“Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced.” —Christopher Hitchens, from “The Swastika and the Cedar”
Any blogger who pretends to write about books (note to self) would do well to read the essays of the late Christopher Hitchens. Arguably, his last book to be published before his death from esophageal cancer in December 2011, is largely a collection of book reviews written for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New Statesman, The Wilson Quarterly, and sundry newspapers here and in Britain. Most were written in the preceding ten years.
In its entirety, the book is a massive tribute to Hitchens’ eclectic erudition. The collection is a feast of brilliant, impassioned argument for anyone who holds views on American history, the British empire, literature, politics, the Left, the Right, famous authors, infamous dictators, religion, atheism, fascism, capitalism, journalism, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, language, or popular culture. I may have left something out.
Whether Hitchens is criticizing the West’s tolerance of North Korea’s psychotic theocracy, lamenting the deterioration of political campaign slogans, or reassessing the works of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, or his good friend Martin Amis, what illuminates each essay is his objectivity, honesty and critical insight. In clear, engaging prose, Hitchens comes off as if he is conversing with an intelligent friend. (Thankfully, I read the book on my Kindle, since I frequently had to look up words he used; invariably they were pitch perfect.)
Hitchens honed his prose through decades of journalism, “pamphleteering” as he liked to call it. After attending Oxford, he began his career at The New Statesman, Britain’s left-leaning political affairs magazine (equivalent to The Nation in the U.S., to which he subsequently contributed as well).
In his memoir Hitch-22 (reprinted in 2011 with the poignant, unflinching preface he wrote after receiving his death sentence from the doctors), Hitchens charted the evolution of his political views from the antiwar-protesting Trotskyist of his Oxford days to the naturalized American advocate for democracy and pluralism in the post-9/11 world.
Much like George Orwell (whom he admired enough to write the book-length study, Why Orwell Matters), Hitchens experienced a political conversion that shaped everything he subsequently wrote, including the essays in Arguably.
Orwell of course went to Spain as a socialist to fight fascism, only to discover that totalitarian oppression was ingrained in both political systems. A bullet through the neck nearly muted that discovery forever, but Orwell survived and documented his experience in one of his finest works, Homage to Catalonia. He devoted the rest of his life, in works of allegory and essay, to warn the West of the inherent tyranny of political isms and the need to defend democracy and individual freedom from this threat at all cost.
For Hitchens, doubts about the Marxist Left first surfaced during travels to Cuba, Portugal and Poland in the sixties and seventies. When, in 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship attempted to seize the Falkland Islands, unlike many of his colleagues, Hitchens agreed with the Iron Lady’s decision to send the British fleet to defend the islands, not for the timeworn reasons of empire but to defeat a tyranny.
And, in 1988, when the Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, Hitchens condemned the prevarications of many liberal intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders and launched a staunch public defense of his close friend. As he wrote in Hitch-22, “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”
9/11, however, was Hitchens’ Spain—the crystalline solidification of his evolving convictions. Just as Orwell determined party-line Communism to be the great totalitarian threat of his day, so Hitchens perceived fundamentalist religion, especially the intolerant strain of Islam espoused by Al Qaida and the Taliban, as the new totalitarian threat to Western humanism. “They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates,” he wrote in the introduction to Arguably. “Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.”
Hitchens’ wholehearted support for the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein troubled many of his liberal friends, but for him this stance was consistent with his revulsion for tyranny in any shape or form. Like Churchill in the thirties directing his rhetoric against the rising tide of National Socialism, Hitchens was willing to become a political outlier in order to warn against the new intolerant fascism he saw in extremist Islam.
I bring up this backstory only because Hitchens applies the same consistent logic to all of the essays in this collection. You may agree or disagree with this masterful polemicist, but always you will find him adhering to a high standard of debate, basing his arguments on empiricism and laying them out with incisive wit. And I guarantee that no matter how much or how little you agree with him, you will come away from Arguably with a long list of books to read or reread, a few new words, and an invigorated desire to grapple with the important issues of our world. Indeed, we have lost a great pamphleteer.
Which of the best books did you read this year?
One of the scabrous satirical prints directed against Pope after his Dunciad of 1727. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Surveying this year’s “best books” lists to see which ones I’d read (none, it turns out), I was reminded of a long-ago conversation.
When I was teaching English in Mexico, one of my students was a businessman whose concentration on engineering meant that his education in the liberal arts was largely self-taught. Being an intellectually curious man bent on self-improvement, he told me he only read the classics, which he defined as books at least fifty years old. The ones, he said, that had stood the test of time.
When there is so much great literature to show us how we got where we are, why, he asked, waste time with contemporary stuff, most of which will be forgotten five or ten years out?
Although he didn’t use the phrase, he was arguing in favor of the Western Canon.
For years my own reading tended toward the classics. Like the Mexican engineer, I wanted to understand the currents of thought that run through Western literature—the philosophical and cultural ideas that shape our history and reflect our humanity (often captured in language of unmatched beauty). I think that’s why I became an English major.
Yet, as enriching as the great books are, concentrating on the classics to the exclusion of the contemporary sometimes left me feeling an emotion opposite to the joy of shared humanity. I felt more like an outsider or an anachronism, the same way I feel when I pick up an edition of People magazine and don’t know nine-tenths of the celebrities mentioned.
What good is it to know the origin of a phrase like “all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye,” when most people don’t know and don’t care, and they really just want to talk about J.K. Rowling’s new book about muggles? Focusing on the canon may connect me to countless generations past, but it disassociates me with my own.
I have friends who haven’t read a classic since college freshman English. They read, but they prefer contemporary books—often New York Times bestsellers or one of the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winners. They read for entertainment, for the thrill of discovery, and to share in the lively buzz about books that have currency in the public’s consciousness and conversation.
Nothing wrong with that, but focusing on the contemporary to the exclusion of the classics seems as sad as the other extreme; it leaves me feeling regret for what is lost—how much deeper the conversation might be with some shared knowledge of the canon.
Judging from the “to-be-read” lists on sites like goodreads.com, most readers seem to prefer contemporary books to the classics. If you are one of them, the year-end “best of” lists will help you find books that may stand the test of time; they may even spare you from reading this year’s chaff. But if you are a reader willing to go off the popular path, why not try a book that has already passed that test?
So then, tell me, which classic are you going to read next year? And if you say Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, my heart will glow!
Filed under Commentary
Tagged as Alexander Pope, Literature, Western Canon