Apr 24, 2011

Sudden death flame-outs: Amis on Hitchens

"He thinks like a child (that is to say, his judgments are far more instinctive and moral-visceral than they seem, and are animated by a child's eager apprehension of what feels just and true); he writes like a distinguished author; and he speaks like a genius.... As a result, Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen....The prototype of Deep Blue was known as Deep Thought. And there's a case for calling Christopher Deep Speech. With his vast array of geohistorical references and precedents, he is almost Google-like; but Google (with, say, its 10 million "results" in 0.7 seconds) is something of an idiot savant, and Christopher's search engine is much more finely tuned. In debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes." — Martin Amis on the wit of Christopher Hitchens
Why then, in all of the examples that Amis quotes, is Hitchens merely rude? Don't get me wrong. I like rudeness. I'm British. Being rude is practically my patriotic duty so the following exchanges naturally bring a lump to the throat.
1. TV host: "I can't understand a word you're saying."
Hitchens: "I'm not in the least surprised"
2. Two young men in a restaurant:"You're going to hate us for this..."
Hitchens: "We hate you already."
3. Friend: "You know, there are so few areas of transcendence left to us. Sports. Sex. Art … "
Hitchens: "Don't forget the miseries of others. Don't forget the languid contemplation of the miseries of others."
4. American: "Do you love us? Or do you hate us?"
Hitchens: "It depends on how you behave."
In all fairness, however, only the third has the quality of genuine wit. It is unexpected, funny, includes Hitchen's interlocutor in the joke and can be forgiven the hiccup of that in situ redraft ("the languid contemplation...."). The fourth response would occur to most people — the American set himself up. The other two are straightforward ambushes, in which Hitchens uses the civility of his interlocutors against them: they do not yet know that he hates them and — surprise! — in a cunning coup de grace, he reveals that he does. Conversation over.
How admirable are these sudden-death flame-outs exactly, let alone "deep","Ciceronian" or "Demosthenian"? I have the greatest respect for Hitchens as a writer, but Amis seems a little over impressed with the hostility levels of his friend. Maybe he is fond of these comebacks precisely because they don't translate so well — they are funny from only one point in the room, Amis's, which is to say the point occupied by a forgiving friend.


  1. Being a brilliant rhetorician doesn't stop you from being utterly and unceremoniously wrong about some things no matter how childlike and "honest" these presuppositions are felt to be. I have seen Hitchens act the cowardly blowhard many times which included flipping off one disagreeable studio audience as well as calling another "ugly and stupid". Being a great writer also doesn't preclude being intellectually dishonest either.

  2. Oh, come on, Tom. #3 is great enough to override the others.

    Plus, there isn't enough hostility in the world. No, I don't mean on the Internet. There's way too much here, most of it written by anonymous cowards, some by armchair generals. I mean that people have gotten too timid about attacking one another in person. Say an ungracious word to someone at party and people start whispering and backing off... Hitchens at least doesn't care about those niceties. (I hear you saying, "Few people care about social niceties after six double Scotches," to which I'd say, "You're correct, but that's a different issue.")

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