‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit

Stefan Collini

  • Orwell's Victory by Christopher Hitchens
    Allen Lane, 150 pp, £9.99, June 2002, ISBN 0 7139 9584 X

Winning is very important to Christopher Hitchens. Dr Johnson was said to ‘talk for victory’, and by all accounts it seems the same might be said of Hitchens. He certainly writes for victory. His preferred genre is the polemic; his favoured tone mixes forensic argument with high-octane contempt. And no one can accuse him of only picking on boys his own size: he is happy to take the ring against tubby, bespectacled former diplomats and little, shrivelled old ladies as well as (special contempt here) relatively fit joggers. His indictments of Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton have been among the glories of the prosecuting counsel’s art in recent years. Taking the global village as his courtroom, Hitchens asks us, the jury, to stare with wonder and loathing at these singular specimens of human depravity who are united in being parsimonious with the truth and in being the object of some very good jokes.

From his early Trotskyist days on the New Statesman, through extended spells as a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation, and spreading out into contributions to a daunting variety of other weeklies and monthlies, Hitchens has been a prolific journalist, and in addition to his books he has now published four collections of his articles and essays. This is where much of his best writing is found and where he displays the range of his literary tastes as well as the incisiveness of his literary judgments. Hitchens is one of the best contemporary examples of a species we tend to think of as flourishing in the 19th century rather than the 21st, the political journalist as man of letters. He would have been entirely at home with the slash-and-burn style of the early partisan quarterlies, such as the Edinburgh or the Westminster, disposing of shoddy Romantic poetry and shoddy arguments in favour of the slave trade or the unreformed House of Commons with equal gusto, in a style two parts Hazlitt to one part Cobbett with a dash of Croker’s Tory venom.

It’s worth considering what kind of cultural authority this type of writing can lay claim to these days. It self-consciously repudiates the credentials of academic scholarship; it disparages the narrow technical expertise of the policy wonk; it cannot rest on the standing of achievement as a politician or novelist. In other words, it has nothing to declare but its talent. Knowing the facts is very important; knowing the people helps (there’s a fair bit of anecdotage and I-was-there-ism in Hitchens’s journalism). But in the end it stands or falls by the cogency of its case, based on vigorous moral intuitions, honesty and integrity in expressing them, mastery of the relevant sources and a forceful, readable style. Car licence-plates in New Hampshire bear (rather threateningly, it always seems to me, as big SUVs speed by) the state motto ‘Live free or die.’ In this spirit, the maxim on Hitchens’s crest has to be ‘Get it right or die.’

In the early part of his writing career, Hitchens’s main way of being always right was to be very Left, but he has recently been casting off this identity, at least in its familiar forms. Now it appears that the infallible litmus test of whether one is on the right track is whether most people think the contrary. Comrade Hitchens may still be susceptible to the pull of fraternity when embodied by old buddies from the New Left Review, but his self-ascribed identity now is as a ‘contrarian’. Being ‘independent’ (of parties, institutions, conventional wisdom, codes of politeness) is the thing. He describes himself in a recent essay as writing in opposition to ‘the present complacently “liberal” consensus’, when it’s pretty clear that what really gets his goat is that it is a consensus and that it’s complacent rather than just that it’s liberal. In the same piece he introduces a sentence with the nicely self-ironic phrase ‘without wishing to seem even-handed’, but it’s hard to think of anyone for whom this is less of a risk. Irreverence is more highly prized than ever (he’s always admired Wilde), and he hates cant, especially pious cant, especially pious radical academic cant. This protects him from any risk of being well thought of by the well-meaning, particularly in the US, and he further insures himself against the danger of being approved of by his conspicuous consumption of fags and booze.

Of course, in choosing to distance oneself from a particular ‘consensus’, especially a liberal consensus, one inevitably appears to be aligning oneself with its other, more usual opponents. Hitchens’s recent high-profile resignation from the Nation illustrates the difficulty. His denunciation of his erstwhile colleagues’ too predictable criticisms of US foreign policy and their too indulgent perspective on the response of some of those who suffer the impact of that policy in other parts of the world can make him look like a recruit to the ranks of those who would have us all line up against the ‘axis of evil’. In such circumstances, too irritable an aversion from one’s self-righteously ‘radical’ associates can lead one into some very unlovely company, and the self-contradictoriness of consistent contrarianism can produce odd outcomes. Surely Hitchens is not going to go the way of Paul Johnson, one of the leading attack-journalists (and New Statesman stalwarts) of a previous generation, now reduced to indiscriminate barking at all things ‘fashionable’, while intoning pas d’ennemis à droite?

