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On Christopher Hitchens: August Brown considers

December 31, 2011 |  7:00 am

Christopher Hitchens in 2004
Over years of reading Christopher Hitchens, the most essential thing I learned from his work is that cliches in writing inevitably hide weak thinking. That seems obvious -– cliches come easily because they don’t require much thought. But the many appreciations of his career after his death have seemed preoccupied with the cliches of his charisma -- the heavy drinking, his leftist-neocon oscillations, his orbits in England's and Washington’s social elites.

For me, his greatest influence was on the page. His style was defined by a refusal to resort to stock images and analysis -- or to accept them from others. It made him a pleasure to read and difficult for others to debate. Everything he said felt new, hard won and, usually, correct.

Even though my own criticism has largely focused on music, his lessons in being vigilant against cliche still stand. In art and rhetoric, style is a conscious choice meant to pursue certain goals, and if a piece of art (or a politician’s speech) is lazy in its style, it’s usually lazy or murky in its motivations.

Even the last thing Hitchens published was an essay in Vanity Fair about how the physical ravages of cancer put him on guard against rote reassurances, like the maxim that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

His style, utterly devoted to originality and evidence, underlined the seriousness of his intellectual and moral task. He routinely chastised others, and especially those in power, for not taking the same rhetorical care. Cliches distort our understanding of the lived world. For Hitchens’ political enemies that was often the point, and he spent his life calling them on it.

Hitchens swashbuckled with targets small (improper tea-making technique) and large (the idea of God), with figures both loved (Mother Teresa) and despised (Saddam Hussein). From his journalism detailing the potential war crimes of Henry Kissinger to his much-debated encouragement of the Iraq war to his admiration for Somali women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi-Ali, Hitchens always sounded the bells when he perceived a literal danger to life and dignity. But the one thing his every foe shared was a reliance on a kind of rhetorical fog of war.

In his view, Mother Teresa was not a fraud simply because her hospitals were filthy and that she accepted funding from sympathy-currying dictators. She was a fraud because she shopped the idea that, in her words, “the suffering of the poor is something very beautiful.” As he argued in “The Missionary Position,” it’s a turn of phrase that, when unraveled, comes from a pernicious mix of Christianity’s self-regard and the rich West’s need to look away from the miserable, lived reality of third-world indigence. Her language of poverty’s nobility was slippery to the point of meaning its own opposite in practice. “The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for ‘the poorest of the poor,’” he wrote in Slate. “People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions. Many volunteers who went to Calcutta came back abruptly disillusioned by the stern ideology and poverty-loving practice of the "Missionaries of Charity," but they had no audience for their story.”

“The Trial of Henry Kissinger” sliced through decades of America’s historical amnesia and assumed narratives to offer a legally watertight case that if America is to believe the stories it tells itself about justice, it must try this Nobel Peace Prize-winner for war crimes and murder. But, in an almost surgical aside, Hitchens goes out of his way to cite how a kind of adulatory circle of critics helped prop up Kissinger’s reputation through slavishly fawning reviews:

Of whom else would Norman Podhoretz write, in a bended-knee encomium to the second volume of Kissinger’s memoirs, Years of Upheaval:

"What we have here is writing of the very highest order. It is writing that is equally at ease at portraiture and abstract analysis; that can shape a narrative as skillfully as it can paint a scene; that can achieve marvels of compression while moving at an expansive or leisure pace...."

A critic who can suck like that, as was once dryly said by one of my moral tutors, need never dine alone. Nor his subject.

On Ronald Reagan, a favorite target for what he took as cheery doublespeak, in Slate:

Ronald Reagan claimed that the Russian language had no word for "freedom." (The word is "svoboda"; it's quite well attested in Russian literature.)... Ronald Reagan professed to be annoyed when people called it "Star Wars," even though he had ended his speech on the subject with the lame quip, "May the force be with you."...This was a man never short of a cheap jibe or the sort of falsehood that would, however laughable, buy him some time.

In “God Is Not Great,” the book that made him a pop-culture icon in America, the idea of a deity isn’t so much the central bulls-eye as the way faith is manifested in language. Belief is, to him, an un-falsifiable logical fallacy that can mask someone’s real agenda. He recounts that even from childhood, when a teacher suggested that God made grass green because it was aesthetically pleasing to humans, he could smell a whole system of thought manifested in cryptic, self-flattering language -- the swamp that clichés survive in. “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago,” he wrote. “We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only echoing the repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness.”

