain of the death penalty… there is as yet no Blake or Camus or Koestler to synthesise justice and reason with outrage; to compose the poem or novel—as did Herman Melville with flogging in his White-Jacket—that will constitute the needful moral legislation.

Of course the well-meaning sentiments are undoubtedly already there, indeed are probably ten-a-penny at every open-mike poetry night from Greenwich Village to San Francisco, but the trick is to combine the political and the aesthetic: to accomplish the usually impossible task of making a statement which as well as being ‘true’ is memorable to the point of being in some sense beautiful.

The writers with whom Hitchens engages here range from the predictable—George Orwell, Raymond Williams, Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie and Oscar Wilde—to those such as F Scott Fitzgerald and Roald Dahl whose work might superficially seem to be almost entirely devoid of political content. ‘Rebel in Evening Clothes’ is the title of a lovely essay on Dorothy Parker who, as a daughter of the massively wealthy Rothschild family and fashion writer for Vogue, was perhaps an unlikely radical. And yet her 1919 poem, originally titled ‘Hate Song’, is something which, with the possible exception of a slightly disparaging reference to milkmen, even the most hardened Socialist Realist would surely have to appreciate:

…the Boss;
He made us what we are to-day—
I hope he’s satisfied.
He has some bizarre ideas
About his employees getting to work
At nine o’clock in the morning—
As if they were a lot of milkmen.
He has never been known to see you
When you arrive at 8.45,
But try to come in at a quarter past ten
And he will always go up in the elevator with you.
He goes to Paris on the slightest provocation
And nobody knows why he has to stay there so long.

There are also some hilarious demolition jobs: on the horribly glib Tom Wolfe (essayist and author of the novel Bonfire of the Vanities); on Tom Clancy (author of The Hunt for Red October etc, etc) who Hitchens aptly describes as “the junk supplier of surrogate testosterone”; and, best of all, on the prominent American critic Norman Podhoretz, of whom he says: “But as the years passed… Podhoretz began to fawn more openly on Richard Nixon and the Israeli general staff as if rehearsing for the engulfing, mandible-straining blow job he would later bestow on Ronald Reagan.” Of course, in the light of his own post-September 11 descent into pro-imperialist jingoism, it is entirely possible that, for Hitchens himself, that particular sentence might yet turn out to be the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

However, the best essay in the entire book is his examination of the life and poetry of Philip Larkin. Ever since the publication of his Selected Letters in 1992 showed that he was, to put it mildly, a reactionary and a racist, critical responses to Larkin have tended to polarise into two distinct camps. On the left are those who claim that the fact that Larkin enclosed the following charming little ditty in a letter to a friend clearly exposes him as the disgusting reactionary they always suspected him of being:

Prison for the strikers
Bring back the cat
Kick out the niggers
How about that?

And for Larkin’s critics this is where the case for the prosecution usually rests. Meanwhile his apologists such as the critic John Bailey have claimed that Larkin was simply “more free of cant—political, social or literary—than any of his peers”. Britain’s current Poet Laureate Andrew Motion has even gone so far as to say “that Larkin’s work had the capacity to create a recognisable and democratic vision of contemporary society”. Hitchens cuts through both hypocrisy and hyperbole with great skill, providing us with pretty damning evidence that, far from being just another Tory Little Englander, Larkin was in fact a “frustrated fascist”, who after 1945 was forced by the new political realities to hide his real political beliefs. And yet at the same time Hitchens still manages to separate the poems themselves from the political views of the poet:

unless we lose all interest in contradiction—we are fortunate in being able to say that Larkin’s politics are buried well beneath, and some­where apart from, his poems. The place he occupies in popular affec­tion—which he had won for himself long before the publication of his fouler private thoughts—is the place that he earned, paradoxically, by attention to ordinariness, to quotidian suffering and to demotic humour. Decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates, clinics… he mapped these much better than most social democrats, and he found words for experience.

Unacknowledged Legislation is a truly excellent book: a must for any­one who has ever complained about one of those left-press reviews in which the reviewer typically uses the last sentence to earnestly inform us that the ‘fundamental flaw’ in this or that book or film is that nowhere does it provide the working class with an answer to the problems they face under capitalism. The recent political statements of its author, Christopher Hitchens, are of course disappointing in the extreme; but they are also perhaps just a contemporary example of the relationship between literature and politics in all its complexity.