As it happens, I’ve been rereading Hitchens’s latest collection of essays, Unacknowledged Legislation (2001), alongside a couple of other collections that have recently appeared in paperback, Martin Amis’s The War against Cliché and Frank Kermode’s Pleasing Myself. That’s a tough poker table to ask anyone to sit at, and it’s impressive that some of Hitchens’s best pieces, or at least some of his best paragraphs, don’t seem out of place. It’s true that he is quite often doing something different from those two contrasting masters of the literary review-essay, something more argumentative and political, but even when allowance is made for that, this company does in the end make his writing seem a bit blowsy or over-pleased with itself, certainly too prone to go for the cheap shot. Amis is partial to a spot of sitting duck, too, but he pays in full for his day’s shooting from his wad of newly minted images, while Kermode mostly contents himself with a saddened shake of the head, a devastating weapon in its way, but one that doesn’t leave any mess on the carpet. Hitchens loves mess on the carpet.

What Hitchens hasn’t previously attempted at any length is the positive tribute, the admiring portrait. It has long been clear, however, that George Orwell is something of a hero of his, as of most political journalists with claims to be both essayists and tellers of unpopular truths, and now, spurred by the appearance four years ago of Peter Davison’s marvellously thorough complete edition of Orwell’s writings (and no doubt with an eye on Orwell’s centenary, which falls this year), he has written a short book entirely devoted to telling us, as the title of the US edition has it, ‘Why Orwell Matters’. One therefore turns with interest to see how Hitchens, an acknowledged master of the literary bazooka attack, will acquit himself in the trickier arts of discriminating appreciation.

Orwell’s Victory has both a dedication and an epigraph, not unusual things in themselves, but in this case curious and curiously revealing. The dedication is to Robert Conquest, ‘premature anti-fascist, premature anti-Stalinist, poet and mentor, and founder of “the united front against bullshit”’. It seems that Conquest is being saluted here principally for having been against a lot of things; this appears to be an early signal of the connection between being ‘anti’ and telling it like it is. Hitchens is all for being against things (and one thinks again of the title of that collection by his friend Martin Amis), though here he perhaps risks the mild paradox of ‘we contrarians must stick together.’ The dedication also seems to suggest that Conquest is being praised for being against certain things before most people were, though the tonal unsteadiness of ‘premature’, whatever its ironic intent, risks putting Conquest in the company of babies, conclusions, ejaculations. Conquest, it seems, is to be understood in Nietzsche’s sense, as an ‘untimely man’ (contrarians are prone to congratulate themselves on being out of step with their times), or perhaps, to take up Larkin’s more familiar idiom, one of ‘the less deceived’. Even though we haven’t even got to the contents page, we’re starting to catch a whiff of the ‘no bullshit’ bullshit that is one of Hitchens’s trademarks.

The epigraph is from Proust and, being from Proust, is a paragraph long. It is about one kind of genius, genius as ‘reflecting power’, the kind of genius possessed by those who, though they may not always be those ‘whose conversation is the most brilliant’ or ‘culture the most extensive’, can ‘transform their personality into a sort of mirror’. The reader is naturally led to hear this as the first touch on the tuning-fork, striking the right note for the ensuing performance about Orwell. Actually, as one reads and rereads this passage, its meaning starts to slip through one’s grasp. The ‘men who produce works of genius’ are those who have the power to ‘transform their personality into a sort of mirror, in such a way that their life, however mediocre it may be socially and even, in a sense, intellectually, is reflected by it, genius consisting in reflecting power and not in the intrinsic quality of the scene reflected’. Taken alone, this might serve as a manifesto both for the purest naturalism (the best mirrors are those which reflect most faithfully and in most detail) and for extreme aestheticism (the subject written about is irrelevant, imaginative intensity is all). But what it doesn’t seem to be, on fuller reflection (so to speak), is a very apt way to characterise Orwell’s strengths, or indeed those of anyone who, like Orwell and like Hitchens himself, writes about what is going on in the public world and about what actually, despite appearances, makes things happen. Although the passage appears at first reading to suggest something about Orwell’s self-absenting directness of observation and his much-praised (and self-praised) ‘power of facing unpleasant facts’, it comes to seem quite the opposite, a celebration of an almost Jamesian capacity for infusing a charged intensity of consciousness into the detail of experience. The passage may also prompt an association with Orwell’s endlessly quoted dictum that ‘good prose is like a windowpane.’ This is a formula whose shortcomings don’t need to be dwelled on, but at least it suggests that one looks through the window, at the world outside, whereas the defining quality of the mirror is to bounce vision back at the viewer. As with ‘premature’ in the dedication, one is left a little uncertain what signal the epigraph is intended to send.

