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May 01 2012

An edge in his voice

It sounds like an awkward time at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature panel on the life and works of Christopher Hitchens last night. Apparently it was billed as a tribute but it was also a discussion, and the result is that it wasn’t an unadulterated tribute.

Mr. Hitchens’s erudition, wit and prolificacy were taken for granted by the five participants: Katha Pollitt and Victor Navasky, his erstwhile colleagues at The Nation magazine; Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair; and George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. The question initially posed by the writer Ian Buruma, the event’s moderator, was whether Mr. Hitchens’s work and ideas would stand the test of time.

Well I’ll tell you what I would have said if I’d been on that panel. Yes. Absolutely yes; very much yes. I think he had huge flaws – or, more to the point, that there were huge flaws in some of his ideas and work – but I also think the quality of his work was of the kind that stands the test of time. I think he wrote far too well and too shrewdly on too large a range of subjects with too much wit and insight not to stand the test of time.

Mr. Navasky said Mr. Hitchens didn’t have “original theories,” but rather offered “original takes” on things. Ms. Pollitt said that no magazine writer who “weighs in” so regularly on the issues of the day can expect their work to age well. She went further — since, she claimed, it was probably “the reason” she was invited to be on the panel — and called Mr. Hitchens a “tremendous misogynist” who didn’t have “a lot of serious, professional respect for women writers.” She also chided his habit of greeting her with a kiss on the hand, a habit she called “grotesque.”

That was one of the huge flaws – although I’m not sure I would call it misogyny (but then Katha knows a lot more about it than I do, having been a colleague for many years) – the failure to take women seriously. (Although there were exceptions. That Jefferson scholar who wrote about him shortly after he left the scene, for instance.)

But they also pointed to some of his vital work, both serious and comic, like the time he was voluntarily waterboarded, or his series about self-improvement, for which he had a seaweed body wrap and dabbled in yoga. Mr. Packer singled out Mr. Hitchens’s performance in a debate with Tony Blair about whether religion is a force for good, and he also praised Mr. Hitchens for speaking out strongly and often about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie when no one else was willing to “stick out their neck.”

Mr. Rushdie, the festival’s founder, was sitting front and center in the crowd. During the time allotted for audience participation, he approached a microphone and said he wanted to pay tribute to Mr. Hitchens, “which is what I thought we were doing tonight,” he added, with an edge in his voice. He championed his friend’s best works as “masterpieces of style,” called his book “God is Not Great” an “extraordinary polemic,” and said he fit comfortably in the tradition of great essayists going back to the 18th century and his work would undoubtedly endure.

That’s what I think. It’s exactly what I think. I said much the same thing almost ten years ago, when B&W was new.

28 comments

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  1. 1
    iknklast

    I think Hitchens is like H. L. Mencken – flawed, but a brilliant observer of his times. And, like Mencken, those things which are bound in a specific time and place will not wear well, and those hidebound ideas that society outgrows will be discarded. But, like Mencken, he will provide a ready source of pithy quotes and profound insights that will continue to delight, anger, and astound for a very long time. (And Mencken wasn’t so great on the topic of women, either – but he did get other things right).

    All too often these days, we are asking our great men (and women) to be perfect, without flaws. It is partially the fact that they have flaws that makes them great. Because it makes them human. To be able to do so much, and be perfect, would be no accomplishment. To be flawed, and still able to do so much, is great.

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    Mmmmmmm – I really think he’s a much better writer than Mencken though – or better in a much less time-bound style. Like Hazlitt. Or Orwell, except I think he’s much better than Orwell.

  3. 3
    Ophelia Benson

    As for flaws – flaws are all very well – but dismissiveness about women isn’t just a flaw. I really think his attitude to women is a big deal, but I also think he’s a very good writer all the same.

  4. 4
    'Tis Himself

    There’s many things about Hitchens which angered me, like his misogyny, his support of the Iraq fiasco, and his approval of Guantanamo. However, he was a erudite, intelligent author and debater who earned my respect. In short, he was a human being, full of foibles and contradictions.

  5. 5
    anne

    One of my favourite Hitch moments is his putdown of Shirley Williams on Question Time. To those who say he’s being ungallant towards her, I’d remind them that she is a tough old bruiser who’s spent a lifetime in politics, well able to take it.

