Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Disenchantment of Christopher Hitchens

From the upcoming edition of The Catholic Key:

Hitch-22: A Memoir
Christopher Hitchens
448 pp./$26.99

Review by Santiago Ramos

If you haven’t read his monthly features in Vanity Fair, you may have read his monthly book reviews in the Atlantic. If you haven’t read his weekly column on Slate.com (“Fighting Words”), you’ve probably seen him on Fox News or MSNBC, attacking anyone from Jerry Falwell to Michael Moore, or promoting his best-selling anti-religious jeremiad, God is Not Great. Christopher Hitchens is ubiquitous because everyone wants him. He can be everywhere because he is quite versatile: a writer and a speaker, a critic and a journalist. But why does everyone want him?

If nothing else, Hitchens’ new memoir, Hitch-22, helps us to answer that question. In it, Hitchens regales his audience with tales of student protests in Oxford, philosophical debates in Havana, and revolutions in Portugal and Poland. The book also contains accounts of his friendships with the literary men of his milieu: Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, and James Fenton, among others. The book is peppered with epigrams (too many) from English poets and Marxist revolutionaries. Hitchens is not as complete or profound a writer as Chesterton, Waugh, Orwell, or Greene, but he certainly falls within the English tradition of literary journalism. Everyone wants him on TV because he is twice as intelligent as any of our predictable, one-dimensional talking heads; everyone wants him in print because his prose has verve and lucidity. Everyone wants him - liberals and conservatives - because he is interesting.

But because so much has already been said about what makes Hitchens interesting, and because, thanks to this memoir, it is so easy to verify for one’s self that this is so, I’d like to spend this review pointing out the one way in which Hitchens has become less interesting in the second half of his life: his loss of faith. Not his faith in God - in his memoir, Hitchens says that he probably never had much of a faith in God to begin with - but his faith in Marxism. Not (as the pundits would have it) his supposed switch from “leftist” to “neocon,” but rather his much more dramatic, and underappreciated, transformation from being a revolutionary to just another voter like the rest of us.

In his memoir, Hitchens writes about his early days at Oxford: learning about Marxist thought, protesting against racism and imperialism, and getting arrested for the cause of revolution. In a way virtually inconceivable to young Americans today, Hitchens was so devoted to his faith in the coming Workers’ Paradise that he stopped worrying about his resumé. Recollecting his thoughts from those days, Hitchens writes: “Did I really think that my examinations in logic and philosophy didn’t matter much, because a revolution was in progress or at least in prospect? I did.”

Hitchens’ politics have probably become saner since he dropped Trotsky as a role model. Let’s bracket that question for now, so we can admire the quaint notion of a man who believes in a certain cosmological worldview which begins with the suffering of the workers’ struggle, and ends with the redemption of revolution and the promise of paradise. Karl Marx was not a prophet, at least not one who heard voices from on high; he claimed, rather, to hear the voice of History, calling from the future, explaining to him its logic and its inevitable conclusion. (In reality, Marx was hearing the voice of another philosopher, G. W. F. Hegel, but that’s for another day.) Hitchens actually believed in this cosmological view, romantic and fatal as it was, and he devoted his early life to it.

But what does he believe in now? In the meandering final chapter of his memoir, “Decline, Mutation, or Metamorphosis?”, Hitchens considers what he lost when he stopped being a Marxist:

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. With some part of myself, I still “feel,” but no longer really think, that humanity would be the poorer without this fantastically potent illusion.

Hitchens goes on to say that, in his life, he has seen prisons opened, dictators toppled, countries liberated. There has been no shortage of just causes and victories. But something is lost - something almost palpable - when the world loses its big-picture story, when it becomes disenchanted. History degenerates into a series of episodes when it was once a comedy. For a literary man like Hitchens, this is surely a loss. The loss is not merely of political ideals - we can always have those, because we will always crave justice. What Hitchens lost is a comprehensive view of life that gave it meaning and beauty - a religion.

If these memoirs are useful, they are insofar as they kindle a desire in its readers - religious or irreligious - to crave enchantment, to not settle for a mundane view of life. One wonders, too, whether Hitchens will one day rebel against his own disenchantment.

Santiago Ramos is a graduate of Rockhurst University in Kansas City and has written for First Things (online), Commonweal, The Pitch, Traces, Image Journal and various blogs. He is currently studying toward a Ph.D. in Philosophy at Boston College.