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May 10, 2006

Intelligence, courage and a fine prose style: Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays - Christopher Hitchens

Posted by David Womersley

Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays
by Christopher Hitchens
Pp. xvi + 476. London: Atlantic Books, 2005
Paperback, £14.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - reviews Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays by Christopher Hitchens.

In Experience, Martin Amis (as it happens, the dedicatee of this volume of essays) tells the story of an occasion when he and Christopher Hitchens came to stay with Saul Bellow. Showing immaculate timing and a finely-developed sense of tact, Hitchens decided that this would be the evening on which to mount a wholesale vindication of the opinions of Edward Said and a rationalist attack on the state of Israel. "Dinner conversations you're glad you missed": this must be a serious contender in the heavyweight division. Amis evokes the smouldering aftermath with dismay, and an undertow of rueful admiration:

Then it was over, and we faced the silence. My right foot throbbed from the warm work it had done beneath the table on the shins of the Hitch, availing me nothing . . . During the argument the opinions of Professor Edward Said had been weighed, and this is what Christopher, in closing, wished to emphasise. The silence still felt like a gnat in my ear.

- Well, he said, I'm sorry if I went on a bit. But Edward is a friend of mine. And if I hadn't defended him . . . I would have felt bad.

- How do you feel now? said Saul.

As Bellow's astute reply suggests, getting it off your chest isn't always the simple relief it promises to be.

Hitchens's willingness to be outspoken, to push the argument as far as it can go, to take no prisoners, and to regard implicit demands for deference with blank disdain, is much in evidence in this collection of journalism, some of which goes back to the early 1990s, but most of which has been written since the turn of the century. However, it is easier to like – even admire – this vehemence because it is not accompanied by immobility of judgement.

In the long, well-weighed and yet not mealy-mouthed essay on Churchill which begins the volume, Hitchens employs an apt metaphor to describe the sensation of having a deeply-held conviction dislodged by a silting accumulation of undeniable facts. Reviewing the numerous factual corrections which have in recent years been made to the golden image of Churchill created by an earlier generation of hagiographers, Hitchens records a "vertiginous" feeling,

with all the cargo in the hold slowly turning over.
It is an image which bears reflection. Hitchens won't stop writing, because he won't stop thinking. As he says of those who, like himself, try to lead an ethical life without the inducements and reassurances supplied by organised religion,
all that is needed is some elementary fortitude, and the willingness to follow the flickering candle of reason wherever it may lead.
The title of this collection – Love, Poverty and War – is a nod to the, according to Hitchens, "antique" saying that no life is complete which does not include some experience of each of these. So the articles are grouped under these three headings: "Love" contains Hitchens's enthusiasms, "Poverty" the objects of his contempt or hatred, "War" the journalism as a foreign correspondent. As an organising principle, it's more cute than compelling. The energy spent on trying to fit these essays to the procrustean bed of these three categories would have been better employed in eliminating the many repetitions of phrase and subject which, barely noticeable when these pieces were first published over many years and in various places, nevertheless bob up distractingly when brought together. Some of them are jokes (people who should carry a sign reading "contents under pressure"; the ostentatious self-effacement of the pious, crystallised in the apologetic brag "Don't mind me – I'm just busy doing god's work"); some of them are episodes (reading Kipling to Borges; Clinton's bombing of Khartoum); some of them are quotations (Hitchens likes to ring the allusive changes on "an expense of spirit in a waste of shame"); some of them are metaphors (more than one impoverished nation serves up soup you can read through).

The reason for eliminating these repetitions does not come down to mere editorial tidy-mindedness. It is rather that they create the misleading impression that in these essays Hitchens is simply going through routines. All writers have riffs, and if you happen to have hit upon a sequence of words which you find gratifying, where's the harm in using it again, on a different occasion and in a different context? None whatsoever, except that, when collected together, such repetitions will inescapably suggest lack of intellectual materials and meagreness of stylistic resource. But in fact, Hitchens is, I think, vulnerable on neither count. For instance, the essays on David Irving and Malcolm Muggeridge both demonstrate his determination to keep thinking, to keep broadening the frame of judgement to include more relevant considerations, not to repose or be trapped in a serviceable but approximate opinion. And in respect of style, although the affinity with the prose of his former colleague on the New Statesman, Martin Amis, is clear, Hitchens' style is drier, more spare, less susceptible to the lachrymose, braced by his laudable resolve to break the vials of scorn over the heads of

the traditional stage army of the good
(of which the essay trashing Michael Moore is an especially satisfying example).

A minor theme running through the post-9/11 journalism is the banishment of Hitchens from the ranks of the American Left for his criticism of the views of commentators such as Noam Chomsky, his refusal to have any truck with the argument that America brought this on herself, and (the logical entailment) his support for the war in Iraq. The final essay is on the subject of Iraq, and it concludes with an encouragement to hope:

So dare to repeat, in spite of everything, the breathless question: What if it works?
That was written in October 2003, so one imagines that by now the hope will be still more daring, the question still more breathless. All the more reason perhaps to cling to them. One of the subordinate pleasures of this book is the enjoyment provided by Hitchens' impressive taste for quotations. One that he doesn’t include, but for which he might have found a use, comes from Hardy:
If a way to the better there be
It exacts a full look at the worse.
Hitchens is one of those who is prepared to give that full look, and then to write about what he sees, sometimes at risk to himself. Intelligence, courage, and a fine prose style: it's an impressive hand.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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A timely piece considering Hitchens brave remarks at Stanford the day before and on CNN during the Cartoons furore (see below). His scepticism regarding PC treatment of Islam, from the heir to the throne down, is refreshing; however repellent his own enlightenment superstitions are.

Likewise V.S Naipaul, whose two books on Islam (Among the Believers & Beyond Belief) are prophecies of our current difficulties. His defence of American secular values echoes Hitchen's (cf Our Universal Civilization - talk to the Manhattan Institute

Its a pity our vicars cannot stand up for themselves - as Myles Harris points out in his piece on Dan Brown.

"Hitchens, an editor for Vanity Fair, described himself as an atheist and issued a sharp rebuke of the Muslim prophet Muhammad.

“Of course, he’s not a prophet,” he said. “He’s an epileptic plagiarist.”

He said the Quran — Islam’s holiest book — was full of “evil fairly tales” that were “unimaginably recycled.”

“It’s a boring plagiarism of the worst parts of Christianity and Judaism,” he added."

Posted by: a at May 15, 2006 05:17 PM
It’s a pity our vicars cannot stand up for themselves

Well, what do you expect? When I was a youth they were found in Ban-the-Bomb marches alongside Bertrand Russell – a first-class mathematician but also an atheist who thought he was God’s gift to women.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at May 15, 2006 08:37 PM
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