Christopher Hitchens’s newest book Arguably arrived in my mailbox on the same day a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled the east coast and shook pieces loose from a finial at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. For the man who may be the world’s best-known atheist, it seems unlikely he would care to be heralded by an Act of God. But for those who believe not only in God, but also in God’s sense of humor, the symbolism is hard to resist. Christopher Hitchens made his name as a Fleet Street journalist in the contrarian, Mencken-Orwell mode before gaining wider fame with bold slashes at figures like Henry Kissinger and the Clinton family. He has loudly objected the posthumous mythologies around Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, and attempted a character assassination of Mother Theresa before turning his aim on religion and God. And those are just the good guys he’s gone after.
Arguably is billed as Hitchens’s latest salvo, but is miscast in the role. The 100-plus essays spanning almost 750 pages offer a much wider, and more measured, survey of his intellectual exploits from the last decade or so. Confrontation and current events, though present, do not define the book, and readers might be surprised to find how many things Hitchens approves of. The book reviews that occupy most of the space in the first half of Arguably are full of praise. Within the first 35 pages we find an “absorbing book” on Thomas Jefferson, an “elegant and fascinating” volume on Benjamin Franklin and the declaration that “No review could do complete justice” to a “magnificent” biography of Abraham Lincoln. There is the occasional and enjoyably blistering dismissal, but the vast majority of these pieces alternate between admiration and the not unusual, or unwelcome, approach Hitchens takes of providing no direct verdict, and using the book in question to venture into his own expertise on a related topic.
This is a long book of short essays – bite size, even Fun Size, pieces – that are corralled into six sections and are best when read at random. No need to take my word for it; just try going straight through 400 pages of book reviews. A more sustainable approach is to read a few pieces on his visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, then turn back to the essays on Nabokov and Bellow. An exploration of the expression “Fuck off!” offsets sobering histories of totalitarianism, which can be followed by predictions on the geo-political future of the Anglosphere, by which time more levity is called for and you can turn to Hitchens’s thoughts on blowjobs. Occasionally Arguably does the work for you, as when a protest against compulsory donning of the hijab is immediately followed by a protest against waiters’ compulsive pouring of wine for diners. Can you guess which practice Hitchens labels a “barbaric custom”?
One of the inclusions in Arguably that meets the Hitchens standard for controversy is the widely condemned article on why women supposedly aren’t funny. In the fashion of most notorious pieces of writing, this one has been more talked about than read; unfortunately – and against my expectations that Hitchens was surely being misunderstood in some way – there isn’t much to be gained from an actual reading. The distilled point is that men are funny because they are trying to get laid, and women are not funny because they bear the solemn burden of childbirth. In a volume that uses the other 740 pages to challenge over simple explanations, Hitchens regresses to elementary (and elementary school) stereotypes to reach this conclusion, making for an ad hoc construction of a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. It would be regrettable, however, for this single essay to be the last word on Hitchens and women. Nowhere else in this book does he reference the biological limitations of females, and more often argues for freeing from them imposed social limitations. He’s argued the point in other venues as well, for example a critique of Mother Theresa in which he said, among other things, “We all know there is a cure for poverty… It’s colloquially called the ‘empowerment of women.’ It’s the only thing that does work.” Against his other knowledgeable and well-reasoned positions, the idea that women can’t be funny because getting knocked up makes them too serious seems like, well, a bad joke.
Perhaps the greatest offense of “Why Women Aren’t Funny” is that it’s poorly written. Erudition is what has always allowed us to forgive Hitchens his trespasses, or at least overlook them – much the way, as he writes, quite well, of Isaac Newton, “one has to admire someone who could dare to be wrong in such a beautiful way.” His British inflections don’t hurt either. Hitchens was naturalized as an American citizen in 2007 – in a “fuck off” to critics of his support for the Bush wars, the swearing-in was performed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff – but he can still effectively open a piece of professional journalism with a sentence containing the words “daresay” and “overmuch.” And it actually serves as a functional insult when he coronates Prince Charles the “Prince of Piffle.” That eloquence and sly British charm make Hitchens enjoyable even, or especially, when he plays the villain, hewing out a space for him as the Alan Rickman of American letters.
Two shadows hang over Arguably, the first being the events and aftermath of September 11, 2001. That is the point from which most observers mark Hitchens’s swing from the left to the neoconservative right, and his political pieces here are weighted by that shift. As usual, it’s not so simple, and Arguably highlights some of the worthwhile nuances of Hitchens’s positions. In the introduction, he writes of those who “claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates.” He follows that with his own claim, that “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 gives no quarter to political correctness or moral relativism regarding radical Islam, letting his furies against political tyranny and religious radicalism (and sexism, for that matter) run together in a torrent. Zadie Smith wrote recently that the “unlovely decade” since 9/11 “made us all monstrous, me as much as anybody.” Hitchens is captured in – but not contained by – such a statement, and his essays on the subject tend toward the appropriate level of outrage at cold-blooded morons who kill in the name of religion, and at any commentary that elevates them above any level but the lowest.
The second shadow is the author’s escalating battle with esophageal cancer. His illness is only mentioned towards the close of the introduction when he mentions: “I might have as little as another year to live,” and, “some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my last.” It was appropriate to avoid any memento mori in these pages, much less any sentimentality. But the fact is, Hitchens has written exceedingly well on his illness before. Readers are the poorer that his essay on losing the ability to speak was not collected here.
The extraordinary intellectual range, the wit and even the frustrations of Arguably leave me wanting to see more from Christopher Hitchens in the years ahead. I hope he won’t mind if I go over to the National Cathedral and say a prayer for him.