And Yet...: Essays
A good essay written by Christopher Hitchens will rattle your teeth.
And perhaps that is why we continue to give the man the afterlife he never believed in by continuing to publish his works, even now, years after his death.
The latest volume, And Yet . . . draws upon the slush pile consisting of an estimated 250,000 words worth of essays that were left uncollected at the time of the author’s death in 2011. Those gathered here investigate and/or deconstruct such topics as “On Becoming American” (“I had lived in the nation’s capital for many years, and never particularly liked it.”) and “Charles Dickens’s Inner Child” (in which we learn that Dickens was as much Scrooge as he was the sweet little David Copperfield that we all thought him to be) and Joan Didion’s Blue Nights (a review of her memoir of that title that acted more or less as a follow up to her very successful A Year of Magical Thinking that praises “this supremely tender work of memory,” but wishes she had followed her daughter’s advice concerning the death of a loved one: “Don’t dwell on it.”).
Oriana Fallaci and Edmund Wilson get love notes, and Teddy Kennedy gets “redeemed,” if only in the mash-up between delusional mass media and self-serving politics that defines modern culture.
And pretty much everyone else gets slapped.
Especially poor Hillary Clinton, who, along with husband Bill was/is one of Hitchens’s always-and-forever villains, along the lines of Hitchens’s bete noire, Mother Theresa. But more on poor Hillary in a moment.
A quote from Hitchens’s own book Letters to a Young Contrarian opens the volume:
“One should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganizing it.”
Put it all together—drama in the Middle East, Western culture run amok, Clintons lying and cheating at every turn in order to gain and maintain political power—and it seems as if the man were still with us. That no time, not one slim second, has passed at all since he died.
Which is to say that And Yet . . . is both a very welcome and a very successful collection. And it belongs right up there on the shelf along side every other collection of maddening, smug, and exhaustingly entertaining essays that the man ever wrote.
Some, if not most, of the essays contained within seem, as they say on TV procedural shows, “ripped from the headlines.”
Take “My Red-State Odyssey” as an example.
However limited his “odyssey” may have been—Richmond, Virginia, Atlanta and a very points strategically placed in between, including an attendance of a single NASCAR race, which proves research enough for all sorts of conclusions to be drawn—the results make for fine reading.
Of his experience among the red-state savages, Hitchens writes:
“You often notice, in the South, that people don’t at all mind if they live up to their own clichés and stereotypes. In the environs of the Richmond International Raceway, stretching to the horizon, are great tracts of pickups and trailer, fuming with barbecue and hot dogs and surmounted by flags. Od Glory predominates, but quite often the Stars and Bars is flown as well (though always underneath) or separately. I got close-up to one freestanding Confederate flag, to find that it had the face of Hank Williams Jr. on it, and the refrain of his song ‘If the South Woulda Won (We’d a Had It Made).’ I liked the tone of self-parody.”
Hitchens never surprises. He reassures that his opinion is, always and forever, the one that should be given greatest credence. He remains—most assuredly now that he has passed from this vale of tears—almost horrifically consistent. Thus the topics of the essays collected here and the commentary contained within as well are evermore the same as in those essays previously collected.
Which is not to say that they are not, with his journalist’s eye and his sardonic wit fully intact to the bitter end, welcome. A consistency of quality was happily always a feature of his work.
And, of course, there are zingers to be had.
Like this, targeting the Clintons:
“What to you have to forget or overlook in order to desire that this dysfunctional clan once more occupies the White House and is again in a position to rent the Lincoln Bedroom to campaign donors and to employ the Oval Office as a massage parlor?”
Or this, from “Edward M. Kennedy: Redemption Song:”
“Call no man happy until he is dead, as the Greeks had it. Kennedy’s very last year was quite possibly his best, and how many men or women will be able to say that?”
Or this quote from Joan Didion, cannily placed, perhaps because it spoke for him with his limited future as much as it did for her in the sudden loss of her husband and the lingering suffering of her daughter:
“Fade as the blue nights fade, go as the brightness goes. Go back to the blue.”
Or, finally, this, the final essay of the collection, “What is Patriotism,” presented in toto, as published first in The Nation back in 1991:
“Patriotic and tribal feelings belong to the squalling childhood of the human race, and become no more charming in their senescence. They are particularly unattractive when evinced by a superpower. Bu ironies of history may yet save us. English language and literature, oft-celebrated as one of the glories of “Western” and even “Christian” civilization, turn out to have even higher faculties than used to be claimed for them. In my country of birth the great new fictional practitioners have in their front ranks names like Rushdie, Ishiguro, Kureishi, Mo. This attainment on their part makes me oddly proud to be whatever I am, and convinces me that internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”
It’s a bit of a long way ’round getting to that last sentence, but such is the way of Christopher Hitchens, but, oh, what a sentence it is.
And Yet . . . is a rich and heady brew. One to be savored alongside the full banquet of literate and literary savories and sweets that Hitchens left behind.
And although he can, especially when chastising the Clintons, read like a Facebook friend who, during an election year, sounds off with more vocabulary than sense, it’s still good to know that Hitchens is out there, publishing away, having a vibrant afterlife.