On the grubby subject of U.S. political campaigns Christopher Hitchens eschewed optimism: “How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see.”
This warning was issued during the populist heyday of the Tea Party. Now, in the Age of Trump, Hitchens has proven prophetic. The billionaire lord of the lowest common denominator is one of many bullies the great polemicist would have relished skewering. Alas, Hitchens’ death in 2011 precluded such an enticing match-up. We must be satisfied with the prodigious literary output Hitchens left behind.
Happily, for his fans, not all of his essays have been assembled into book form. The inaugural effort to remedy this: And Yet . . . , a modestly satisfying grab bag of pet peeves and enthusiasms featuring the author’s puckish wit and inexhaustible intellect.
The funniest piece here leaves a bittersweet aftertaste. On the Limits of Self-Improvement was an assignment for Vanity Fair; the magazine paid for Hitchens to get a full-body makeover at a plush California spa. Assessing himself in the mirror, he allows that the spa has its work cut out for it. Once a gorgeous hunk of burning love, “for some years the toast of both sexes on five continents,” he now looks, clothed, like “a condom stuffed with an old sock.”
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So off he flies to Santa Barbara, where he undergoes a regimen of saunas, facials, yoga classes and hot stone massages. He even submits to a Brazilian wax. But whenever he can, which is almost always, he sneaks away to smoke, drink, and overeat. “Bad habits have brought me this far: why change such a tried-and-true method?” At the end he wonders what, if anything, was accomplished: “Life expectancy: presumably somewhat increased, but who’s to say?” Who, indeed? Less than a year later, he was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer.
Another excursion into fresh territory, My Red-State Odyssey, finds Hitchens at a NASCAR event in Virginia as part of a project to become better acquainted with the South, whose denizens “don’t mind at all if they live up to their clichés and stereotypes.” He hangs out with beer-swigging good ol’ boys and shakes his head at the poor fashion sense exhibited around him: “People wear shorts who shouldn’t even wear jeans.”
As for the holiday season, which some of us are currently enjoying, Hitchens had mixed feelings. In The Turkey Has Landed, he approves of Thanksgiving, a day that has less to do with the Puritans’ genocidal actions against Indians than with reconciling the nation after the Civil War.
But in Bah, Humbug, he compares Christmas to North Korea, for its “insistent din of identical propaganda and identical music” that demands meek observance from the faithful. Glumness at this time of the year, as he sees it, is treated like a thoughtcrime. He may have a point. Could the spike in suicides around Jesus’ arbitrary birthday be due to the pressure to embrace “the collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy”?
No one captured the compulsory infliction of joy like Hitchens’ hero, George Orwell, who is vigorously defended against charges of ratting out Communists. Rosa Luxembourg, Edmund Wilson and G.K. Chesterton, whose biography Hitchens completed reviewing in his final hours, are similarly praised, with inevitable qualifications.
But Hitchens prefers to bury Caesar. Ted Kennedy is given an uncharitable send-off. Colin Powell is censured for wanting his yellowcake and eating it too, and Hillary Clinton is debarred in perpetuity from occupying the White House for the ridiculous reason of lying about coming under fire at a Bosnian airport. On the subject of the Clintons and the war in Iraq, Hitchens dropped any pretense of objectivity: He abhorred the former, championed the latter.
In Blood for No Oil!, he props up his favorite straw man. Hitchens had convinced himself that the left, which he once belonged to, was opposed to fighting terrorism. But the vast majority was willing to engage militarily in Afghanistan. Iraq, they feared, would be a catastrophic distraction. Of course, the fact that they turned out to be correct doesn’t stop Hitchens from raging against his old friends.
“Imperishable” is an adjective Hitchens overused. It cannot be applied to any of these essays. But they are still fun to read.
Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.