A quick post: Much of the press on Christopher Hitchens’ passing has called him “complicated.” If you’ve read even a few of the pieces of opinion from the usual suspects, you get this (I like those pieces, BTW: recommended). We hear a lot about his courage, the clarity of his moral vision, the force of his prose, and then we hear about his alcoholism, his irritability, his misogyny: you see, he was a complicated man.
Let us now speak ill of the dead.(via Crooked Timber)lrb.co.uk/v28/n23/john-b…
— Nick Valvo (@nvalvo) December 19, 2011
But does any of this amount to complexity? Leaving aside the man — it seems to me that prickly, high-functioning alcoholics whose views run to the misogynistic are actually and unfortunately a staple of our literary culture — was Hitchens’ work really so complicated?
While I haven’t read so much of his work to really say, my suspicion is that it was not. His humanitarianism could be quite admirable, but he loved to over-simplify complicated moral questions and press them into service as bludgeons. He was uninterested in detail and *often* wrong. The link in the embedded tweet above is to a John Barrell review of Hitchens’ book on Paine; he found it to be basically an extended string of solecisms. His take on religion can be most generously described as tedious (cf. Terry Eagleton); it cannot be described as complex. I have long suspected that his position on the Iraq War was self-serving: it was a good career move, c. 2003, to be, not quite but almost literally, the only intellectual in the world in favor of the invasion, a view he never gave over.
That’s contrarianism, not complexity.
My take is that “complicated” is a symptom: it refers less to Hitchens than to the form/content contradiction he posed to the intellectual class he leaves behind. Culturally, he was identifiable in broad strokes as one of ours, a late exemplar of that unicorn-rare entity (in American media, anyways) the public intellectual, but I have great difficulty recalling any of his positions that I have found even minimally interesting, let alone agreeable. He offered all of the downsides, the bluster and egotism of the real thing, with none of the actual thought-provoking substance. Hitchens papered over these cracks with a well-chosen word or a metrically-balanced phrase; we’re left with just a few ill-chosen words to do that work.