  6. 6
    AB

    Rosa Luxembourg, George Elliot, Jane Austen, Katha sodding Pollitt, Annette Gordon Reed, Linda Colley, Katrina Vanden Huevel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mary Wollestencroft, Sally Hemmings, Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Edwards, Azar Nafisi, Tina Brown…

    Off the top of my head, here are just a few of the many women (mostly writers) Christopher Hitchens has praised and written about. (I’d like to see how his record holds up when checked against his contemporaries.)

    What is all this shit about misogyny? The first piece he wrote about Sarah Palin was a defence of her against a form of sexism. His criticisms of Hilary Clinton and Margaret Thatcher always included a recognition of their strengths. An unusually high number of his arguments as a writer included a feminist dimension, as did his use of language. The greatest crime a person could commit in his eyes, and the one which would earn them his greatest contempt, was invariably against women, (Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa being obvious examples).

    I say again. What is all this shit about misogyny?

  7. 7
    Egbert

    His little modest book Letters to a Young Contrarian pretty much explains his entire philosophy of life. Although unlike many of us, he had the charm and wit to get away with some of his more outrageous disagreements.

  8. 8
    anne

    Shorter Hitch Youtube clip (#5 above):
    Question: Is the granting of a knighthood to Rushdie an insult to Islam?
    Shirley Williams: Yes. Well, it’s bad timing.
    Hitch: No. And what a craven answer. And what a stupid question.

  9. 9
    Lyanna

    Complimenting lots of women doesn’t make you not a misogynist, AB.

    Hitchens was deeply biased against women. Maybe “misogynist,” with its implication of hate, is too much: he was more casually oblivious than hateful, unless I’m overlooking some part of his record. But he was dismissive of women’s issues, like contraception and abortion, and he spoke very condescendingly about women.

  10. 10
    Lyanna

    I think his indictment of Mother Theresa will stand the test of time.

    I don’t know about the other stuff.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes sexism is probably more accurate. But there was “fucking fat slags”…

    AB are you not even aware of the women aren’t funny article? It’s pretty notorious.

    Anyway, we’ve been over this before. Search should find it.

  12. 12
    AB

    I’m aware of the article, and have read it. It does not argue that “women aren’t funny”, but that men need to be funny for evolutionary reasons, unlike women, who have superior charms, and that stand-up comedy is something of a masculine form and profession. Sexist in the sense that it presumes there are differences between men and women, but hardly proof that Hitchens had anything but love for the stronger sex. (Was that last bit sexist of me? If so, is it false or wicked?)

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Sigh. Yes it does. It says very flatly that women aren’t funny.

    Haven’t we had this conversation before? It’s very familiar.

  14. 14
    John Morales

    AB:

    (Was that last bit sexist of me? If so, is it false or wicked?)

    Do you actually care? If not, why bother asking?

  15. 15
    John Morales

    FWIW, for me the oddest thing about Hitchens was his embracing of his (admittedly semi-honorary, definitely non-religious) Jewishness later in life.

  16. 16
    AB

    Not with me.

    I suppose we have a different reading of that article, (which has, I admit, a very misleading title), but all this is a million miles from Ms Pollitt’s hysterical nonsense about “misogyny”.

    I’m sticking to my point. No man wrote more or said more or cared more about the rights of women across the world than Christopher Hitchens. As I’m sure you’ll agree, his record puts many in the so-called feminist movement to shame.

  17. 17
    Ophelia Benson

    No, not with you; it was Torquil Macneil, who used up all the oxygen in the world on a thread last December.

    http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/2011/12/katha-pollitt-on-hitchens/

    Please don’t disagree with women by calling them hysterical (here, at least).

    No, it’s not a different reading. Here’s what he said:

    Why are women, who have the whole male world at their mercy, not funny? Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about.

    And no, it’s just absurd to claim that no man wrote more or said more or cared more about the rights of women across the world than Christopher Hitchens. Lots of men wrote more or said more. It wasn’t one of his interests. Human rights, yes; women’s rights, no.

  18. 18
    anne

    Yanno, I think misogyny was in the drinking water when Hitch grew up. It was certainly in mine. I’m not making excuses for it: both he and I should have been able to overcome it, but it explains a lot. It was a widespread assumption in 1960s Britain that women were less intelligent (“where were the female Einsteins, Bertrand Russells, chess champions?”), less creative (“where were the female painters, composers, poets?” (uh, apart from lesbians or suicides)). If there was anything women could do (nursing, education, social reform,) it was necessarily inferior. Women just didn’t have either the genius or the intellectual stamina. That’s what I was taught at my nice 1960s co-ed grammar school, and because I was a stupid unimaginative female, even though I got good marks and was the first girl ever from my school into Oxford, it took me a long time to work out that it was *utter* bullshit rather than just particular bullshit.

