And Yet… by Chritopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens’ reputation precedes him. Many readers, upon seeing the collection of essays that is And Yet… will either gleefully grasp this book or balk, not wanting to engage with “Hitch”.” To the second group it should be mentioned that Hitchens deserves another look. Since Hitchens is dead, his reputation not only precedes him, but succeeds him. He can no longer defend himself, and his fate depends on people are interested in his posthumous notoriety. As a polemicist, Hitchens would have likely beamed at knee-jerk contempt, but he had a great deal more to him than his talent for making people angry. And Yet… is a perfect smattering of politics, literature, history, opinion, and reflection that encapsulate the man both as intellectually fierce and exceptionally human.
One thing Hitchens can’t quite shake is his pretention, which may be the most repellent quality in his work. This mostly shows up in the form of vague phrasing that places a great deal of expectation on the reader to know what he’s talking about. This can be simple. When describing George Orwell’s meticulous note-taking and how it translates to his books, Hitchens writes of a small and seemingly arbitrary note on rats taken by Orwell and how it “would help form one of the most arresting images of terror in all his fiction.” If you haven’t read 1984, this reference is understood with a quick Google search. Or it can be rather complicated, like when discussing Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Hezbollah and expecting the reader to grasp the nuances of the discussion. There is something akin to reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Songs of the Doomed, where the arresting quality of the politics is likely to have a diminishing audience as the politics become more and more remote. Fortunately for us, Hitchens has a great deal of prescience in his writing, and many of the topics are still relevant. Hilary Clinton, Salman Rushie, even the aforementioned Bashar al-Assad are still active players in the world and keep the conversation from feeling too distant. And Yet… is filled to the brim and has pieces on the Parthenon, numerous literary and political figures, and just about everything that has earned Hitchens the distinction of polymath.
More fun and more charming are his less critical pieces. There is a three-part essay on self-improvement which begins with a self-deprecating “objective” assessment of his physical state, where he compares his body to a rotting avocado and shows at least a touch of remorse that his teeth frighten children. For all the fun it is to read of a lifelong hedonist aching his way through slightly improving his health, there is a knowledge, with our retrospective view, that it’s too late for the attempt as cancer would grip Hitch only two years later, then take him after another two. One of the best essays is an early one in the book called “My Red-State Odyssey” in which he discusses the guttural and predictable elements of the American South which are, in their own fashion, delightful and charismatic, even if they are simultaneously weird and horrifying. Also fantastic are his polemics against Christmas in its Ramadan-length torment. Hitch compares the Christmas season to living in a one party state, with Dear Leader and all its uncouth elements. This piece will likely become part of the greater Christmas tradition over time, considering that seasonal bemoaning and commiseration are as commonplace and essential as lights on a tree.
And Yet… is a long read for how short it is, each essay dense with language, allusion and reference. It represents the man in all his elements and can be cherry-picked and read at random with nothing lost, but really deserves to be read together. Branded as a right-winger and neocon, Hitchens has multitudes that defy towing a party line or falling into any convention. His opinion on a few heavily debated and formulaic topics have blackballed his work for many people, but this does him no justice for what he really is – subtle, impassioned, iconoclast. Maybe you’ll snub this assessment, but how much time have you really spent with Christopher Hitchens?