Christopher Hitchens: Voltaire you ain't

I'm sure Chris Hitchens was all the alcoholic yet deadline-keeping genius as the obits are saying, but let's get one thing clear: He was not the great essayist of our time, and he was often guilty of the same hypocrisy he so vehemently railed against in his work.

Every generation may need its own malcontent to cut those in power down to size, a David to the world's Goliaths. But while essayists like Voltaire and George Orwell used the gentle prod of satire to point to injustice, Chris Hitchens' work more often than not came from a place of sheer contrarianism, condescension and cynicism—which is to say, a place of hate.

I offer: "There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there. Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three."

The part that struck me more, though, was this quote from Hitchens' book "Hitch-22": “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved ... In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression.”

Yet when I read "Why Women Aren't Funny" I hear the voice of a bully, an intimidator, a dictator of paternalism. And while he was wholly anti-religion, he still approaches gender with the black-white dichotomy of any cable TV zealot—or hackneyed standup comic, for that matter. And how is his message–that women on the whole cannot be as funny as their male counterparts—not a tool of censorship, an attack on the free expression of women trying to make it in the business?

I've had the pleasure of working with some budding Chris Hitchens types in college, and I found that behind the bravado and snark is a lonely, insecure man who is definitely not getting laid as much as he suggests. His was a bald-faced interpretation of the world at face value, with paternalism as the righteous status quo. Some contrarian.


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  • I 'spose having such dribble as the above published about one's life is a form of divine irony (if not retribution) but somehow I have a feeling that Hitchens wouldn't have cared in the least.

    Chicago Now, you really need writers up to the task of their subjects.

  • In reply to leoklein:

    The word is 'drivel', and I don't think it's an appropriate one here. However, I'm not in complete agreement with Emma.
    I think part of the problem with Hitchens is that he is ruined by his unthinking adoring fans. Kind of like the Cubs. I automatically root for whoever's playing against them, but I really don't have anything against the team. I think many people's reaction against Hitchens is really a reaction against his extremely annoying fans.

  • Respectfully, I think you have missed the point of his essay "Why Women Aren't Funny."

    His point is not that women are never funny, but rather that women don't have to be funny in order for men to want to have sex with them. (They've already got that, he argues.) However, to the contrary, men often find that they MUST learn to be charming and convivial (and funny) in order to attract a mate.

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    and who, are you, emma?

    what will be on the gravestone that rests about your long gone body?

    perhaps you feel original today, but you are not.

    hitchens was, and that alone, made him unique.

  • In reply to Andrea Jones Torres:

    who are you, e.e. cummings?

  • I think Hitchens had a lot to say and interesting arguments. But, as happens with writers entrenches as sucklings at Vanity Fair, Hitchens' work often teetered around name-dropping and taking vanity positions.

    He sometimes preached to VF's left-wing choir while swinging back to take pro-Bush and pro-war positions, only to swing back again on North Korea and the War on Drugs like a Chomskyite.

    If he only had a sense of humor and a smile, Hitchens would have made an excellent uppity, neurotic stock character in a Woody Allen film.

  • Emma ~ I met Hitch some years ago along with some other celebrated essayists from the East. My own writing has been the more mundane mission of speech-writing for the White House, CEOs. and here on ChicagoNow. But I enjoyed both Hitch and you, because you each take language seriously. A fading art in this day of FB, Twitter, and texting. And while I didn't share his raging, I think the world is one good linguist less.

  • He may not have been Voltaire, but he was pretty stimulating and provocative as himself.

  • Too soon. Not relative to Hitch's death, because I'm sure he'd laugh at that notion. But too soon after your Milwaukee internship and "job" at Chicago Now for you to write such a dismissive piece about a writer who had more energetic thoughts on his deathbed than you do freshly sprung from your Big Ten hatching ground.

  • Many dispatches from Iraq in the early war detailed Hitch swimming in women.

  • Love him or hate him, Hitchens was an intellectual powerhouse and dynamo. You fail to mention that. He had the writing chops you'll probably dream of your whole life and yet never achieve. Oh, yeah, and he was damn funny. Too bad you can't see that.

  • I was just as cut up about Hitchens's dismissal of women as funny as you, Emma, but your facile little diatribe doesn't do our gender any favors. Every essayist only has his own life experience to rely on; in the circles where Hitchens hung out, there may very well not be any funny women, and if he only has professional female comedians to go by, his assessment was mostly correct. Hitchens was an intellectual and a wit of the caliber that's disappearing at an alarming rate - and, honey, you are barely literate.

