For a long time now, Christopher Hitchens has reminded me of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis late in their careers, two other English masters of prose whose midlife devolutions into self-loathing and vile misanthropy gives off such a reek that, for me, it permeates back through time and pollutes their earliest and best work.
I can’t think about Amis’ Lucky Jim, a book that had me rolling on the floor with laughter when I read it the first time back in college, before I knew anything about Amis, and very much a young man’s book, without seeing in it signs of the sour and bloated old drunk jealously calling his own son a bastard and exchanging racist and misogynistic jokes with the equally sour and solipsistic poet Philip Larkin.
Larkin, however, was always sour and solipsistic, so his life story is spared the awful poingnancy of a self-perpretrated decline and fall.
They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had,
And add some extra, just for you...
Larkin also had a very clear idea of what he was and how he’d become himself.
And whenever I try to re-read the younger Waugh’s best books---A Handful of Dust, Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies---I keep stumbling across the little old toad of a domestic tyrant, self-satisfied, complacent, puffed up with a piety no one believed, least of all himself, snarling, malicious, cruel, and yet full of self-pity.
It’s hard to say with Amis and Waugh, and now Hitchens, whether the self-loathing and the misanthropy are cause and effect, or which is cause and which is effect, whether they’re two sides of the same coin, whether they’re contingent or serendipitous, unlucky accidents of temperament that were mutually reinforcing and sustaining.
However it worked, and however much it was fueled by booze, it turned the three of them into old creeps whose souls were moribund long before their bodies gave out.
Hitchens adds this. He’s like a once-handsome playboy preening before a mirror, convinced he sees all his old beauty and charm, but aware of a derisive laughter coming from somewhere, possibly from inside his own head, that spins him around and has him screaming at invisible enemies, “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
A writer’s biography shouldn’t affect your appreciation for that writer’s work.
P.G. Wodehouse, who had his own biographical question marks, had it right:
My personal animosity against a writer never affects my opinion of what he writes. Nobody could be more anxious than myself, for instance, that Alan Alexander Milne should trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck, yet I re-read his early stuff at regular intervals with all the old enjoyment.
Waugh and Amis have an advantage over Hitchens. They were novelists, and even at their worst they were able to imagine their way out of their own heads and lives far enough to produce novels that are compassionate, almost tender, and mostly devoid of the sourness that had infected their real selves.
Amis' The Russian Girl isn't anywheres near as funny as Lucky Jim, but it shows some of the same hopeful playfulness and self-reflective intelligence, and The Folks Who Live on the Hill is a forgiving portrait of the kind of regular human beings Amis had never particularly shown any affection for in even his earliest work. Both books are more enjoyable, and more humane, than anything his son, the bastard, Martin, has written in a long time.
And Waugh's Sword of Honor Trilogy, while smudged with snobbery, reactionary politics, a nostalgia for an aristorcratic world that never was, and a very strange lack of interest in the actual war the characters are supposedly fighting, is a work worthy of a far more sympathetic spirit than Waugh showed any signs of possessing when he wrote it.
The novels stand apart from the lives. Amis' and Waugh's biographies barely touch them. It's only my own failure to achieve and maintain an imaginative distance that makes it hard for me to read those books without seeing the authors' ghosts.
They aren't their books. Their books aren't their lives.
Hitchens is a journalist and an essayist, which means that his work, in a much more direct way, is his biography.
In the last decade, through a combination of self-righteousness, rage, and a contrarianism that has become indistinguishable from willful stupidity has made himself both loathsome and ridiculous, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine that he was ever neither.
The last thing of his I was able to force my way through was a review in the Atlantic of some new biographies of John F. Kennedy. (Unfortunately, it’s only available to subscribers. Drop me a line if you’d like me to email you a copy.) In it, Hitchens, pretending to despise Kennedy because of his timidity on Civil Rights, obsessed over Kennedy’s sex life with a borderline pornographic interest and with a degree of fabulism that made it clear he was projecting. Here was a self-loathing, self-accused failure who had found a way to contemplate and condemn his own sins and perversities in the guise of holding up another, greater man’s vices and failures for public scorn.
The review is hysterical, and I don’t mean hysterical funny. I mean hysterical as in Hitchens seems on the brink of an emotional meltdown.
