[12 June 2011]
You may not always agree with Christopher Hitchens, but you can certainly count on him to have something interesting to say on almost any occasion and on almost any subject. Although perhaps “interesting” should be in quotes, because sometimes Hitchens seems to be playing the role of the professional provocateur with remarks calculated to attract the maximum amount of attention. This is not entirely a bad thing: Hitchens is a writer, not a statesman, and if he’s chosen to assume the role of a gadfly (annoying though he may sometimes be, Hitchens has also done a great deal to stimulate public debate on important subjects), at least he does it with gusto, wit and a fine command of the English language.
The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism, edited by Windsor Mann and with an introduction by Martin Amis, offers a compendium of Hitchens’ pithier proclamations arranged alphabetically by topic. Each is sourced to the original article with publication and date provided, should you care to look them up and see the quote in its original context.
This is a browser’s book, inviting the reader to dip in at random and no matter where you land, you’re almost sure to come away with an appreciation for Hitchens’ gift for the well-honed barb and sharply worded takedown. Compliments don’t seem to be so much in his line, although the question of whether that is due to temperament or to the fact that it’s easier to show off your verbal chops in a putdown than in praise is one I will leave for another day. The alphabetical arrangement also facilitates quote-shopping so if you’re looking for a snappy remark on a particular subject, you can get straight to it.
So tell us what you think about religion, Mr. Hitchens. “If only religion were an opiate. No known narcotic rots the brain so fast.” No, please don’t hold back, tell us what you really think. “There are four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking.”
Thank you, I think that’s clear. Moving on to more practical concerns, what is your impression of American politics? “Most of the buying and selling of our national political process is legal, and the corruption is so routine that it barely raises a bump of outrage.” Oh dear, perhaps you hold a higher opinion of the political process in your native country of Great Britain? “The winner-take-all rules of a British election mean that a party leader can become Prime Minister simply by waiting for the incumbent Government to decompose.” But surely you have something good to say about the British system? “Parliament trains its sons in a hard school of debate and unscripted exchange, and so does the British Labour movement. You get your retaliation in first, you rise to a point of order, you heckle and you watch out for hecklers.”
Well, I think we may have just discovered the model for your own inimitable style of discourse. Did your education at Oxford University have any influence on your intellectual development? “The Oxford debating tradition does possess one great strength, drawn indirectly from the Symposium. You are supposed to be able to give an honest account of an opposing or different worldview, and even as an exercise to be able to present it as if you believed it yourself.”
Moving on to more personal matters, how would you characterize the American attitude toward sex? “Has there ever been a culture in which so much needless misery and superstition was generated by the question of where babies come from? The lazy term for societies dominated by sexual hypocrisy (always think of it, never speak of it) is ‘Victorian.’ But the English of those decades were robust and candid compared with the Americans of a century later.”
And your personal feeling about male sexuality? “Some feminist theorists who compare the penis to a species of heat-seeking missile are being too flattering as well as too harsh.” Thank you for recalling that image which I’m sure is now burned into my memory (although I do have to agree with the feminists on this one) and I hope we can find the time to chat again soon.
The Quotable Hitchens provides over 300 pages of this type of verbal gold and it’s sure to please his fans. But the market is really much wider than that: anyone interested in the art of turning a good phrase in the English language will want to give this volume a look.