Christopher Hitchens’ And Yet…

The year is coming to a close, and it has proven to be an eventful one for global politics. Britain stunned the world – and many of its citizens – by voting to leave the European Union and end 40 years of cooperative rulership of Europe. In America, Donald Trump – the most unlikely presidential candidate since Reagan, or perhaps just since Barack Obama – proved himself immune to scandal, impropriety and the accusation of every possible ism – the usual silver bullets – by defeating Hilary Clinton in an historic election that saw Republican power reach a height unseen since the 1920s. A refugee crisis has brought chaos to Europe; Syria is in ruins; ISIS continues to claim responsibility for terrorist attacks all over the world. And the refrain I most often come across, on social media and in journal writing, is some variation of, “What would Hitchens have made of this?” We are two days short of the fifth anniversary of his death, but I am certain no single year has made his fans more acutely aware of our loss.

Published late last year, And Yet… taunts us with his loss: there are essays on Hillary Clinton, on the cowardice of European governments in the face of Islamic fundamentalism, and the deepening vacuity of American politics. There is even a piece contemplating the possibility (and feasibility) of vote manipulation, a much-discussed topic during the tail end of the election. The question most often argued about amongst his supporters is also the most obvious: what would he have had to say about Trump and Clinton? Consult “The Case Against Hillary Clinton,” written during her abortive 2008 campaign, for as comprehensive a case against her as can be made in 2000 words. Donald Trump is never mentioned in these essays, though Hitchens once famously quipped that Trump is “a ludicrous figure, but at least he’s lived it up a bit in the real world and at least he’s worked out how to cover 90% of his skull with 30% of his hair.” Does that amount to an endorsement? Unlikely. In “The Politicians We Deserve,” a meditation on the ever-worsening calibre of American politicians, he delivers a warning that now seems horrifyingly prescient:

Populism imposes its own humiliations on anyone considering a run. How many times can you stand in front of an audience and state: “I will always put the people of X first”? (Quite a lot of times, to judge by recent campaigns.) This is to say no more than that you will be a megaphone for sectional interests and regional mood swings and resentment, a confession that, to you, all politics is yokel. Nothing makes this plainer than this season’s awful rash of demagogic attacks on trade with China. In a replay of the stupidity about that “giant sucking sound” that marked the nadir of the Ross Perot populist bubble of two decades ago, educated American voters (and, indirectly, Chinese audiences) are exposed to cartoon clichés of dragons and portraits of Mao Zedong in an attempt to infuse xenophobia into the argument about free trade. […] How low can it go? Much lower, just you wait and see.

The essay from which I have just quoted was published in 2010. Whatever he would have ultimately concluded about these past elections, I know one thing with absolute certainty: Hitchens, unlike the entire mainstream media, would not have been even remotely surprised.

Also included in this collection are a series of essays he penned for Vanity Fair, “On The Limits Of Self-Improvement,” which begin by showcasing his caustic wit, no less biting when it is aimed inward:

The subject has good genes on both sides of the family and has been mercilessly exploiting this inherited advantage for some decades. An initial review of his facial features, as glimpsed in the shaving mirror, reveals relatively few lines or wrinkles and only a respectable minimum of secondary or tertiary chins. However, this may be because the skin is so tightly stretched by the generally porpoise-like condition of the body when considered – which with a shudder it must be – as a whole. Moreover, the fabled blue eyes and long, curled eyelashes (for some years the toast of both sexes on five continents) are now somewhat obscured by the ravages of rosacea and blepharitis, which on certain days lend a flaky aspect to the picture and at other times give the regrettable impression of a visage that is actually crumbling to powder like a dandruffed scalp. It may be for this reason that the subject prefers to undertake the morning shave through a cloud of blue cigarette smoke that wreathes the scene in the fumes of illusion. (N.B.: This would not altogether account for the subject’s habit of smoking in the shower.)

Hitchens proves remarkably resistant to every form of self-improvement, from quitting smoking or reducing his alcohol consumption to taking walks (“This walking business is overrated: I mastered the art of doing it when I was quite small, and in any case, what are taxis for?”). For the sake of his readers, he undertakes a full-body waxing (“sack, back and crack”), and has his famously bad teeth cleaned and straightened. Alongside these humorous pieces are more serious reflections on politics and history, often undertaken as book reviews, and these demonstrate the dazzling extent of his erudition: from the Hungarian Revolution to the Armenian genocide, Latin American coups to Antebellum American history, he can cite multiple books, invoke multiple authorities. Martin Amis, when asked why Hitchens never wrote a novel despite his obvious love for literature, replied that his friend was too focused on the real world to waste his time in fictional ones, and when you get some idea of how widely he read, on every possible topic of interest to him, you start to understand the wisdom of that reply.

Five years on, Hitchens is gone but not forgotten. He never will be.