Jeremy Harding on Hitchens

In the LRB:

Hitchens’s strong, almost gamey opinions produce a whiff of well-hung grouse in the reactions he provokes, and it tends to linger in the house. Stefan Collini, for the opposition, imagines Hitchens ‘as twilight gathers and the fields fall silent, lying face down in his own bullshit’ (LRB, 23 January 2003). Colin MacCabe, for the friends, tells us that passages of the memoir, Hitch-22, are ‘among the most affecting writing that I know in English’ (New Statesman, 17 November 2010). That’s a pungent claim and it bears repeating, or MacCabe must have thought so. Last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he recalled telling Hitchens that the first two chapters of the memoir were ‘among the most affecting prose that I had ever read in English’. Hitchens, it seems, seldom meets with moderation and when he does, it’s apt to give way to exasperation. And so John Barrell, reviewing his book on Tom Paine (LRB, 30 November 2006):

Rights of Man (not The Rights of Man, as Hitchens persistently calls it) was written as an answer to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Hitchens tells us that among others who wrote replies to Burke … was William Godwin, which he wasn’t. He says that, unlike Paine, Wollstonecraft advocated votes for women, which she didn’t. Paine himself, Hitchens says, was not discouraged from writing Part One of Rights of Man by the rough treatment he received at the hands of a Parisian crowd following Louis XVI’s flight to Varennes. Nor should he have been, for Part One was published several months before the king fled and Paine was manhandled. According to Hitchens, Part Two was produced partly to explain to Dr Johnson the need for a written constitution, and partly to endorse Ricardo’s views on commerce and free trade, but when it was written Johnson had been dead for seven years and Ricardo, not yet 20, had published no views that required endorsing.

Hitchens’s fans are prepared to overlook the odd slip in favour of the flow (or the ‘words’, as Chris Corner goes on to say in his lugubrious ode):

Your words will live in us
Timelessly insane
Explosive, fresh and wise

But which words? ‘Wise’ he’s never done. And ‘fresh’? His flirtatious, boom-boody-boom examination of Tony Blair at close quarters is the best contender. Dr Hitchens says of the appealing patient who followed him into the deserts of Mesopotamia: ‘There is a moral pulse to be detected here and it’s quite a strong one’ (Vanity Fair, February). Hitchens in ‘explosive’ mode is hard to monitor: he is a one-man North Korea. For timeless insanity – and ‘timeless’, I guess, means anything either side of the long happy hour – one goes to the vexed sentence in the book on Paine that amused Barrell after a morning’s irritation: ‘Just as Paine’s joke about dress and lost innocence was intended to remind his audience of a mythical Eden, so his appeal to a lost but golden and innocent past was a trope that Milton and Blake knew very well.’