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A Self-Imposed Tutelage

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A thread that runs throughout Hitch-22 is the author’s lifelong attempt to intellectually keep ‘two sets of books’ or as he alternatively puts it ‘have it both ways’. Early on this took the form of seeking out alternative positions even within oppositional points of view (i.e., the revolution within the revolution). This earned him the title ‘contrarian’, a label he rejects.

A less judgmental, though albeit more pedantic, assessment would again come from Kant, in this case his essay also from 1784, ’What is Enlightenment?’ In particular, it has to do with Kant’s idea of enlightenment as one’s emergence from ‘self-imposed immaturity’, (in German selbstverschuldeten sometimes translated ‘self-imposed tutelage’), or put more simply daring to think for oneself. What some will interpret as an opportunistic move from left to right, Hitchens simply sees as coming into his own.


Photo (partial) by © Christian Witkin

In the book’s conclusion, Hitchens notes his desire to always repudiate ‘the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics’. The embrace of continual doubt and self-criticism is what constitutes the eponymous Hitch-22. This struck a chord in that I’d been reading 20th century German political philosopher Carl Schmidt right before taking up Hitchens’ memoir.

Schmidt is famous (or should I say infamous) for his concept of the ‘total’ state from which the term totalitarianism derives. Schmidt is also known for his analysis in the 1922 book Political Theology of the state of exception, the unforeseen calamitous circumstance, provided for in Article 48 of the Weimer Constitution, allowing the executive branch to assume sovereign power in order to ensure political and social stability.

Adolf Hitler invoked Article 48 in suspending democratic authority to establish the Nationalist Socialist government. It’s a principle also explored by Bush Administration advisors (who, one must remember, prominently included Paul Wolfowitz) as evidenced by rumors floated regarding the use of the wartime emergency as a rationale for possibly canceling national elections in the US and the more palpable efforts at expanding presidential power and curtailing individual civil liberties under the theory of the ‘unitary executive’.

More relevant, however, is the argument made in another of Schmidt’s books from the ‘20s, Political Romanticism, which did more to explain the vagaries of Christopher Hitchens than this memoir or anything else the man has put forth. According to Schmidt, the most important ideal of romanticism is preservation of the autonomous self. Hence the hallmarks of the romantic are irony and aesthetics as defense mechanisms against any and all external forces impinging upon the individual. It consists among other things in the ‘poeticizing of politics’, treating political events as occasions for ‘romantic productivity’, that is, expressions of individual creativity of which punditry is an example par excellence. It also manifests itself in a refusal to ultimately commit, keeping oneself safe from the damaging emotional effects of uncomfortable realities.

This also explains the one thing Hitchens has never suspended: his militant atheism, perhaps most notably documented in the bestseller god Is Not Great, which was nominated for the National Book Award. (Although I’m not sure why, it’s neither particularly well written nor well argued. For some fine Hitchens writing, pick up Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere.) As Schmidt notes, secularism underlies romanticism in that it removes God as the transcendent principal of the universe and replaces him/her/it/whatever with the individual transcendental ego. (There’s that damned Kant again!)

None of this is to say that Hitch-22 isn’t good reading. There are withering criticisms, amusing quips, and trenchant observations galore. Just think twice about taking it much to heart.

Vince Carducci is Dean of Undergraduate Studies at College for Creative Studies, a private art and design school in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @cultrindustreez.

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