Today you are ‘Just Another Customer’ of Christopher Eric Hitchens’ memoir.
Right off the bat I am going to come out and state that this is easily one of the smartest books I have read in the last few years. It is a rich nuanced book that will not disappoint. I suspect you will improve your IQ by about 10 points just from reading this book. Twice. You think (I can see your exaggerated eyes rolling from here) that I jest. I don’t.
Now here is Christopher Eric Hitchens. Before I finished with the book I had a vague idea of what a real ‘intellectual’ was in that sense of the word. I was in no doubt after I finished with Hitch-22. So this is the real stuff. And I will now strive to never mis-apply the title frivolously to someone who does not truly deserve it (and the contenders are many. Just switch to any news channel to see the underserving). Now be warned after you read Hitch-22 you are exposed to a mind so complex, smart and erudite, you will be a miser with the term for a long long time. In my limited frame of reference
I’ll hand it to maybe Dawkins, Dannett. Maybe Taleb and Naipaul.
This book is not a autobiography for sure and saying it is a memoir would, in the most accepted sense of the term, be wrong. Don’t jump into the pond expecting that. It feels (and not in a negative way)
like a lose collection of essays about places, events and people that, at the end, was chronologically stacked by the publisher right before going to the printing warehouse. If you feel disheartened to read it is so, you have very little idea what a treat you are in for anyway. Hitch himself confesses at the end
chapter that this book is a ‘highly selective narrative’. It is. But that is like saying Mozart is a ‘limited instrument artist’
Now do note :
I didn’t say Hitch-22 is absorbing in the ‘Kafka on the Shore’ sense, although in a way it so was and more. I didn’t say Hitch-22 is gripping in the ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ sense, although in a way it so was and more. I didn’t say Hitch-22 is a page-turner in the strictest ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo ‘ sense, although in a way it so was and more.
What is so refreshing is the level of real genuine soul bearing honesty Hitch brings to the table. His
chapter on his mum almost moves you to tears. Here is a man who is not coy or ashamed to admit he is guilty of some base vice, thought or flaw in himself. He makes little in the way of apology but the
very fact that he talks about it so candidly makes one realize how intellectually ethical man you are dealing with. You may not agree with him of everything (and boy does he hate a lot — Mother
Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Islam, God to name a few from a very long list). But I know this too : I would leave the safe keys with him anyway anyday. Here is a person who can be stone cold to his enemies in one paragraph and moved to tears by poetry in the next. There is so much in the book about the latter, I felt a rush of anger at myself and the early schooling years for killing any joy in it. One by making us take TESTS(!) on it. Curse you St.Joesph’s! One irritating miss in the book is how little he talks about his immediate kids and his two wives and one gets the impression that either they did little in terms of impacting his life or they were marginal players on the periphery in the real sense for decades. Which I suspect may actually BE true. The prose in the book is so mellifluous, so compact and so thoughtful I really thought i would, like the overused cliche, part with maybe some limb to be able to pen 2 pages of something like that once in my life. You know those pretentious wine tasting snobs who make such an elaborate show of taking a sip from the glass, swirling the wine and commenting on the ‘bouquet’ , ‘aroma’ et al. its a good metaphor though. Some lines and paragraphs in the book bring you to that level of absorption and involvement, where
you really enjoy each line and para and take your time taking it all in. This book can be discussed in the book club for probably a year, chapter by chapter. Here are a few of my favorite
from the book :
The usual duty of the “intellectual” is to argue for complexity and
to insist that phenomena in the world of ideas should not be
sloganized or reduced to easily repeated formulae. But there is
another responsibility, to say that some things are simple and
ought not to be obfuscated, and by 1982 Communism had long passed
the point where it needed anything more than the old equation of
history with the garbage can.
Plainly, this unwillingness to give
ground even on unimportant disagreements is the symptom of some
deep seated insecurity, as was my one-time fondness for making
teasing remarks (which I amended when I read Anthony Powell’s
matter-of-fact observation that teasing is an unfailing sign of
Very often the test of one’s allegiance to a cause
or to a people is precisely the willingness to stay the course when
things are boring, to run the risk of repeating an old argument
just one more time, or of going one more round with a hostile or
(much worse) indifferent audience.
Totalitarianism is itself a cliché (as well as a tundra of pulverizing boredom)
One cannot invent memories for other people, and the father figure for my children must be indistinct at best until quite late in their lives. There are days when this gives me inexpressible pain, and I
know that such days of remorse also lie in my future. (I distinguish remorse from regret in that remorse is sorrow for what one did do whereas regret is misery for what one did not do. Both
seem to be involved in this case.)
I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified.
It is not so much that there are ironies of history, it is that history itself is ironic. It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties.
To have spent so long learning so relatively little, and then to be menaced in every aspect of my life by people who already know everything, and who have all the information they need … More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation. To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.”
It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.
I felt bad after reading this book and you will too. Of the 6.5 billion folks on the overcrowded planet, you realize maybe a stadium full of people have lived a life as interesting, exciting
and so damn alive as Hitch. I am sorry to say a lot of the politics he lived and pens about went right over my head. (…But as proof of prose, it made me go on amazon and purchase Tony Judt’s
“Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” JUST SO I COULD understand his book better.yup. That good) And reading the book was like surfing the net in that I was constantly wikipedia’ing so much
: Spanish war, Cuban revolution, Trotskyism, myriad poetry verses, about 50+ writers and so on. If books are meant to expand the mind I have not come across too many that match the sheer horsepower of Hitch-22. Carpe diem. Buy the book. ps : If you are curious about Hitch, here are 2 starter videos to know the man better :