  • Wow, how incredibly callous.

    Hitchens never claimed to be Voltaire, or compared himself as a brilliant writer. Blame those who loved his writing.

    You just didn't get him.

    Talk about insecure...

  • And how is his message–that women on the whole cannot be as funny as their male counterparts—not a tool of censorship, an attack on the free expression of women trying to make it in the business?

    Do you really need this explained to you? It is no more censorship than your denunciation is censorship of the quite valid if impolite opinion that women are generally less funny than men?
    And to resort to the "can't get laid" canard--how very masculine (yet unfunny--perhaps you have a point) of you! At least you left the "small penis" trope on the table.

  • You know, I hate this "you are no..." whatever, business. A man leads his life. He does what he can. Take it or leave it. If you don't like Hitch, then there you have it. But to say he was not successful at a thing or two is silly. He was better than most, not as good as the best, but take him on his own merits.

    I'm not my dad, my dad is not his dad, I knew Dan Quayle and he is no Robert Kennedy... etc., etc.

    I liked Hitch because he was interesting. I think his militant atheism was wrong. But just because I did not like that aspect of his career, that doesn't mean I discounted him entirely.

  • In reply to publiusforum:

    Well said!

    It is unbelieveable that a so called "writer" uses the "he obviously didn't get laid" as the real problem with Hitchens writing, as if it were a psycological diagnosis; instead of this is who he is and read it or don't.

    It seems that in so many areas of life, such as politics, writing, socializing, that we MUST be with only those that are just like us. We can't be with those that don't share our same view. I didn't agree with a lot of what Hitchens wrote, but I never missed a chance to read him when an article appeared in Vanity Fair.

    It is so hard to have an intelligent intellectual conversation about anything anymore. Celebrity gossip seems to be the status quo!

  • Brava, Emma! Continue to tilt at windmills.

  • Amazing how many came to defense of the dead atheist (You give power to a thing by vehemently crying out that it doesn't exist) Hitchens was a two-faced, hypocritical malcontent who constantly reminded his sycophants of just how clever and original he was (He wasn't either of those) Attacking the author for her lack of "fame" shows just how silly his adherents are, as well as how mislead. Even if no ones who Emma is or was, doesn't make her wrong. Ten years from now, she may be "the Voltaire" of this generation and Hitchens will be best remembered as a pathetic drunk who had the good taste to put himself out of our misery. Yeah, drinking yourself to death shows a real depth of character.
    PS. Women ARE funny and some male comedians are not doing it to get laid. Duh.

  • In reply to Horusbedhetys:

    He was clever. He was original.

    "The Voltaire' of this generation." You must be the boyfriend.

  • In reply to Horusbedhetys:

    Hitch could weave Socratic webs with your tangled tufts of matted irrelevant pubes.

  • While I didn't always agree with what Hitchens was saying, there was no denying that he was a master of the written word. Just because the opinion or subject matter may be offensive to others, doesn't mean the author can't string a few fine words together. To be honest, I used to read him more for his eloquence that his content.

  • Hitchens was intelligent, erudite, well read, as well as pompous, a shameless name dropper, and often a slovenly thinker. He could be rigidly dogmatic (especially in his embarrassing apologias for Atheism) as well as an incisive critic of received wisdom and the status quo.
    In short, both his critics and his fans don't get Hitchens. He was neither the former's knee-jerk contrarian to be dismissed out of hand, nor the latter's greatest essayist of our time.
    I often read his essays (skipped the books) and often disagreed with him. Yet I read. For the joy of reading well crafted language, I read.

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    What he didn't however do was stoop to the sort of low-class sensationalist shit you're writing, nobody cares what you think.

  • In reply to MCase:

    Yet you made the effort to post that oh-so-classy response. So it seems that you care.

  • @ Amyweewee1 and eladsinned:
    Emma's "not getting laid as much as he suggests" comment was not directed at Hitchens, but at some college classmate(s).

  • I've been reflecting this morning on how Hitchens would have reacted to this column. Of all the possibilities, the one I finally settled on would have been offense -- not at the criticism, but at the trivialization of censorship. Probably something like "Did I put bamboo sticks under their nails like the XX regime? etc etc."

    But this column also led me to reflect on the core of Hitchens's free speech philosophy: one should never hold back from speaking the truth, or one's version of the truth, because it might be mean, impolite, or contrary to social rules of discourse. In that regard, he's Voltaire with a capital V.

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