The acknowledgments then begin, with thanks to ‘my old English master’, who set Hitchens to read Animal Farm ‘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’. It is often said that Englishmen tend to be fixated on their schooldays, especially when they went to the kind of minor public school that Hitchens went to, and there is certainly an unexpectedly nostalgic tea and crumpets flavour to this, as well as a statue-in-the-marble recognition of early signs of later identity (despite the missed deadline), a kind of coming home. It hints at a more personal answer to the question of ‘why Orwell matters’.

And then, as the opening to the introduction, we get a poem (there are a lot of antipasti to this relatively slight meal). The poem is by Conquest himself and is entitled simply ‘George Orwell’. It praises Orwell as ‘a moral genius’: ‘honesty’, ‘truth’ and ‘truth-seeking’ structure the citation, and Orwell is praised for testing words against ‘The real person, real event or thing’. Throughout, he is thumpingly commended for directing our attention to ‘reality’, as in the rather Empsonian line ‘Because he taught us what the actual meant’. Orwell figures here as an early (perhaps ‘premature’) member of ‘the united front against bullshit’; or, in other words, as one of Hitchens’s predecessors in the ‘no bullshit’ bullshit.

When we finally get going with Hitchens himself writing about Orwell, the effect is a little anti-climactic. This is partly because one had a pretty good sense in advance of the kind of thing Hitchens would want to say about him. ‘The three great subjects of the 20th century were imperialism, Fascism and Stalinism’; Orwell ‘was essentially “right”’ about these issues; and ‘he was enabled to be “right” by a certain insistence on intellectual integrity and independence.’ So far, so familiar. (It is interesting to note that Hitchens, loyal to aspects of the Trotskyism he has for the most part abandoned, always says Stalinism where most people would say Communism.) This is very much a political journalist’s view of the ‘great subjects’; from other perspectives one could make a case for, say, the mechanisation of agriculture, the development of global communications and changed attitudes towards sex – or, indeed, a whole variety of quite different ‘subjects’, though it’s harder to see what being ‘right’ would mean in such cases.

It is also a rather romantic view of the ‘independent’ intellectual. Orwell, Hitchens announces, ‘faced the competing orthodoxies and despotisms of his day with little more than a battered typewriter and a stubborn personality’. Most versions of ‘writers v. Leviathan’, to borrow Orwell’s own terms, are inclined to hit this over-dramatic, David and Goliath note, including the mandatory weapons-upgrade from slingshot to ‘battered typewriter’ (it wouldn’t do for the typewriter to be newish and in quite good nick). Orwell does seem to have been a brave man when put to the test, but to speak of him ‘facing’ despotisms from behind his desk ratchets up the register in a rather empty way. The lone protestor in Tiananmen Square, in the unforgettable image, certainly ‘faced’ the tank in a dramatically uneven contest, but those who write about orthodoxies and despotisms, especially from the distance of another country, don’t seem to merit the same verb. Similarly, most writers who address such topics do so with ‘little more’ than their typewriters and their personalities, battered, stubborn or otherwise. Of course, Hitchens needs to play up Orwell’s complete ‘independence’, partly because he shares with him the animating illusion that to be out of step with a large body of opinion is in itself the most likely indicator of being right.

