Hitchens, Iraq and the writer’s voice

19 Dec

The late Christopher Hitchens was a brilliant writer. Even when you loathed his content, his form was reliably superb.

Everyone is entitled to at least one bizarre position on something in their lifetime, and for Hitchens his outstanding peculiarity  was his support of the invasion of Iraq.

Hitch envisioned a “short war,” one in which Saddam Hussein would be overthrown with a minimum of destruction. He vigorously supported George Bush, and when it became obvious to even the most ardent supporter that there were no weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in Iraq, he claimed that given that was the case the invasion was even more necessary, as it could be undertaken without fear of a nuclear or chemical response. The man was, on the subject of Iraq, crazed.

His loathing of Hussein was profound. He was right that Hussein and his “crime family” maintained “private ownership of Iraq” that ought not to be allowed to continue. However, the same could be said for several dictators, Mugabe, for example, who are left in place. The Bush-led invasion was not preemptive, in Hitchen’s view, but a natural historical consequence of US interest in Iraq’s affairs since 1968, including CIA involvement in bringing Hussein to power.

The post 9/11 timing of the war made sense, he claimed, as the terrorist attacks on the US homeland were an example of “fascism with an Islamic face.” This generalized justification allowed Hitchens to gloss over the reality that the terrorists involved had nothing to do with Iraq, but were mainly from Saudi Arabia. They were the “face of Islam” to him, regardless of their nationality.

So convinced of his rightness was Hitchens, that he titled his 2003 book  “The Postponed Invasion of Iraq.” His view will be, he declared, on the right side of history, while those who oppose both the war and his take on it will find themselves left behind.

Anything is possible of course and if conservatives rule the world in the future Hitch will be proved right, given that the victor writes  history. However, as Foucault argued there is no power without subversion, so in the event of  conservative global dominance, there will be dissenting voices arguing that Hitchens, Bush, Howard and Blair were wickedly wrong.

It’s all very well to predict the right and wrong side of history, but that depends entirely on who’s in charge of writing it.

For me, one of the most powerful pieces of Hitchen’s recent work came in this short essay for Vanity Fair titled “Unspoken Truths.” In it, Hitch gives us a glimpse of the state of stunning vulnerability all humans enter when we have to live with knowledge of our approaching death from terminal illness.

The cancer treatment he was receiving damaged Hitch’s vocal chords, causing him to fear the loss of his voice on both a real and metaphysical level. For a writer, the voice is all, and Hitchens movingly describes his sense of shocked  defeat upon encountering this unanticipated indignity. The essay is also a resonant meditation on the writer’s voice. It was a Hitch maxim that if you can talk well you can write, so for him, to lose the ability to talk well threatened his very identity. “So this above all,” he exorted his students, “find your own voice.”

And as he revealingly notes in the final paragraph of the Vanity Fair essay, quoting W.H. Auden: “All I have is a voice.”

What is also interesting in the piece is how this renowned atheist seems to be embarking on a flirtation with an un-named transcendental exteriority. For example, he quotes the Leonard Cohen song:

If it be your will,
That I speak no more:
And my voice be still,
As it was before …

which leads the reader to speculate who Hitchens imagines he is addressing. We know for the poet Cohen it’s God, but it’s a bridge too far to ascribe that sentiment to Hitch. Contrarian he was, but steadfast in his disbelief.

Hitchens also quotes T.S Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Hitchens had a voice that could enthrall, whether you were listening to his articulate, mellifluous presentation, or reading his sustained adjectival abuse of those he regarded with contempt. His position on Iraq is to me a terrifying aberration, one that I will never understand, and one that I believe added unjustified gravitas in the eyes of many to what was a vile and unethical war.

Hitchens was as large in his faults as he was in his brilliance. He was a figure of immense complexity, and this is what drew me so powerfully to his work. Our culture doesn’t  encourage complexity, indeed, more often than not it is pathologized. Now and again a figure appears in fiction or reality who embodies our potential and reveals our possibilities, for better and for worse. In other words, humanity’s full gamut. Hitchens was just such a figure, and I am sorry he is gone.

Vale, Christopher Hitchens.

16 Responses to “Hitchens, Iraq and the writer’s voice”

  1. David Horton December 19, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    Nice work Jen. It wasn’t just Iraq per se that he got wrong, but he bought into the whole clash of civilisations/war on terror/wipe all arabs of face of world narrative of the far right, and began vigorously promoting.

