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Preston Jones

Uncompromising Positions

Hitchens and Orwell

In an interview with Brian Lamb of C-SPAN, Christopher Hitchens said that his chief motivation for writing is rage—rage against political corruption, media distortion of reality, and the culture of death in its many manifestations. Read the man awhile and you're inclined to believe him. Hitchens' writing combines detached bemusement with wit, irony, anger, independence, and, at his best, genuine moral outrage.

In Unacknowledged Legislation, a sometimes boring, sometimes stellar collection of essays and reviews, Hitchens refers to Princess Diana's divorce attorney as a "shyster lawyer for a gold-digging airhead." In Letters to a Young Contrarian, a primer on how to be a genuine nonconformist, the Dalai Lama is junked for his "fatuous non sequiturs" and Blaise Pascal takes it in the slats for his "trashy casuistry." Elsewhere Hitchens calls Tom Clancy a "junk supplier of surrogate testosterone," Pope John Paul II an "authoritarian," Billy Graham a dispenser of "harangues," Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a "polka-dotted popinjay," T. S. Eliot an anti-Semite, and the late Queen Mother a tipsy ditz with a thing, in her early days, for fascists.

The Missionary Position, a savage critique of Mother Teresa, advises us that the "elderly virgin" was a "demagogue, an obscurantist, and a servant of earthly powers," a front for dictatorial and reactionary governments, an agent of oppression (she encouraged those under her care to accept their lot as the will of God), and a thief (where did the bundles of cash sent to her go?). "At the direct request of the Vatican," he writes in the introduction to Letters, several years later, "I was invited to give evidence for the opposing side in the hearings on Mother Teresa's impending canonization. It was an astonishing opportunity to play Devil's Advocate in the literal sense, and I must say that the Church behaved with infinitely more care and scruple than my liberal critics."

Upping the ante, the purpose of The Trial of Henry Kissinger is to goad Congress or another legal authority into launching an investigation into Kissinger's alleged war crimes, committed when he served in the Nixon and Ford administrations. Hitchens says that Kissinger helped to ensure that peace would not be achieved in Vietnam in 1968 and is therefore partly responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths and injuries among American soldiers and Indochinese civilians. Among Hitchens' other indictments are: "deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh"; "incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor"; and "Personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, D.C." Since writing this book Hitchens has continued in this vein, bringing legal proceedings against Kissinger for defamation (Kissinger called him a Holocaust denier, which is ridiculous) and "to demonstrate," as he writes in Letters, that Kissinger is "a practiced and habitual liar." And speaking of liars, Hitchens' book on Clinton, No One Left to Lie To, was uncompromising enough to make him permanently persona non grata with many of his former chums on the Left.

"Uncompromising" is a noble word, and one that can't be applied to many journalists, right, left, or center. At times Hitchens earns it. But one is also tempted to read him for the same reason one watches kickboxing: some of his attacks have all the spirit of a home invasion. The paradox is that Hitchens' writing both ennobles and debases.

All of which makes Hitchens' new book, on George Orwell—the gold standard for fierce journalistic integrity—uncommonly interesting. Why Orwell Matters (the British edition, which I read, bears the bolder title Orwell's Victory) is a collection of essays partly concerned with Orwell's views on the British Empire, America (where Hitchens, a Brit, has lived for 20 years—Orwell had no interest in visiting), and "Englishness." It aims to demythologize, albeit in reverent tones, the renowned author of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In his introduction, Hitchens observes that Thomas Carlyle had to drag Cromwell "out from under a mound of dead dogs and offal before being able to set him up as a figure worthy of biography. This is not a biography," Hitchens continues, "but I sometimes feel as if George Orwell requires extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies."

Hitchens defends Orwell against critics on the Left who hated him—and still hate him, even today—for criticizing communists and thus giving political ammunition to conservatives. At the same time, Hitchens makes sure to fend off partisans on the Right who have sought to claim Orwell as one of their own. In particular, Hitchens does a nice job of showing how former Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz misquoted Orwell to make him a pro-Yankee cold warrior when, in fact, he was ambivalent toward America. Rather than advocating a tight British alliance with the United States, as Podhoretz has him do, Orwell actually said in 1947 that "a socialist United States of Europe" seemed to be "the only worthwhile political objective today." Orwell was "conservative about a lot of things," Hitchens writes, "but not about politics."

Indeed, Orwell was a socialist of conservative temperament; he was his own man, quite unlike the typists who guard contemporary editorial pages. His "victory" lay in the fact that he thought for himself, usually arrived at the truth about something while doing so, and then stated that truth clearly. Orwell "matters" because his independence of mind, clarity of thought, and commitment to honesty wrought a body of work—fiction, reviews, and essays (he was a poor poet)—that is as "relevant" today as ever. As Hitchens points out, Animal Farm was being serialized not long ago in Zimbabwe's Daily News until an anti-tank mine destroyed that newspaper's presses. (The mine, "of the sort not available to ordinary citizens," was almost certainly linked to the thug dictator Robert Mugabe—who, presumably, was made uncomfortable by his association in readers' minds with Napoleon, the novel's dictatorial pig.)