This paragraph, though, from a piece Hitchens wrote for Slate, was the killer for me. It’s ostensibly Hitchens on the death of Pope John Paul II. What it’s really about is how Christopher Hitchens is a better and more morally courageous man than the late pope was.
Finally, if the pope is to have so much credit for the liberation of Eastern Europe, he ought to accept his responsibility for the enslavement of the Middle East. He not only opposed the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but the use of force to get him out of Kuwait in 1991. I have never read any deployment of Augustinian argument, in the latter case, that would not qualify it as a just war. Moreover, the pope made a visit to Damascus not long ago, and sat quietly outside the Grand Mosque while the Assad regime greeted him as one who understood that Muslims and Catholics had a common enemy—in the Jews who had killed Christ. (That he may already have been senescent at this point is not an answer: It is a problem, though, for those who believe that he was Christ's vicar on earth.)
I don’t know what calculus you’d use to determine how many lives John Paul saved by opposing the Soviets and how many he caused to be lost by not championing the removal of Saddam by force or how it works out that the lives lost count more against him than the lives saved, but it’s an egregiously false and brazenly dishonest equation anyway.
Hitchens, in ignoring that what the Pope opposed in Iraq was more War, and an unjustified one started by a pair of egomaniacal bullies who happened to be the President and Vice-President of the United States, is essentially lying.
Add to this the fact that Hitchens wrote this on the occasion of John Paul’s death in 2005 when it was more than clear that our Iraq misadventure was failing and we were turning the country into a slaughterhouse and the evidence that Bush had lied us into the war in the first place was undeniable—when it was more than clear that the Pope had been right—and what you have here is another case of Hitchens being willfully and perversely stupid in the service of...what?
His own ego.
It’s another example of what’s become Hitchens’ defining trope. He sets up impossibly high, and phony, standards of morality, intelligence, insight, or whatever, that only Christopher Hitchens is stern enough, disciplined enough, intelligent enough to meet (and which he only has to meet inside his own head) and uses them to show how stern, disciplined, intelligent, or whatever he is and how everybody else comes up short.
So when I saw that Hitchens had written an essay for Vanity Fair arguing that women are just not as funny as men, I gave it the skip. I figured the measure for funny was going to be Hitchens’ own self-congratulatory wit, and that would be like all his other measuring tools, calibrated to show how nobody is as whatever as Christopher Hitchens.
I muttered a quick “Lily Tomlin,” and walked metaphorically away from the pompous old drunk at the bar, pausing at the door to think about tossing a “Tina Fey” over my shoulder, but deciding it wasn’t worth the bother and left the saloon without reading the essay or writing a post.
Then I was reading TAPPED yesterday and came across this post by Garance Franke-Ruta and found out that Hitchens wasn’t saying women weren’t as funny as men. He was claiming that they weren’t evolutionarily predisposed to be funny.
There was no percentage in their being funny. They attracted potential mates just be sitting still and giving off pherenomes. But men had to work at attracting females and they found that being funny helped do the trick.
I can see it, because anthropologists have shown that bad puns and fart jokes were extremely useful on the mastodon hunts and it explains why women love the Three Stooges and how come back in the 1950s they mobbed Jerry Lewis while Dean Martin was left to stand by himself in the corner, lonesome and ignored.
I’ll get to my problems with all evolutionary psychology arguments later. Franke-Ruta hit on the obvious objection to Hitchens’ argument.
If humor is an evolutionary strategy for human males to attract females, this makes human females the final arbiters of what’s funny.
Furthermore, says Franke-Ruta, by Hitchens’ own logic he is an evolutionary failure:
If men are, as Hitchens asserts, funnier than women because masculine humor develops on account of sexual selection -- i.e. because women want them to be funny, just as peahens prefer their mates to have glorious decorative peacock tails -- then doesn't it follow that negative reactions to an article like Hitchens' is an example not of female humorlessness but of male failure in the psycho-sexual humor realm? If men are funny in order to seduce women, isn't an article that women find enormously irritating and off-putting the very definition of something humorless and lacking? After all, in Hitchens' own terms, we ladies are the ultimate judges here -- the "audience," he says, for the male performance -- since masculine humor's foundational purpose is to "make the lady laugh."