In Defense of Good Writing, and Maybe, Just Maybe of Christopher Hitchens

It’s hard to know what’s more objectionable about Richard Seymour’s philippic “Un-Hitched” concerning the late writer Christopher Hitchens, his style or his opinions. The former is employed to disguise  threadbare analysis, the latter are subventions of liberal dogmas. Throw in some Freudian kicks to the ribs and you’ve got the tenor of the book.

Reading Seymour’s torquere prose I was put in mind of Pascal’s observation: “When we come across a natural style, we are surprised and delighted; for we expected an author, and we find a man.” Seymour is surely an author, and like all wrenched stylists, manages to be fatuous where nuance is required, and urgent where irony is called for. (If your subject is Christopher Hitchens and you sally forth without subtlety or wit, you’re cooked.) Consider the following, alas, the opening paragraph of Seymour’s chapter on Hitchens’ Englishness:

“Precisely what it was about Mrs Thatcher’s femininity that attracted Hitchens is not entirely clear from his multiple accounts of the concupiscence. His hyperventilating eulogies to the adamantine leader of British reaction usually took as their point of departure a brief encounter between the pair which resulted in his being lightly spanked with ‘a rolled-up parliamentary order paper’ and adjudged a ‘naughty boy’. He had written of the romantic poet Byron that he was ‘intimately aware of the relationship between sex and cruelty’. It is fair to say that Hitchens was too, as the sadism–masochism couplet frequently made an appearance in his writing. And if he wrote of sado-masochism primarily as a relation between ruler and ruled to be deplored and resisted, it clearly also had its temptations.”

Or consider this, again lines opening a chapter on Hitchens’ atheism:

“There usually comes a time when a child begins to notice the inconsistencies and absurdities in the silly stories that grown-ups tell them in order to get them to behave. Christopher Hitchens was nine – a little late, if I may say so. His teacher one day exclaimed how wonderful it was that God had made the trees and grass green so that they would be pleasant to the eye, and he simply knew that the teacher had it wrong: ‘The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.’1 After this he began ‘to notice other oddities’ such as, if Jesus could heal a blind person, why not heal blindness? Why were prayers not answered? Why was sex so toxic a subject?

Such ‘faltering and childish objections’, as Hitchens called them, are not disgraceful in a child.2 Yet what is surprising is how frequently demotic reasoning of this type returns in Hitchens’s writing on religion. It may be objected that this is because, in his words, ‘no religion can meet them with any satisfactory answer.’ But this is far from true, as I will demonstrate. At any rate, it is hardly a good reason to persist with such humdrum observations. Just as curious is the literal-minded John Bullishness with which the author approached his subject and above all his careless errors and ham-fisted generalisations. By Hitchens’s own standards, this combination – obviousness, literalism, and bullshit – constitutes a triple-crown howler. To this extent the author was a poor atheist. He made secularism seem uninteresting and materialism incondite. Worse, at key moments chauvinism, paranoid alarums for civilisational warfare, and downright racism took hold of his onslaught against religion.”

 

If clean, supported arguments are what you’re after you won’t find them in Seymour’s concatenation of barbarous, ad hominem attacks. That Hitchens strayed from his orthodox schoolboy’s Marxism to embrace what Seymour calls “Jeffersonian Imperialism” following the Al Qaeda attacks against the US on Sept. 11, 2001, calls for analysis, but besotted by a style at once moist and turgid (an accomplishment of a kind) Seymour proves inept, callow, and rabidly phlegmatic. Accordingly one would scarcely know that the struggle of public intellectuals, to the extent they are sincere (and no one can reasonably fault Hitchens’ sincerity) is to locate reasoned liminal spaces outside the reflexive dogmas of ideology. Both the left and right have been adept at consolidating and husbanding rhetorical and critical deconstructions. Neither has managed to build much. Hitchens thought Enlightenment values worth fighting for.

The only thing we know for sure reading Seymour’s “Un-Hitched” is that inflated prose can still sell a book if you have the right friends, a variant perhaps of Gore Vidal’s famous assertion: “politics is knowing who’s paying for your lunch.”