Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hitch-22: The Last Revolution

Christopher Hitchens, the famous author and journalist, lays out his life story in his recent bestseller Hitch-22. In many ways, he embodies the generation which came of age during the 1968 revolution, throwing over political and sexual conventions, and, over time, shedding their illusions about socialism and pacifism. His memoir leaves nothing for anyone else to embellish on, from his early sexual escapades, to his high profile fights with prominent thinkers, artists, and politicians of the day, to his political reversals. It offers a fascinating history and perspective on the last forty years of world events and the people who made them, recalling for baby-boomers the ride they have taken through the decades, through for most from an armchair.

Hitchens' father was a career military man and World War II veteran who had found his war years to be the best and most meaningful. His mother was free-spirited and pushed his education forward. Her tragic suicide while he was a young man was a bitter experience, particularly knowing he had missed phone calls that he might have intervened. Later he discovered the Jewish roots she had concealed and found more places from his past.

His years at Oxford's Balliol College he described as follows: “a training in logic chopping and Talmudic-style microexegesis [that] can come in handy in later life, as can a training in speaking with a bullhorn from an upturned milk crate outside a factory, and then later scrambling into a dinner jacket and addressing the Oxford Union debating society under the rules of parliamentary order.”

Hitchens traveled from place to place as a young revolutionary supporting the cause, from Greece to Cuba, Portugal to Poland, and his observations during these engagements would test his socialist leanings. On a field trip to Cuba for young revolutionaries, in answer to his question about whether free speech was allowed, he was told: of course, except in the case of the “Leader of the Revolution” himself. Hitchens replied to the effect that “if the most salient figure in the state and society was immune from critical comment, then all the rest was detail” and was amused to find himself labeled a “counter-revolutionary.”

He soon discovered that journalism was best-suited to his tendency to straddle both sides of the fence and his relish for argument. Hitchens realized he could not support the curbs on freedom that a socialist regime imposes for the supposed good of all. “Whatever I might argue, I was more profoundly attached to liberal concepts of freedom—freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom, independent judgment and independent judges.” A leading figure in the Solidarity movement in Poland, Adam Michnik, told Hitchens: “The real struggle for us is for the citizen to cease to be the property of the state.”

9/11 was another turning point. “In truth, a whole new terrain of struggle had just opened up in front of me.” And this time it was personal. As the Pentagon burned, his wife couldn't get across town to pick up their daughter from school. While the multicultural left was enabling radical Islam, Hitchens recognized that “to repudiate war in [a] morally neutral way was to allow fascism a clear run.” As Hitchens challenged a Georgetown audience, would Mandela or Allende have recruited supporters to slaughter innocent bystanders to move their cause forward?

In Iraq, he saw allied forces greeted as “liberators”, and in a harrowing description he recalled the brutal chemical slaughter of the Kurds as a reminder of the unpredictable brutality of Saddam Hussein, even while deploring the war's excesses. Hitchens dubbed himself a “pro-government dissident” from the Left. After living through the revolutionary years of 1968, 1989 and 2001, he recalls Hannah Arendt’s observation of “the lost treasure of revolution” with their “convolutions and contradictions". He considers Islam the worst enemy and America the best hope.

As is well known, Hitchens bitterly opposes religious strictures and hypocrisy. Recently, he called Pope Benedict XVI that “elderly criminal” and said that he was sorry he wouldn’t see his death before his own. His sloppy accusation, from a cursory and not disinterested reading of the sexual abuse scandal, is only the latest of his regular invectives against the Church. He is currently one of the four best-known British atheists and has written an entire volume on Mother Teresa and her “fraudulent” work, along with another bestseller God Is Not Good, the title of which his friend Salman Rushdie critiqued as having one word too many. Hitchens was hired by the Vatican to critique Mother Teresa’s canonization proceedings, and he boasts he is "the only living person to have represented the Devil pro bono".

Hitchens became an American citizen in 2007. He has an unabashed admiration for the American ideals, after so many disillusions. He described a deep admiration at his first sight of the skyline of New York: “I knew that I was surveying a tremendous work of man” and he asks himself: “How is the United States at once the most conservative and commercial AND the most revolutionary society on Earth?”

His idealism has been tempered by his philosophy. He writes: "I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological" and recalls Oscar Wilde's quip that "A map of the world that did not show Utopia would not be worth consulting." He states that: "It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties". He is not unaware of the contradiction between his asserting rights and wrongs and his denial that religion should give anyone such an assurance of truth, nor does that hinder him. He adds that he sees "the unbounded areas and fields of one's ignorance are now expanding in such a way, and at such a velocity, as to make the contemplation of them almost fantastically beautiful".

He shares with fellow atheist Richard Dawkins the acknowledgement of an incredible coincidence, the "sense of wonder at the sheer unlikelihood of having briefly `made it' on a planet where crude extinction has held such sway, and where the chance of being conceived, let alone safely delivered, is so infinitesimal." Again, it is personal, because he lived, while his mother had aborted twice, just before and just after him.

The coincidence of his memoir’s publication and his cancer diagnosis is especially poignant with the volume's reflections on death. The first page of his book quotes Leopold Bloom in Ulysses: “Read your own obituary notice; they say you live longer. Gives you second wind. New lease of life.” Hitchens proactively discounts any potential deathbed conversion as untrustworthy and "pathetic" because he would be "half-demented". He is only at his best and truest, according to himself, when being in full possession of his powers.

Hitchens doesn’t squirm to confront his own logical conclusion: “The fact is that all attempts to imagine one’s own extinction are futile by definition.” For a man who has always been ready to brawl over the latest injustice, he adds: “I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence.” Even after such so many and varied experiences, he complains: "How terrible it is that we have so many more desires than opportunities." He refuses any answer to this, a priori.

Reprinted from ilsussidiario.net

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