Arguably. Essays by Christopher Hitchens

christopher-hitchens pic
Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) Anglo-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, religious and literary critic, social critic, and journalist. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

This book is for dipping into.

The essays, 97 of them, are entertaining, enlightening, short, but sometimes challenging, and not just because of the subject matter, literature, science, history, politics and more. They are challenging because his language can be of a higher form and one should read this book within easy reach of a dictionary, app or paper; and that’s a good thing, as we all should not let an unknown word pass us by. Hitchens was a prolific writer, but he also was a prolific reader: every essay is full of references, anecdotes, comparisons, opinions, and so wide-ranging and eclectic is his accumulated knowledge that one wonders when he had time to sleep, eat, and raise a family.

Most of the writings in this volume were first published in magazines or newspapers such as The Atlantic, Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, Vanity Fair, Foreign Affairs, among many others.

Just a glance at the Contents page will throw up depths of interest that one can look forward to plumbing: Abraham Lincoln: Misery’s Child; In Defence of Foxhole Athiests; The Dark Side of Dickens; W. Somerset Maugham: Poor Old Willie; Stephen Spender: A Nice Bloody Fool; Harry Potter: The Boy Who Lived; Why Women Arn’t Funny; So Many Men’s Rooms, So Little Time; Charles, Prince of Piffle; The Swastika and the Cedar; North Korea: A Nation of Racist Dwarfs; you see what I mean?

His asides are where the fun is:

” … Bertrand Russell, who could have been world famous in several departments, from adultery to radicalism …”

” … [Isaac] Newton spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery.”

re Jessica Mitford. “These themes – of kinship and class, flight from same, residual loyal-ties to same, commitment to revolution, and stiff-upper-lippery in the face if calamity – recur throughout this assemblage of Jessica’s correspondence. ”

re W. Somerset Maugham. “Despite his exile and his increasingly distraught public and private life, Maugham eventually received an honour from the Crown – but it was for “services to literature” rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world”, as bitchy as his subject is arch.

What I have learned from Mr. Hitchens:

The French ‘ban’ on the burka can be seen as not a ban at all: it is a lifting of a ban on women being able to choose their own attire, and it is a lifting of the ban on women being able to question clerical, ie male, authority, and to be free to communicate to fellow humans face to face.

Isn’t it ironic that the Promise Land that god promised the Jews, a promise that was finally fulfilled, is the only bit of land in the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil.

“Jewish humour, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprication, is almost masculine by definition.”

The fundamental tenant of Christianity may contain its own unravelling: we are created bad, but commanded to be good.

The Magna Carta was not written in English. Of course it wasn’t; look at its name!

The Sixth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, has nothing to do with pacifism since Moses told his Levite faction after receiving the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments from god on Mt. Sinai, to “slay everyman his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour” (Exodus 32:27-28). Killing for honour, revenge, or conquest is not really killing at all. The three monotheistic religions were born in extremely violent times and they continue to be violent religions to this day. Maybe God meant ‘murder’ and he was mis-translated. So, we must remember that the problem of ‘authority’ in the first 1500 years of Christianity was solved by having it all ‘wrapped up’ in languages that the majority of adherents could not understand; its mysteries being decoded by a select few: a ‘special caste’; and recoded many times since.

And while we’re on the subject of The Ten Commandments, it seems they were specifically written for men who had staff: “Thou shall not covert thy heighbour’s house, his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, ass, …” lumping his wife (wives) in with all of his other chattels.

Kurdistan (The Other Iraq) is (was) marketing itself as an investment and tourism hub.

America’s first military tussle with the world of Islam was from 1801-1805, The Barbary Wars, which not only gained US access to European trade but created the U.S. Navy.

The meaning of the phrase ‘tumbril remark’; his examples are┬áhysterical.

How it feels to be ‘waterboarded.’

The etymology of the phrase ‘blowjob’ and who will, and who will not, do it.

An intelligent person sifts out the truth with a lot of ‘senses’, far more than the original five; hearing and understanding words being the least of them.

Hitchens died at the age of 62 in December 2011 from pneumonia, a complication of oesophageal cancer (he was a nicotine addict; by his own reckoning he smoked 15,000 cigarettes a year ). Although his death came before the rise, and now continuing decline, of IS, his essays on the politics of the Middle East and north Africa give important insights into the recent history of these regions; and it’s recent history that seems, paradoxically, the easiest to forget.

One of his last pieces, from May 2011 in Vanity Fare, gives an enlightening and humorous account of how the language of the Bible has been used, politically, commercially, and sect-affirmingly to, not only sell bibles, but to make them accessible to absolutely every one, like an offering in a “cut-price spiritual cafeteria”. Only in America could there be published bibles called “Extreme Teen Study Bible” or “Policeman’s Bible” or, my favourite, “One Year New Testament for Busy Moms.”

But what one is left with after browsing in, flipping, and giggling through this entertaining volume is his precise and educative use of the English language. It may be of an un-coffee-table-book shape, given its fatness, but the coffee table is where it should be; or, at least, somewhere as easily accessible. Happy dipping!

You can get this book in various formats, including audio CD, here.

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