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    Absolutely. I knew a million Hitch types then. It was just normal. But that changed. It’s pretty clueless of him not to have noticed. Maybe in a way it was a misfortune that he knew a lot of charismatic (and funny) men and had a tight little male circle – maybe that’s why he couldn’t register the reality of women. Or maybe it wasn’t a misfortune at all, except that it left him a bit of a dinosaur about women. It’s not as if I wish he’d been more “well-rounded”…But the sexism really was a thing. (It’s true of Mart, too. His women are so blank they’re scary. It’s scary that he can think that’s what women are like.)

  20. 20
    AB

    Have you deleted my reply?

  21. 21
    AB

    Since my reply has vanished, I repeat:

    I did not call Ms Pollitt hysterical. I said her charge of misogyny was a hysterical one based on the evidence she provides.

    I’ve paraphrased above what I believe to be the argument in that article, and don’t think the two lines extracted do it justice.

    I’d also like to know who these male writers are who wrote and said as much as Hitchens about women’s rights.

    Hopefully this post will not disappear, as did its predecessor. People are welcome to respond to it or ignore it.

  22. 22
    John Morales

    AB:

    Have you deleted my reply?

    Since my reply has vanished, I repeat: [blah]

    Such paranoia.

  23. 23
    AB

    John Morales

    My post was visible on the page. I refreshed it to read replies. It was gone. Either there was a technical glitch or my post was removed. No paranoia. Thanks.

  24. 24
    John Morales

    [meta]

    AB, hm.

    OK, let’s look at your claim.

    I suppose we have a different reading of that article, (which has, I admit, a very misleading title), but all this is a million miles from Ms Pollitt’s hysterical nonsense about “misogyny”.

    vs

    I did not call Ms Pollitt hysterical. I said her charge of misogyny was a hysterical one based on the evidence she provides.

    I put it to you that your claim of “Ms Pollitt’s hysterical nonsense” and your claim that “her charge of misogyny was a hysterical one based on the evidence she provides” are supposedly equivalent is fatuous — what they are is equivocal.

    As an aside, you do know the origin of the term ‘hysterical’, right?

  25. 25
    Lyanna

    I’d forgotten the “fucking fat slags” thing. That comment is misogynist indeed.

    I have trouble accepting the “man of his times” argument when there are other men who weren’t like that.

    As for men who have written more about women’s rights, are you kidding? Nick Cohen, Nicholas Kristof, PZ Myers, and those are just the famous or semi-famous ones.

  26. 26
    Ophelia Benson

    AB, yes, I deleted your reply, and you didn’t in fact “repeat” it in #21; you re-wrote it without the more dogmatic and pugnacious (not to say rude) elements. Good job (except for the part about pretending that was what you’d said).

  27. 27
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Iknklast:

    All too often these days, we are asking our great men (and women) to be perfect, without flaws.

    I’m really fucking sick of someone’s refusal to acknowledge my full humanity being brushed off as an “imperfection.”

    AB, evolutionary psychology is sexist bullshit.

    (Was that last bit sexist of me? If so, is it false or wicked?)

    Oh, aren’t you precious. Do you run around praising yourself for being “politically incorrect,” too?

    Ms Pollitt’s hysterical nonsense

    Probably.

  28. 28
    Bernard Hurley

    I vaguely knew Hitch when I was at Oxford. My opinion of him at the time was not that high although I have always admired his oratory. But basically I was the wrong sort of “leftie” to get on with him and he was the wrong sort of “leftie” to get on with me. I more or less forgot about his existence after that until he started being known as an atheist – no that he hadn’t been one all along. I think I like him a bit more now.

    The accusation of misogyny doesn’t surprise me in the least. I would have described him as a member of a group of effete public (for American readers this means private and expensive) school boys playing at revolution and I would have assumed a certain amount of misogyny came as part of the deal. In one of the many tributes to Hitch someone says that he first him in the Kings Arms. What he doesn’t say is that at the time the Kings Arms had a men only bar, something which some of us made a great deal of fuss about.

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