Christopher HitchensThis, particularly, has been useful in talking about my own atheism. Abstract religious faith inherently resists physical evidence (that’s why it’s faith), and classic logical argument can quickly lose traction when you try to debate about it. But Hitchens underscored that faith has thousands of years of its own vocabulary and rhetoric, and in pointing out the cliches, Hitchens could tie its own logic in knots (hopefully, in his view, leading you to walk away from it).

It’s fitting that his one begrudging exception on matters of religion, the King James Bible, got its accolades on the same principles, where beautiful  English served empathetic ideas. He wrote in Vanity Fair that “Not many committees in history have come up with such crystalline prose...As much philosophical as spiritual, with its conditional and speculative 'ifs' and its closing advice -- always italicized in my mind since first I heard it -- to think and reflect on such matters: this passage was the labor of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts.”

Even Hitchens himself succeeded and struggled under these same principles. His lifelong attention to nuance might have been what most infuriated liberals when he decided to champion George W. Bush’s second war in the Muslim world. A man so committed to exacting explanations had thrown his lot in with a president famous for mangling the English language. In his memoir, “Hitch-22,” he suggests that his own reporting on Saddam Hussein’s crimes (and, before, the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie and the 9/11 attacks) led him to put a thumb on the scale towards military action in combating militant Islam and the Baathist regime in Iraq. As he told the Guardian, “now we have a very clearly drawn confrontation between everything I hate and everything I love. There is something exhilarating about that. Because, OK, now I know what I'm doing.”

But that remains the most fraught part of his legacy, in part because the actual difficulties in fighting this particular dictator in the particular circumstance of the second Bush presidency might have gotten snagged in his need for a generational conflict in which he could clearly take the side of secular, liberal society (like the one his father, memorably deemed The Commander, had in World War II).  For perhaps the first time in his career, his three great passions –- being good, being right and being articulate -– couldn’t quite square in practice. 

Uncoincidentally, that fact made his writing weaker, cresting in a Weekly Standard piece in which he seemed to lionize Bush-style gut thinking on Iraq (even down to the digestive metaphor): 

The second bit of luck is a certain fiber displayed by a huge number of anonymous Americans. Faced with a constant drizzle of bad news and purposely demoralizing commentary, millions of people stick out their jaws and hang tight.... When they hear the fatuous insinuation that this alliance has only been created by the resistance to it, voters know in their intestines that those who say so are soft on crime and soft on fascism.

Nevertheless, that core Humanism is why he fought so hard for specific, purposeful language -- because suffering and joys are particular and need language that does them justice. Every critic and reporter could benefit by imagining Hitch over their shoulder, snifter of single-malt in hand, on guard against rhetorical laziness in their own work.

Meaningful, original writing and thinking is difficult, but he knew it was our only means to understand each other. As his best friend Martin Amis put it in the preface to  “The War Against Cliché”: “To idealise: all writing is a campaign against cliche. Not just cliches of the pen but cliches of the mind and cliches of the heart. When I dispraise, I am usually quoting cliches. When I praise, I am usually quoting the opposed qualities of freshness, energy and reverberation of voice.”

Even when confronted with the ultimate and impossible task of imagining his own non-existence, Hitchens insisted on precision when he talked about it. The truth was that his body hurt, and to ennoble that in writing (“What doesn’t kill me…”) was, on some level, to lie. “One thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings,” he wrote at the very end of his life. Even in the face of that, he refused to shape his last days to anyone else’s idea of what they should mean, and at that point, “one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”

Hitchens left behind lessons of the writer’s craft and bravery that I try (though, surely, not quite up to his standards) to use daily.


Christopher Hitchens' first loyalty was to the truth

Christopher Hitchens, writer and intellectual, dies at 62

Book review: "Arguably" by Christopher Hitchens

-- August Brown

Photos: Top, Christopher Hitchens at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in 2004. Credit: Amanda Edwards / Getty Images. Below, Christopher Hitchens. Credit: Christian Witkin / Twelve Books