Orwell still matters to Americans, too. Re-reading him in the days before I wrote these words, I was surprised at how often his descriptions could be transposed to our own time with only slight alteration:

To the British Working class [American Christians] the massacre of their comrades in Vienna [Sudan], Berlin [Pakistan], Madrid [Egypt] or wherever it might be seemed less interesting and less important than yesterday's football match.
—"Looking Back on the Spanish War" (1943)
And then … the whole farm burst out into Beasts of England [the PC slogan "diversity is strength"] in tremendous unison. The cows [journalists] lowed it, the dogs [politicians] whined it, the sheep [theologians] bleated it, the horses [professors] whinnied it, the ducks [graduate students] quacked it.
Animal Farm (1946)

Hitchens' own reading of Orwell began some decades ago. There we find young Christopher, son of a naval officer, at an English boarding school writing a comparison of Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and Orwell's Animal Farm and turning the paper in, late, to a certain Reverend Collingwood, "my old English master." This piece of work, says Hitchens, was "the first decent essay I ever wrote."

A future biographer will have to determine whether Hitchens was attracted to Orwell because he discovered that the novelist shared his beliefs or whether Orwell's writing has shaped Hitchens' view of things—or both. When Hitchens writes, for example, that Orwell's "one especial insight was to notice the frequent collusion of the Roman Catholic Church and of Catholic intellectuals with [the 1930s'] saturnalia of wickedness and stupidity," one need only change the date and Hitchens could be speaking of himself. "Orwell never romanticized the victims of colonialism," Hitchens says, and in Letters to a Young Contrarian he urges his readers to avoid romanticizing, at the expense of assisting, inhabitants of the Third World. Hitchens praises Orwell for his "refusal of power worship," and he might pat himself on the back at the same time. Hitchens says that Orwell was "a libertarian before the idea had gained currency," and I notice in the Letters that Hitchens gives libertarianism an approving nod.

Yet while Hitchens has much in common with Orwell, substantial differences remain. Orwell "was never able to compose anything with. … confidence in having it published," we're told. But for Hitchens, publishing may come too easily: in the week before I wrote this review, I saw essays and reviews by him in The Wilson Quarterly, The Nation, Vanity Fair, Free Inquiry, and The Atlantic Monthly(and probably there were more I didn't see). The astonishing thing is that he had something to say in every case. Yet the danger of constant and apparently effortless publication— with quick writing and minimal editing—is clear. How else to explain these abysmal sentences, which appeared in Hitchens' review of a book by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, first published in the Times Literary Supplement and then in bound pages of Unacknowledged Legislation:

Dylan Thomas, talking to a Member of Parliament just returned from the investigation of Buchenwald, said: "They should send poets there" and thus made (without realizing it) a direct challenge to Adorno. The late Joseph Brodsky claimed rather extravagantly that a whole new religion could be founded on the tiny, joky [sic] couplet of Auden's about unequal affections. The examples of Akhmatova and Milosz and others have made Shelley's idea of the "unacknowledged legislator" into a near-cliché.

One can't imagine the ever-hungry Orwell writing, let alone making public, such a tangled mess of allusions and references.

This suggests that what Hitchens has said of his hero—that "it has lately proved possible to reprint every single letter, book review and essay composed by Orwell without exposing him to any embarrassment"—probably won't be said of himself, and not just because of the occasional lapse. Orwell was uncompromising but rarely if ever mean, spiteful, or glib. As Hitchens points out in Letters, Orwell believed that a writer's chief responsibility is to tell readers what they don't want to hear. But people read Hitchens precisely because they do want to see who's going to get pummeled this time around. I read Hitchens to see an exceptionally skillful writer at work but also to burn off steam. Not much of his literary output will endure.

And perhaps that is appropriate for our earthbound author, the fierce "antitheist" who pictures heaven as a sort of "celestial North Korea." There "may be people who wish to live their lives under a cradle-to-grave divine supervision; a permanent surveillance and monitoring," Hitchens writes in Letters. "But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque."

As it happens, Hitchens is on to something here: there is something distinctly unpleasant (and, dare I say, unbiblical) about the Puppet Master of much "conventional" theology—as Clark Pinnock and other clear-thinking "openness" theologians have asserted in the face of constant harassment. But Hitchens' hatred (he uses the word) for Christianity of any strain seems limitless. "I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful," he says. Hitchens further maintains, without evidence or argument, that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been heroic with or without their faith. Poor Christopher (in Greek the name means "Christ bearer"): so rational and reasoned; but he loses his skull when it comes to religion.

Which brings us back to the exchange Hitchens described at the outset of Why Orwell Matters. Here is the book's first sentence in full:

My thanks are due first to the Reverend Peter Collingwood, my old English master, who first set me Animal Farm as a text and who allowed me to show him my work, late, as an off-the-subject comparison with Darkness at Noon: the first decent essay I ever wrote.

I don't know the Rev. Collingwood and I don't presume to speak for him. But the image I have in mind is of Hitchens shaking his teacher's hand while urinating on his shoes. "Thanks for introducing me to Orwell," says Chris. "And by the way: your religion sucks."

Preston Jones is a contributing editor to Books & Culture.

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