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Letters to a Young Contrarian

by Christopher Hitchens
141 pages,
ISBN: 0465030327


Post Your Opinion
Very Heavy Advice
by Matt Sturrock

On the cover of Christopher Hitchens' latest book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, is the man himself¨who, besides exuding some highly stylized menace, also looks a little weary. One can hardly fault him. Hitchens has been fighting a hard and lonely battle for a long time against intransigent opponents. The columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation, when he's not goring presidents and saints in print or aiding Marxist insurrections in developing countries, busies himself by raging against notions like Consensus, Faith, even Happiness for its own sake.

Here, publisher Basic Books presses him into service for its "The Art of Mentoring" series. Hitchens draws upon his status as "a grizzled soixante-huitard, or survivor of the last intelligible era of revolutionary upheaval," and dispenses advice to those who harbour "the unfashionable hope of changing the world for the better and . . . living a life that would be, as far as possible, self-determined." In the course of 141 pages, Hitchens shows the reader his decidedly bleak worldview: one that calls for constant vigilance, perpetual distrust, continual combativity, and not a few "dark nights of . . . the soul."

Hitchens' book is patterned after the epistolary style of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, as will be subsequent books by other authors in the Mentoring line. In keeping with his contrariness, Hitchens wastes no time in distancing himself from Rilke and criticizing the early-20th century German poet for many of his shortcomings. Hitchens attacks the "slightly sickly innocence" of Rilke's work, his "romantic idealism" that led to his infatuation with Mussolini, and, most damning, his suspicion of irony. That said, Rilke is largely redeemed in Hitchens' eyes by his belief that solitude or "internal exile"¨a requisite state for real contrarians¨is to be "welcomed rather than feared."

Once Hitchens has qualified the usefulness of Rilke, he strides into the real substance of his manifesto. Having already disparaged a society whose members would seek out approval and security above all else, as well as pointing to the contributions of noteworthy dissidents¨Emile Zola, Aldous Huxley, Rosa Parks, and Noam Chomsky among others¨he warns, "In an average day, you may well be confronted with some species of bullying or bigotry, or some ill-phrased appeal to the general will, or some petty abuse of authority." The remedy, he suggests, is to live "as if": "as if" one is "a citizen of a free society, Šas if' lying and cowardice [are] not mandatory patriotic duties," "as if" the above grievances "need not be tolerated and are not inevitable." Hitchens argues that "a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid." It can be brought down by nonviolent rebellion, "an exercise of arm-folding and sarcasm."

After providing a blueprint for the toppling of governments, Hitchens turns a baleful eye to religious faith. His attack is savage: "I am not even an atheist" he affirms, "so much as an antitheist." He dismisses religion as a "sinister fairy tale," saying that "even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in . . . quiet and irrational authoritarianism." In a merciless bit of reductionism, he says that Christians "declare me redeemed by a human sacrifice that occurred thousands of years before I was born," and argues that the "idea of vicarious redemption" robs us of individual responsibility. He invites the reader to consider the "endless praise and adoration" assumed in humanity's proposed Afterlifes, even the "carnal bliss" and "option of viewing the torments of the damned" offered by some, as evidence that religion is man-made. He concludes that "religious superstition. .. belongs to the childhood of our race."

For New Age agnostics nodding smugly at the quoted passages above, know that you too are ridiculed. Hitchens sneers at the "Oriental religions . . . repackaged for Westerners as therapy," and lambastes the Dalai Lama, who argues that the purpose of life is to seek happiness, for uttering "a string of fatuous non sequiturs." Nirvana, Utopia, "the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Beyond"¨any state that calls for the annihilation of the intellect¨is suspect.

At this point, only halfway through the book, one imagines that many would-be contrarians are re-evaluating their calling. The loneliness; the tireless battling against the insidious and irresistible forces of state-sanctioned injustice; the random existence in a barren and godless universe: these are tough issues to contend with for a young readership¨for many of whom mothers undoubtedly still pack a lunch each morning.

Hitchens is relentless. He anticipates the tendency to fall prey to the current relativism, reminding us that Dante reserved "the fieriest corners of his inferno for those who . . . try to stay neutral." He sidesteps what levity might be found in his chapter on humour, arguing that only in its ironic and obscene forms is it revolutionary; and warning, too, that it "can be an appeal to the familiar and the clichTd" where "audiences will laugh complicitly or slavishly, just to show they Šsee' the joke and are all together." In the final pages, he acknowledges that the life of a radical is more often than not a tedious one, made up of "quotidien [sic] tasks and routines" punctuated by infrequent and largely uncelebrated moral victories.

All in all, it's heavy stuff; not the how-to-drop-cherry-bombs-down-the-school-toilets-and-get-away-with-it type rebellion that some uninformed book buyers might have been looking for. In fact, "rebels" will be disappointed in this book; it's designed to appeal to "revolutionaries". Those just looking for instruction on how to strike a tough pose must seek their guru elsewhere.

There's no question that Hitchens is brilliant. He's a political savant, an extremely knowledgeable product of a classical education, and a verbal virtuoso just as comfortable spewing vitriol in French or Latin as he is in English. I can't help but feel that his talents, however, are somewhat undermined by the nature of his topic. "The System" or "the Man" is at once an enormous and ethereal target. One can get lost in the midst of an attack. Hitchens has done better in the past when he has had a discrete, definable (hated) enemy to rail against. No One Left to Lie To, his demolition of Bill and Hillary Clinton, is a shining example of this kind of work.

His other failings are minor. He reminisces about his own upbringing by "parents too intelligent to be encumbered by prejudice" (who among us¨eggheads and dullards, alike¨can claim to have cast off all biases?). He has a fawning affection for Freud, and perhaps relies on him too heavily when constructing his arguments. He also has a tendency to drop names, making sure we know of his close affiliation with Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Susan Sontag. (In fairness, they are his peers and contemporaries. The fact that Hitchens is becoming a name himself makes this practice less odious. Besides, in the grim world that he paints, powerful and sympathetic friends must be a rare comfort.)

Basic Books did well in selecting Christopher Hitchens to spearhead its new series. He pushes aside both the morbid hysteria and fanciful delusions of our age and offers a cogently argued call for change. A strong literary precedent has been set. ˛

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