'Arguably' by Christopher Hitchens (2011)

Arguably: Selected Essays - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, Arguably (London: Atlantic Books, 2012), 788pp

 

As a reflection of its author, Arguably, a compendium of the writings of the late Christopher Hitchens, is a success. Upon completion of this tome, one feels as if one has acquired an appreciation of the man's character and intellect, as well as having a keener understanding of the topics which he chooses to discuss. The characteristic that manifests more than any other is his uncompromising hostility to intolerance, fanaticism and moral and intellectual cowardice. With many of the selections on offer in Arguably dealing with contemporary political and social issues, he has plenty of cause to employ his pen.

Perhaps it is for these reasons - his commentary on contemporary issues and his hostility towards fanaticism and cowardice - that he has been portrayed (extremely unjustly) as an Islamophobe (a term which, in 'Stand Up for Denmark!' and 'Don't Mince Words' in this collection, he ably demonstrates is itself a debased, cowardly phrase). Rather, Islam is the target for his ire in a large number of his writings precisely because it is, unfortunately, currently the most de-evolved of the major religions and the predominant cause of many of the contemporary political problems on which he commentates. Perhaps due to his uncompromising style of writing, his firm convictions and his thoughtful atheism (which he admirably and unstubbornly upheld even in death), the term 'Islamophobe' sticks to him well, at least for those who have not read any of his work.

 

Arguably indirectly refutes this view, presenting the real Hitchens: one who, if hostile to Abrahamic religion, is at least only hostile when hostility is conscionable. Thus, he rails against the immoral - and, it should be said, un-Islamic - imposition of the burka ('In Your Face'), the theocracies of Iran ('Iran's Waiting Game') and Pakistan ('From Abbottabad to Worse') and the hand-wringing political correctness of many Western commentators on these and other matters ('She's No Fundamentalist'). In truth, and surprisingly for those who entertain the crude caricature of Hitchens, his love of Middle Eastern culture and its peoples shines through, whether in relation to Iran (in 'The Persian Version' and the afore-mentioned 'Iran's Waiting Game'), Kurdistan ('Holiday in Iraq') or Lebanon ('The Swastika and the Cedar'). Even more surprisingly for one's of the world's most well-known atheists, he finds the time in this compendium to profess admiration for the poetry of the King James Bible ('When the King Saved God'). His atheism is a palpable, if intermittent, presence in the writings assembled in Arguably (only a few essays - 'Gods of Our Fathers', 'In Defence of Foxhole Atheists' and 'The New Commandments' - address it directly) but his is a refined and intellectually thoughtful atheism that is a pleasure to read.

However, it should be said that there is more to Arguably than Islam and atheism, and the topics covered are impressively diverse. Upon reading them, one gets the sense that Hitchens could have been an expert on any one of them, if he had chosen. The strongest essays are those which, as mentioned earlier, deal with contemporary political issues, and the reason for their strength, in my opinion, is that they are firmly rooted in history. For example, 'Iran's Waiting Game' discusses the legacy of Mossadeq and the fall of the Shah, 'The Perils of Partition' demonstrates how many of the world's political hotspots are the consequence of the British Empire, and 'An Anglosphere Future' traces the Anglo-American 'special relationship', for want of a better term, though it expands far beyond this.

That said, Hitchens is more than just a commentator on world affairs, and among the topics he discusses engagingly are animal rights ('Political Animals'), capital punishment ('Old Enough to Die'), women's humour ('Why Women Aren't Funny', which is nowhere near as boorish as one might fear), the British monarchy ('Charles, Prince of Piffle', which also serves as a defence of science against well-meaning but misguided "moral and intellectual weaklings") and waterboarding ('Believe Me, It's Torture'). This last article is also a sort of soul-searching look at his adopted nation, the United States, as is 'America the Banana Republic' and, most powerfully, 'The Vietnam Syndrome'. 'The Vietnam Syndrome' looks at the decision to employ Agent Orange during the 1960s and 1970s, undoubtedly one of the most shameful and morally bankrupt actions by any nation in human history. I defy anyone to read about this subject and not feel sickened, a sickness which intensifies if you look at some of the pictures of the atrocities, which even the wordsmith Hitchens concedes cannot be truly described in his prose.

There are also a number of dedicated historical articles, the strongest of which concern American history up until the time of Lincoln (of which 'Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates' and 'John Brown: The Man Who Ended Slavery' are the highlights). Whilst these are clustered towards the start of Arguably, some gems are also peppered throughout, such as 'Marx's Journalism: The Grub Street Years' and 'Imagining Hitler'. Finally, a large part of the book is devoted to literary criticism, analysing writers such as Flaubert, Dickens, Orwell, Wodehouse and Rowling (other writers, such as Nabokov and Updike, are dealt with elsewhere). While less immediately engaging than the other selections, these articles are still recommended even if, like myself, you are unfamiliar with some of the subjects. Of particular note are 'Things Worth Fighting For', which discusses Rebecca West and her view of the pre-1939 Balkans, 'Scoundrel Time', in which Hitchens praises the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser and 'The Men Who Made England', a review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall which also passionately conveys the importance of the English Reformation.

While the length and make-up of this book is such that many will choose to read it piecemeal, I chose to read it from page one to page 788 in the space of a week. It is a testament to the quality of Hitchens' writing that I was never once bored, fatigued, or anything less than thoroughly entertained.