It is not easy to write a good book about Orwell now. He has been written about so extensively, and sometimes well, that to justify devoting a whole book to him one would really need to have discovered some new material or be able to set him in some new context (not that this will deter publishers eager to cash in on his centenary). The main problem with Orwell’s Victory is that Hitchens doesn’t have enough to say about Orwell to fill a book, so he writes, in effect, as Orwell’s minder, briskly seeing off various characers who have in some way or other got him wrong. This is the structuring principle for a series of chapters on ‘Orwell and Empire’, ‘Orwell and the Left’, ‘Orwell and the Right’ and so on. Some of the offenders clearly deserve what they get, but there’s something repetitive and relentless about it, as though the duffing-up were more important than dealing with Orwell’s own writing. Raymond Williams is taken behind the bike sheds for a particularly nasty going-over; repetition of another kind adds to the problem here, since the substance of this long section was first delivered at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival in 1999 (as the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, if you please), then published in Critical Quarterly later that year, then republished in Unacknowledged Legislation. It’s a fair specimen of the Hitchens polemical manner – inveighing against ‘the overrated doyen of cultural studies and Cambridge English’ and his ‘almost deliberate obtuseness’, accusing his writing of being ‘replete with dishonesty and evasion’, and so on – but reading it again is a vaguely dispiriting experience, rather like watching an old video of a one-sided boxing match.

As always with Hitchens’s work, one gets the strongest possible sense of how much it matters to prove that one is and always has been right: right about which side to be on, right that there are sides and one has to be on one of them; right about which way the world (in the rather narrow, political journalist’s sense of that term) is going, right about which policies will work and which regimes are wicked; right about the accuracy of one’s facts and one’s stories; and right when so many others, especially well-regarded or well-placed others, are demonstrably wrong. There is a palpably macho tone to all of this, as of alpha males competing for dominance and display.

That one’s facts should be right seems desirable from most points of view, but since Hitchens makes so much of others’ failings here, one is driven to a spot of murmuring about stones and glasshouses. For example, he describes Friedrich Hayek as succeeding ‘Orwell’s old foe Laski in the chair at the London School of Economics’, but he didn’t: Michael Oakeshott did. He quotes from C.P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ lecture, ascribing it to ‘the mid-1960s’, though it was delivered and published in 1959. Most bizarrely, he even mangles an extremely well-known line of Orwell’s, his tirade about ‘every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer’ and so on. Hitchens notes, rightly, that Orwell included ‘feminist’ in this list along, he goes on to say, ‘with the fruit-juice drinkers, escaped Quakers, sandal-wearers and other cranks’. ‘Quakers’, yes, but ‘escaped Quakers’? Escaped from where, exactly?

Trying to characterise for myself a certain tone that seems to be becoming more and more marked in Hitchens’s recent writings, I recalled that in Martin Amis’s baroquely footnoted Experience, there is a relatively brief note on Amis’s almost filial relation to Saul Bellow, in which, having clarified that although he was not Bellow’s son he was Bellow’s ideal reader, Amis added: ‘I am not my father’s ideal reader, however. His ideal reader, funnily enough, is Christopher Hitchens.’ One can see why that could seem odd or unexpected, but the more Hitchens I read the less unexpected it becomes. To be the ideal reader of Kingsley Amis, one would need, among much else, to be responsive to the pleasures of being bloody. Hitchens doesn’t actually list ‘giving offence’ among his hobbies in Who’s Who, but perhaps that’s only because it’s not a hobby. It’s interesting, too, that Martin Amis can be the ideal reader for Bellow despite the obvious cultural differences; it is unimaginable that Kingsley Amis’s ideal reader could be anything other than deeply English.

Of course, ‘deeply English’ is the accolade that one group of Orwell’s admirers are keenest to bestow on Saint George, and Hitchens, though properly suspicious of Tory evocations of deep England, does not dissent from this description or its positive force. At one point he concludes a nice little riff on the resemblances between Orwell and Larkin by acknowledging their front-runner status ‘in the undeclared contest for most symbolic Englishman’. What is particularly striking here is the way in which Hitchens, wanting to identify with a kind of Englishness that is at once authentic and radical, free from the taint both of ‘heritage’ kitsch and of a class-bound nostalgia for social hierarchy, aligns himself with a tradition that goes back to Tom Paine, Milton and the Diggers. This move has structural similarities to the Norman Yoke theory of the 17th century, which claimed that the popular liberties of the Saxons had been (temporarily, for several centuries) suppressed by the alien laws of a conquering aristocracy. And this brings out how much Hitchens, cosmopolitan man of letters and geopolitical analyst though he may be, is also a kind of country-party Whig, quick to sniff corruption at court or abuses of power by over-mighty governments. This affinity almost declares itself when he quotes Orwell endorsing Milton’s invocation of ‘the known rules of ancient liberty’. This is an ‘English tradition’ with which he, like Orwell, is proud to identify.

