REVIEW: Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens
With exams looming dangerously close – threatening our enthusiasm and sanity with every sticky-note that passes by – the last thing you might think of reading is an article on arguments, debates and language. But if you’re looking for inspiration for all of those essays, look no further than the late Christopher Hitchens, polemical writer extraordinaire.
Hitchens’ (‘Hitch’ to his friends) possessed all those qualities that makes for high marks; constantly questioning authority, Blake Morrison quipped that to tackle him on any issue you would need to be ‘formidably prepared, as widely read, widely travelled and rhetorically astute as he is’. But most importantly, the fulcrum of his arguments rests on language – and nowhere is this more permeating than his memoir, Hitch-22.
Despite being a memoir, Hitch-22 lacks any sort of pitiful tone and even to the end, is hardly a sombre read. On the contrary, he writes with incredible gusto for a man who suffered from stage-four oesophageal cancer (Hitchens remarked to Jeremy Paxman, with astonishing sobriety, that there was ‘no stage five’). Lucid moments from his childhood (such as an episode whereby his father rescued a child in a pool from her drunken fathers arms) show glimpses of neglect and ignorance, truisms inherent within all individuals and many institutions that he sought to take arms against. The most exciting aspect of his reflections however, was his education. His candid confession of bluffing his aptitude in subjects by ‘biting off more than you can chew’, reading the likes of War and Peace at 12 years old, has that genius, power and magic of boldness that Goethe would have approved of. For instance, when bullied at school, he walked up to the figure twice his size and announced, “You are a liar, a bully, a coward, and a thief.” It turned out that speaking out against injustice was to carry on later in life, albeit to a much larger playground.
One of many hurdles, Hitchens persuasive oratory did not come about haphazardly. An early stutterer, his passionate involvement with Oxford University’s debating society and even taking part in Terrance Rattigan plays, allowed his stammer to dissipate with his own exuberance. Later in his student career, when his socially conscious and polemical writing for the student magazine was declined, he decided to set up his own with a friend. With such displays of persistence and enthusiasm, it is hardly surprising to find that Hitch-22 exhibits his own extensive reading, with quotes from Thomas Paine to The Beatles, and with asterix’s – those beautiful coda’s of thought – showing off his precision and comprehensive knowledge. Indeed, Ian McEwen reminisced on his insatiable memory, commenting on how he could remember anything he read, including whole poetry anthologies. Without his informed reason, transparent comparisons between Fascism and organised Religion (Fidel Castro – ‘Within the Revolution, everything. Outside the Revolution, nothing’ against Thomas Aquinas – ‘Outside the church, no salvation’) would not have occurred, nor satisfied.
In the format of Vanity Fair’s ‘Proust Questionnaire’, towards the end one of the questions asks ‘How would you like to die?’ Hitch answered ‘Fully conscious, either fighting or reciting.’ To the very end, that was exactly what he did, refusing to back down under resistance anthropological or biological. In many ways we all strive to be conscious of what we read, write, say and do – especially when called upon to write papers demanding critical analysis, but are we ever told to just enjoy it? If one thing Hitch-22 has taught me, Christopher Hitchens was a man who made me aware that we can take pleasure from consciousness, and in turn, moving forward with it.
‘Hitch-22’ by Christopher Hitchens is available by Atlantic Books Publishing.