There are, at a rough count, 36 references to George Orwell in this voluminous collection of Christopher Hitchens‘s journalism from the past decade. Hitchens has good claims to be Orwell’s successor, and he would certainly agree with his hero’s argument, in “Politics and the English Language“, that bad politics leads to bad language, that a writer adhering to “the worst follies of orthodoxy” will end up writing badly.
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Which raises, of course, the case of Hitchens himself. The period in which these articles and essays were written (mostly for Vanity Fair, the Atlantic and Slate) is pre-eminently that in which Hitchens, one of anglophone journalism’s great sceptics, aligned himself with arguably the most mendacious government to hold power in a democracy, the neoconservative clique around George W Bush. Hitchens warns in one of them against oversimplifying the political trajectory of another of his heroes, Saul Bellow, as “that from quasi-Trotskyist to full-blown ‘neocon’”. The plea is entered, one suspects, equally on his own behalf. Without resorting to caricature, however, it is clear that Hitchens embraced the neocon project of defining the world through the “war on terror”. It is also clear to all but the true believers that that project was saturated in deceit, self-delusion and a language whose aim, as Orwell would have put it, was not to express, but rather to prevent and conceal, thought.
By Orwell’s laws, therefore, this book ought to contain the sad evidence of the decrepitude of Hitchens’s once-magnificent prose. Unhappily for the Orwellian, but happily for the reader, it mostly does not. There are many sad moments when thought has withered into vacuity or bombast, moments in which we can see what Hitchens might have become – just another purveyor of American super-patriotic orthodoxies. But they serve in the end to define a fate that, somehow, he eludes.
The pleasures the reader feels at this escape are in proportion to the horrors of Hitchens at his worst. Let us consider just two of the fatuities. In a piece from 2007, when one might have expected post-9/11 rage to have been tempered by the experience of the war in Iraq, Hitchens writes of how Anglo-American co-operation defeated three great threats: “German Wilhelmine imperialism in 1918, the Nazi-Fascist Axis in 1945, and international communism in 1989.” Then comes a sentence so shocking it is hard to believe that a man of Hitchens’s intellect not only wrote it but agreed to republish it between hard covers: “The world now faces a barbarism that is no less menacing than its three predecessors – and may even be more so.” This fourth threat is “bin-Ladenism”. The claim that al‑Qaida “may even be more” menacing to humanity than the Nazis or Stalin shows what Hitchens elsewhere calls “the way in which mania feeds upon itself and becomes hysterical”.
Worse, because it is less obviously bonkers, is a passage in the same essay in which Hitchens makes a shameful concession to Enoch Powell’s fulminations against immigration: “If he had stressed religion rather than race, he might have been seen as prescient.” In other words, Powell’s apocalyptic visions of the consequences of immigration might have been accurate had he identified Islam as the enemy. Hitchens must know that this is the line now taken by the English Defence League and most of the European far right: we don’t hate blacks, we’re just trying to stop the Muslims taking over. He has chosen to republish it anyway.
In each of these cases, the deterioration of style that Orwell would recognise is all too evident. The combination of creepily evasive syntax (“may even be”, “might have been seen”) with huge but unargued claims makes for bad writing as well as bad politics. And these examples, though extreme, are not mere lapses of concentration attributable to the frantic pace of Hitchens’s Stakhanovite production. Much of the overstatement can be explained by the way in which Hitchens uses an apparently simple word: “our”. Whenever it appears, the collectivity to which it refers is the US. This involves an inherent overstretch, that of a quintessentially English writer insisting on his new American identity. Hitchens writes, as he mentions in a fine essay on Harry Potter, as “one who actually did once go to boarding school by steam train”. With his head full of Wodehouse, Orwell, Kipling and Conan Doyle, his insistence on being American is thus bound to become shrill. He found in the “war on terror” a context in which he could dress himself in the stars and stripes and insist that they are his swaddling robes.
But this need, in turn, is rooted in something bigger – an odd, and utterly English, nostalgia for the sweep and scale of empire. Hitchens is (like Orwell) in many ways a late-blooming liberal imperial intellectual – critical of empire, of course, but grateful, nonetheless, for its breadth and drama. He thus embraces the idea of the “Anglosphere”, a nostalgic conflation in which the old empire is reconfigured as an imagined community of anglophones, among whom the Americans are merely the new top dogs. It is a profoundly silly notion: when Hitchens writes of Britain as “the motherland of the English-speaking peoples”, he forgets those of us (a mere few hundred million, admittedly) who speak English but have no ancestral connection to Britain.
Yet, for all these follies, Hitchens has not turned into a superior version of a Fox News blusterer. He mentions in one essay that he has a very rare blood type. It must be one that produces the most extraordinary of literary antibodies, able to fight off the germs of political hyperbole. Three saving graces combine to rescue Hitchens’s status as the most readable journalist of his times.
The first is that Hitchens is a reporter as well as an opinion-monger, and a brave, supremely evocative reporter at that. He can recall what he has seen with coruscating vividness and urgency, fusing precise detail with polemical passion, as in a brilliant and terrible essay on the continuing effects of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Crucially, he is too good a reporter to suppress realities that hurt his own case. Thus an optimistic report on Afghanistan from 2004 has a coda in a devastating critique of the farcical 2009 elections which admits the possibility that the western intervention may become “a humiliating debacle”. Instead of arguing the niceties of what constitutes torture, he has himself subjected to water-boarding and names it for what it is: torture.
Hitchens’s second guardian angel is his disdain for all guardian angels. A good neocon is supposed to attack Islamic fundamentalism while keeping quiet about the Christian variety. Hitchens has too much pride to play this game. He is an equal opportunities debunker of religious cant, who won’t shut up about the deism of the Founding Fathers and can’t banish the thought that naked proselytism in the US army might mean a holy war “where we will not be able to say that only the other side is dogmatic and fanatical”.
Finally, there is the style. Orwell suggested that just as bad politics produces bad language, things might also work the other way around – good English might be proof against the follies of orthodoxy. Hitchens may have imbibed some of the old follies of imperial England, but he received as compensation the tough, pure classical prose honed by its best public intellectuals. Reading, for example, his elegant debunking of John Updike is like watching a nerveless surgeon perform a complete disemboweling by means of keyhole surgery. And whatever pretensions to majesty that Prince Charles may have had are left in shreds by Hitchens’s description of his tendency to surround himself with “every moon-faced spoon-bender, shrub-flatterer and water diviner within range”. His astringent wit, deftly wielded erudition and allergy to dullness make Hitchens mercifully unfit for some of the political company he has kept. He emerges here not as a soul lost to linguistic sin, but as a great journalist fallen, for a while, among neocons.
Fintan Toole’s most recent book is Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic (Faber)
Tags: christopher hitchens
, george orwell
, politics and the english language
, saul bellow
, self delusion
Categories: The Western Press