Book Review: Christopher Hitchens’ Love, Poverty & War

Bull Dog or Paper Tiger

TVR Books | Joseph D. Rollwagen | September 2010

A contrarian with a penchant for Johnny Walker Black Label, renowned public intellectual Christopher Hitchens is a man with a clearly defined mission. He is an eloquent speaker and just as smooth with a pen, and rarely backs down from a challenge, whether it’s a tough story or tough issue. A committed Marxist and passionate proponent of the so-called New Atheism, the Anglo-American Hitchens will debate writers, religious figures and Republicans with equal energy, and he rarely walks away in defeat.

It seems a good time to be revising the work of Christopher Hitchens now, as he was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer, a disease that does not leave a person with the greatest odds of survival. "It’s not a good cancer to get," Hitchens admitted in a recent interview with the Atlantic Monthly. "I would be a very lucky person to live another five years."

Hitchens has produced a considerable body of work, including God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007), Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001), and Hitch-22: a Memoir (2010).

Among his most popular is his collection of magazine and journal articles titled Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays. Published in 2004 by Nation Books, these writings address many complex issues dealing with ecclesiastical, literary, political and humanistic concepts. An academic who defines himself as a secular humanist, Hitchens makes no secret of his love and respect for authors past. Socially conscious novelists such as Evelyn Waugh, James Joyce and Rudyard Kipling, as well as political luminaries like Leon Trotsky are all important subjects. There are also impassioned critiques of notable individuals in the public sphere – Mother Theresa, Michael Moore, and Holocaust-denier David Irving are all high on his hit list.

One particularly memorable article from 1999 deals with the Virgin Mary sightings in the small Bosnian town of Medjugorje, which he describes as turning into a "racketeering religious hub," where shop owners and vendors hock overpriced trinkets and crucifixes, and set prices using the Croatian kuna, a currency declared illegal by the Dayton Accords. Just "a few valleys away," hate-fuelled Catholic violence engulfed the town of Mostar, where, as the article was being written, minarets were being destroyed.  At the time there was only a pile of stones representing the Stari Most, the famed Old Bridge, built in 1566 and destroyed during the Bosnian War. This was also the country in which Croatian forces were "leveling every sign of the existence of any other monotheism" with the Virgin Mary’s portrait pasted onto their rifle butts. The Vatican, Hitchens ends sarcastically, has not recognized it as a "miracle sight." Not yet, that is….

Even more relevant to us in Vienna, however, is his essay, "The Strange Case of David Irving." Hitchens states that the notorious – and now jailed – Holocaust denier has a history of saying outrageous things, such as characterizing the 1956 Hungarian Uprising as a "rebellion of sturdy Magyar patriots against shifty Jewish Communists." Hitchens, in fine form, writes that when he first became aware of Irving’s craziness, he "did not feel it necessary to react like a virgin who is suddenly confronted by a man in a filthy raincoat."

Inviting Irving to his home for cocktails on one occasion, Hitchens, his wife and daughter were treated to a bit of doggerel about Irving’s daughter of the same age:

"I am a Baby Aryan. Not Jewish or Sectarian;

I have no plans to marry any Ape or Rastafarian."

Eerie to say the least, and reflective of Hitchens’ remarkable ability to make a friend – or should I say acquaintance – out of nearly anyone, and from his own observations, understand the man or woman behind the mask.

As with many anthologies, not every piece succeeds. Occasionally, Hitchens is capable of pouring out a ‘profile-lite,’ where, although still beautifully written, does not say much. In particular, there is a dry piece referring to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is a thin bit of "Hitchens The Contrarian," taking a jab at the PM’s handling of World War II. Not his most profound work. Also, a book review of Christopher Ricks’ intimate exploration of Bob Dylan’s poetic style, Dylan’s Visions of Sin, is not eye-catching. The piece comes off as negative, especially when Hitchens declares that,  "Ricks’s own potentially deadly virtues…bother me." Throughout the review, he subtly and not so subtly attacks Ricks’ person, as opposed to assessing his work.

Hitchens’ greatest fault, evident throughout his work, is his uncompromising disdain for moral or ethical sets that differ from his own. His inability to separate himself from his Marxist-atheist paradigm, even in a book review on Bob Dylan, is quite a hindrance, and is sometimes obnoxious and arrogant.

In general, though, Hitchens lives up to his jacket blurbs describing him as "brilliant," "controversial" and "prolific," and has been paid the backhanded compliment of an online blog – – dedicated to pointing out fallacies in his arguments.

As dedicated as his following is, Hitchens is a polarizer: people seem to love him or hate him. To this reviewer, Hitchens is enlightened, with flashes of brilliance and a delightful gift for pissing people off. This combination guarantees to treat readers to a joy ride of intelligent, well argued journalism.

Other articles from this issue