In honor of Christopher Hitchens, who died yesterday, I here reproduce my review, published in Crisis Magazine in 2002, of his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian (Basic Books), which I still think is at least as revealing of the man he was as anything he ever wrote and more revealing than his celebrity memoir, Hitch-22, as amusing as that book is. The Letters was written in the days before he was a celebrity intellectual — though he was quite well-known as a journalist and TV talking-head even then — and the book is all the better for the relative absence in his life at the time of fame’s distractions, which he was later to find it difficult to resist. On the few occasions I met him, he was even more charming in person than he was on the page, and I regret that I didn’t know him better, particularly as he was that rare person who could make a close friend of someone with whom he profoundly disagreed. But that’s also the mark of the contrarian — a self-description that he never liked.
At a time when, owing to his conduct of the “war against terrorism,” George W. Bush’s “approval rating” stood at something over 80 per cent, Christopher Hitchens called in the pages of The Nation for his impeachment, or possibly that of his attorney general (the article is not quite clear), precisely over their conduct of the war. You’ve got to admire that kind of rhetorical audacity. It savors a bit of Huck Finn’s idea of “Henry the Eight,” who “takes a notion he wants to get up some trouble with this country” and “all of a sudden he heaves all the tea in Boston Harbor overboard, and whacks out a declaration of independence; and dares them to come on. That was his style.”
Mr Hitchens, to the great delight of his readers of every political persuasion, also lives in some such topsy-turvy world where the rebel is king and the king is rebel. Like Huck’s Henry, Hitch’s defiantly righteous journalist combines the two roles, summoning the potentates of the earth to judgment like naughty schoolboys. Bush’s popularity was surely more of an inducement to him than a deterrent when it came to whacking out this declaration of independence. Nor can he be supposed to be quite ignorant of the realities of international relations that would make it imprudent (to say the least) to make enemies of both Saudi Arabia and Pakistan because, as he says, they “sponsor and coddle” terrorists. It is just because no conceivable government of any party could ever hew to the Hitchens line that he proposes it so confidently.
His new book is one of a series being published by Basic Books called “The Art of Mentoring” and modeled on Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. But where we know well enough what a poet is, the “contrarian” is a rarer avis, and Mr Hitchens’s characteristically readable and entertaining book never quite gets round to a substantive or philosophical definition. All we know is that he is always to be found in the ranks of those who are in opposition to authority (”dissident” is one proposed alternative) and that his beau ideal is Emile Zola, in whose defense of Captain Dreyfus, Hitchens tells us, you may see foreshadowed “the follies and crimes — from Verdun to Vichy — that later overtook France.”
Now anyone but a contrarian might suppose that Verdun and Vichy were at opposite poles, the first being resistance a outrance to foreign domination and the second being craven acquiescence in same. Are both crimes, both follies or both crimes and follies? Or is one a crime and the other a folly? It is the lumping together of the two as if they were the same kind of thing that tells us something important about the contrarian personality. As Hitchens himself says, “the essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” And how it thinks is apparently to use its own freedom from responsibility to attack those who exercise responsibility from both sides simultaneously. Thus, too, he identifies himself equally with the “revolutions” of 1968 [pro-communist] and 1989 [anti-communist] as if they were the same thing. It is a remarkable point of view and likely to leave one’s opponents gasping with befuddlement, which is naturally the point.
To me the most striking passage of the book comes when he imagines himself, on posthumously and hypothetically discovering that his militant atheism has been mistaken, explaining it to the Almighty. “At the bar of judgement,” he writes, “I shall argue that I deserve credit for an honest conviction of unbelief, and must in any case be acquitted of the charge of hypocrisy or sycophancy. If the omnipotent and omniscient one does turn out to be of the loving kind, I would expect this plea to do me more good than any trashy casuistry of the sort popularised by Blaise Pascal.”
But why would he expect it to do him “good”? What makes him think that, having all his life spit in the face of the God who is God, he would be excused for pleading that he had worshiped instead at the shrine of sincerity, of the false god of his very own “honest conviction”? I don’t doubt that it is an honest conviction, any more than I doubt that he really believes that such a conviction is more to be respected than the Author of the universe, should any such personage exist. But it does seem an interesting question where such beliefs come from. Just as he wonders who asked for Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, so I wonder who imposed on him the “hard task of working out ethical principles for ourselves”? And how does one work them out without anything to go on in the way of revealed truth? In his case, everything seems to have been deduced from a bedrock faith that consensus is always wrong.
What all this really comes down to is a matter of style, and in particular of the ironic style. Hitchens quotes Czeslaw Milosz’s opinion that irony is “the glory of slaves” — or, as he puts it, “the consolation of the losers” because it is “the one thing that pomp and power can do nothing about.” This is very true and well-said. But he doesn’t have anything to tell us about the corollary, namely, that to be ironic is to be perpetually among the losers and those otherwise excused from shouldering the burdens of power. Hitchens notes Sartre’s distinction between rebels and revolutionaries, adding with what I guess is conscious humor that “I am on both sides of this crucial issue.”
It is a rare descent into obfuscatory rhetoric. In fact the very raison d’etre of this book is to make the case for the rebel over the revolutionary. The revolutionary stops being a “contrarian” when he comes to power. But this is a book for proud and perpetual contrarians, people who will always be found with the powerless and minorities, not (or not only) because of their own compassion but because of that of their rulers. The latter have assumed the responsibilities of power while, in many parts of the world, giving up their customary practice of torturing and killing contrarians. We may all hope for Mr Hitchens’s soul’s sake that the Lord of Hosts has done the same.