COLD WAR OVERSEAS - HITCHENS - REVIEW
ABC Radio National broadcast this review before September 11, 2001, and
hence the failings identified became rabid.
The Trial of
Trial of Henry Kissinger
should be read by everyone. In its 150 pages, Christopher Hitchens
reminds us why so many people became outraged at the US imperium’s war
against the Indo-Chinese. Equally, by detailing how Kissinger and the
CIA used diplomatic bags to smuggle weapons into Chile in 1970 to kidnap
the Chief of its Armed Forces, Hitchens takes us behind today’s
headlines. General Rene Schnieder had declared that his troops should
remain neutral if the Chilean Congress voted the Marxist Allende in as
president. Schneider’s murder paved the way for Pinochet’s caravan
The only danger in focussing on Kissinger is
that it implies that his crimes were the result of an malignant
individual and not the outcome of the militarised plutocracy that
remains in power no matter which party machine is more successful at
rigging the electoral process.
Because Hitchens cannot hold back from the
personal, it’s important to distinguish an insult from a charge sheet.
For Hitchens to say that Kissinger is a serial killer is not to make a
personal attack. But when Hitchens writes that Kissinger is “pudgy”,
he has crossed that line, thereby marring his brief for the prosecution.
In the hands of a prose master, the
combination of personal affront and political onslaught can be
irresistible. Hitchens quotes one such exemplar from Joseph Heller’s
1976 novel, Good as Gold. The
protagonist rails against a New York publishing world which has become
so corrupt that: “Even that fat little fuck Henry Kissinger was
writing a book”.
By contrast, when Hitchens attempts to score
from a backhander, he is the one who appears callous. In discussing
Kissinger’s involvement in “the extirpation of the Timorese”,
Hitchens has a bit of fun by writing of “those doing the
“Extirpation” is not a word to play with
if you want people to believe that you care about the dead.
Early in his collected literary essays,
Christopher Hitchens endorses George Orwell’s proposition that the use
of language measures of the worth any political stance. Applying this
precept, Hitchens recounts that he once “parsed” the diaries of the
Watergate criminal, H. R. Haldeman. Now, before the 1960s, parsing
tested a student’s grasp of grammar, the task being to tag each word
or phrase as a past participle, a gerund, or some other part of speech.
Continuing as the pedagogue, Hitchens
chastises the editor of a British scholarly journal who “let stand the
misuse of the word “Hopefully”. Hitchens wonders whether that editor
had read the article he published. That question can be raised about how
much attention Hitchens himself has paid to the essays he has
republished. Hitchens poses as the master grammarian and stylist,
tarting his essays with sneers at infelicities perpetrated by his
subjects. He therefore should expect to have his own prose evaluated.
The standard will be the one he applies to others, if not always to
Like many a schoolboy, Hitchens gets carried
away by qualifiers and modifiers. For instance, he writes of a
“debased simulacrum”. A simulcarum is either any kind of
representation, or a superficial likeness. In both cases, an appeal to
quality seems beside the point. If Hitchens meant fraud, why not say so?
One reason might be that plain English would not have let him show off
with “simulacrum”, which is jargon among the Post-Modernists whom he
otherwise affects to despise.
His prose turns brackish with cliched
intensifiers. Calamities are hideous,
pogroms bloody, fact-checkers punctilious,
books wonderful, amazing
or great, while this, that and the other are all famously so. In full flight, Hitchens can gather into one sentence
an impunity which is egregious,
a war criminal who is notorious,
and standards which are exalted.
In this vein, he has Bosie Douglas writing “florid hothouse verse”
for a “highly affected magazine”. Christopher Hitchens would not
have been out of place as its editor.
Hitchens also decorates his prose with
foreign words, a sin according to Orwell. To make matters worse, these
uses prove inept. Even if there is such a thing as a Catholic
Iconostasis, what was wrong with altar piece? Elsewhere, he has a spy
novel from the Reagan years “influencing the local zeitgeist”,
which is German for spirit of the age, surely an inflated concept for
that administration. Historikerstreit
is the German term for a 1980s dispute among historians over whether
Soviet mass murder in the 1930s had given the Nazis their licence for
the Holocaust. Given its provenance, this coinage should not be devalued
by being applied to the letters-to-the-editor that a Gore Vidal novel
provoked about Abraham Lincoln.