Part of what is attractive and persuasive about Hitchens’s take on Orwell is his insistence on the way some of the latter’s most admirable positions represent a kind of triumph over himself, as he educated himself into more liberal convictions against the grain of his inherited attitudes and temperamental inclinations (here ‘Orwell’s victory’ can be understood in a more personal, less world-historical sense). One can’t help wondering whether there isn’t something of this in Hitchens, too, and whether, as with Orwell, we don’t sometimes get a glimpse of the attitudes which the son of Commander Eric Hitchens RN might have been in some ways expected to hold (i.e. roughly those of his other son, the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens). As Christopher Hitchens perceptively, but perhaps also self-revealingly, says of his subject: ‘George Orwell was conservative about many things, but not about politics.’

One of the qualities he claims Orwell managed to ‘suppress’ in himself was his ‘anti-intellectualism’. Yikes! If that’s how he wrote after having ‘suppressed’ his anti-intellectualism . . . Perhaps he means ‘suppress’ in the sense in which he suppresses his own tendencies in this direction, as when he speaks of ‘the intellectual rot . . . spread by pseudo-intellectuals’. In the (mercifully short) chapter called, ominously ‘Deconstructing the Postmodernists’, he finds the source of contemporary ‘intellectual rot’ in ‘Continental’ thinkers and their American disciples. Taking up a comparison between Orwell and Adorno suggested a couple of years ago by James Miller (head of the department at the New School in New York where Hitchens teaches a course), Hitchens reflects that both men might have been surprised that ‘only half a century or so after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, every major city in Europe would be able to claim a free press and a free university,’ and he goes on to speculate that ‘this outcome owes something to both men but more, one suspects, to the Englishman than to the Frankfurt theorist.’ I’m not sure either of them would be quite as confident as Hitchens that the press in some of these cities can so readily be described as ‘free’, but it’s hard not to hear a bit of a nativist growl as he awards the palm to ‘the Englishman’.

At his best Hitchens is a telling writer, but the occasional appearance of this almost blimpish strain means that he is not always at his best in this book. For example, in referring, with extreme briskness, to the vogue in Britain and the US for certain European philosophers, he speaks of Althusser’s doomed project ‘to re-create Communism by abstract thought . . . terminating in his own insanity and by what I once rather heartlessly called his application for the Electric Chair of philosophy at the Ecole Abnormale [sic]’. If heartlessness were the quip’s main failing the self-quotation could almost amount to an apology: in fact by being still so obviously pleased with his schoolboyish mot he condemns himself twice over. But this is just the sort of gag about ‘abroad’ that Kingsley Amis might have liked, the affinity not serving either of them very well in this instance. It’s strange that at the very time when Hitchens is telling audiences in the States that we need to jettison the inherited categories of the 20th century, including those of ‘left’ and ‘right’, if we are to make sense of the radically different world of the 21st century, he should also be sounding more and more like le bloke moyen sensuel of England in the 1950s.

The sight of Hitchens view-hallooing across the fields in pursuit of some particularly dislikable quarry has been among the most exhilarating experiences of literary journalism during the last two decades. He’s courageous, fast, tireless and certainly not squeamish about being in at the kill. But after reading this and some of his other recent writings, I begin to imagine that, encountering him, still glowing and red-faced from the pleasures of the chase, in the tap-room of the local inn afterwards, one might begin to see a resemblance not to Trotsky and other members of the European revolutionary intelligentsia whom he once admired, nor to the sophisticated columnists and political commentators of the East Coast among whom he now practises his trade, but to other red-coated, red-faced riders increasingly comfortable in their prejudices and their Englishness – to Kingsley Amis, pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic; to Philip Larkin, farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants; to Robert Conquest and a hundred other ‘I told you so’s. They would be good company, up to a point, but their brand of saloon-bar finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism, and I would be sorry to think of one of the essayists I have most enjoyed reading in recent decades turning into a no-two-ways-about-it-let’s-face-it bore. I just hope he doesn’t go on one hunt too many and find himself, as twilight gathers and the fields fall silent, lying face down in his own bullshit.