    Reading his autobiography (which I can’t put hand on to check) I remember being enormously impressed with him, until you hit the point, near end, where he discovers he has Jewish ancestry, and suddenly his mind switches to something to the right of Dick Cheney or Daniel Pipes. It is the most astonishing sudden turning off of intellect I have ever read. Most if us have odd quirks, beliefs, blind spots, but this was a massive mental and character flaw. None of the other three horsemen, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, have anything like this kind of blind spot.

    The comparable example, by coincidence, is Havel, admirable in 90% of his ways, and suddenly a virulent climate change denier.

    The human brain is an odd thing. Well, except thine and mine, and sometimes …!


  2. paul walter December 19, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    The thoughts concerning him and Iraq, most of us thought Saddam was a brutal asshat (but don’t get me started on Bush the elder). Surely he couldn’t have been so naive as to fall for the explanations proffered for the Iraq invasion; believe they’d just surgically excise Saddam Hussein and everyone lives happily ever after?
    Hitchens was half Jewish, could this have influenced his feelings towards Arabs? Then there is the high life he is said to have lived. If he was living up too hard, could his nervous system have been stressed to the extent that his judgement was impaired?
    And, of course, he could have been bought off or pressured into taking the path he took.
    If it was a career move, he needn’t have bothered, as it turns out.


    • Jennifer Wilson December 19, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

      I can imagine that suddenly discovering he was half Jewish could have had a big impact on Hitchen’s attitudes. Even so, it’s an example of emotion over ruling reason I guess. We’ll never know now.


  3. David Horton December 20, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    My apologies to the wholly admirable blind spot-less Mr Havel. Above I confused, through a series of misunderstandings, Vaclav Havel with his successor denier Vaclav Klaus. I have chastised myself seriously and it won’t happen again. Hopefully.


    • Jennifer Wilson December 20, 2011 at 7:25 am #

      Oh, that explains it. I thought it was me. Then I forgot about it when I had to think about Turnbull’s little white dog. Vale Mellie.


  4. David Horton December 20, 2011 at 7:37 am #

    I was taken to task severely on Twitter for not knowing Havel was a climate denier. I thought, oh shit yes, that’s right, Vaclav someone, Czech president, came to Aust subsidised by deniers. Checked, again (after having checked before tweeting), and must have skipped over something while reading. Was my face red this morning. An example of the risks of the immediacy of twitter.

    And yes, having grieved hard for many dogs and other animals, I was very sorry for Malcolm Turnbull.


    • Jennifer Wilson December 20, 2011 at 7:59 am #

      I remember THAT Vaclav well, he was spine chilling. Your only mistake was to trust a tweeper! Maybe you were set up by that woman who’s got it in for you!


  5. paul walter December 20, 2011 at 1:24 pm #

    Knows the feeling…


  6. Marilyn December 20, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    Excuse me, it is not possible to be half jewish, jewish is not a nationality, it is a made up religion and he didn’t believe in any made up religion.

    Honestly why do people talk such utter fucking rubbish.


    • Jennifer Wilson December 21, 2011 at 6:53 am #

      I see your point Marilyn, and agree with David – Hitchens discovered his ethnic family connection as Jewish and identified with that part of his heritage. “Half” Jewish is probably not the best way of describing his family, anymore than half Catholic would be if one side of your family was that and the other atheist or Anglican. But not really utter fucking rubbish. Just careless.

      But some people do talk utter fucking rubbish, I agree and I don’t know why either. Especially about asylum seekers.


  7. David Horton December 20, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    Marilyn if I remember correctly he saw it as an ethnic historic family connection, and then identified with what they had been through in war.


  8. gerard oosterman December 21, 2011 at 7:34 am #

    Of the five Chrismas cards so far received, we had one from Elders Real Estate, one from Jax Tyres and another one meant for a previous tenant which we stuck up just the same to make us look a bit more popular.
    Have I not tweeted enough? Are my twitters insignificant? Or……….’ are there not as many as there were awhile ago…….?’


  9. Dejan Tesic December 24, 2011 at 11:37 pm #

    Regarding Cohen, etc. I believe that there is also poetic licence at work when addressing “God” in songs.


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