As an observer of Washington, Hitchens is
infected with its bureaucratese,
When Hitchens has
something to say, he displays few of these faults. His interrogations of
the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and of the poet Philip Larkin,
are models of demolition, their perceptiveness never stained by
is exposed as liberal seduced by power brokers. On Larkin, Hitchens
opens by disparaging, though not denying, the usual line againt his
racism and sexism. He admires
Larkin’s poetic talents, but recognises that the Laureate’s view of
the world was never quintessentially English, but essentially fascist.
His father adored Hitler and Larkin himself went on being pro-German
during the war.
Essayists are ill-advised to go about with a
vacuum cleaner sucking in their every contribution. Reputations are
preserved by pruning. Repetitions are unavoidable across a decade’s
writing. It is egoism to suppose that, because one has told an anecdote
in Vanity Fair in 1995, every
reader of the New York Review of
Books will remember it in the year 2000. Examples bear repeating in
journalism, but not when collected into a volume as well indexed as
this. Hitchens or his editors should have decided which quotation of the
opening exchange from The
importance of being Ernest
Oscar Wilde is one of Hitchens’s great
subjects, a writer whom he admires without restraint, perhaps even
emulates. So struck is Hitchens that he alleges that Max Nordau in his
1892 study of Degeneration had targeted Wilde “above all”.
claim is believable if you’ve never so much as scanned Nordau’s 560
pages where Wilde gets done over in six pages, whereas the
Pre-Raphaelites, French Symbolists, Ibsenites, Nietzscheans and Wagner
cultists each receives a forty- or sixty-page diatribe. Is it possible
that our erstwhile Oxford tutor has been cribbing?
Comparing Hitchens’s two reviews dealing
with Oscar Wilde from 1995 and 2000, we find no sign of Hitchens’s
having learnt anything from Douglas Murray’s biography of Lord Alfred.
Wilde was not deserted by his lover. Hitchens could have indicated a
change of mind in a footnote to the earlier essay, but there is not even
the shadow of a doubt. Again on Wilde, Hitchens praises The
Importance of Being Ernest for being as faultless a three-act play
as has ever been written. This praise overlooks that this version had to
be rescued from a lumbering four-act draft. Is this oversight another
sign of a reluctance to re-write?
In a tribute to the boys’ own naval novels
of Patrick O’Brian, Hitchens decides that the series appeals because
its author “keeps before him the essential realisation that men like
warfare”. Hitchens italicised like.
The claim is disputable for the human species, and is one which Hitchens
might have been expected to challenge had it come from a Pentagon bully.
Be that as it may, the phrasing is exaggerated in this context. All
Hitchens needed to say was that O’Brian remembered that “his
characters like warfare”. Or does Hitchens’s emphasis expose an
armchair warrior? The suspicion that it might is strengthened by the
dedication of his Kissinger philippic to the “brave
victims” of the accused. Why only the brave? Does cowardice
erase a victim’s right to justice?
instance of this tough-mindedness
appears when Hitchens reports that Germany and France made “land
grants … just to consecrate the fallen”.
of “just” implies that the slaughtered got more than they deserve.
This carelessness with modifiers infects his
case against Kissinger.
an earlier review, Hitchens considered that “to judge is by definition
to be arbitrary”. Is it? What is the role of precedent, and the rule
of law? In some legal systems, arbitrariness is limited by considering
each matter on “a case- by-case” basis.
most, we can say that to judge is arbitrary in some particular sense, or
at a given time or specific place. When Hitchens needs a modifier most,
he fails to deliver.
The essays document the Englishness of
Christopher Hitchens, passing himself off as a cosmopolitan. His
subjects are predictable for a Navy Brat - Kipling, Conan Doyle, Anthony
Powell and P. G. Wodehouse.
Hitchens quotes a previous staff member on Vanity Fair observing that
the joy of being one of its contributors was that “You could write
about any subject you liked, no matter how outrageous, as long as you
said it in evening clothes”. In response, Hitchens confesses: “I
have devoted my professional life to the emulation of this fine line”.
What has been the impact of “evening clothes” on both the form and
the content of Hitchens’s professional practice.
While Hitchens can poke fun at the Washington
novel with its stock figure of a British Ambassador, such as Lord Claude
Maudulayne, Hitchens himself fills another standard role in East Coast
American life, that of the English toff, in this case, the Oxford tutor
whose place at the dinner table is to assure his hostess that, with the
publication of The Great Gatsby, “American literature grew up”. Such
condescension would thrill Lady de Burgh.