Prick the Bubbles, Pass the Mantle: Hitchens as Orwell’s Successor
When looking back on the life of the late Christopher Hitchens, one sees that his persona is oddly like that of Oscar Wilde’s character Lord Henry Wotton from The Picture of Dorian Gray: loved by an assortment of people for assorted reasons, often when they cannot square with him on something else. Like Wotton, Hitchens was popular with individuals, not because they agreed with him, but because they disagreed with him. When faced with the cultivated erudition, wit, conviction, and eloquence such that “Hitch” displayed, peacocking before a podium or a writer’s desk, one couldn’t help but fall like those in Dorian Gray who despised the hedonist Wotton, and yet couldn’t stay away from his conversation.
It’s hard to say where Hitchens’ greatest popularity lies, but much Hitch-love comes from his status as the successor to George Orwell. Orwell’s manner, if anything, was the opposite of Hitchens’ strut. But the two are compared because they both criticized the Left from within on matters of international policy, albeit in independent ways. Hitchens broke from the Left over the so-called war on terror, quitting his literary homestead, The Nation, and making particularly derisive comments about his comrades. These actions were viewed as the strongest individual leftist dissent by a writer since Orwell’s infamous break over the Spanish Communists and the Soviet Union. To boot, Hitchens offered strong, vocal admiration for the elder English author and polemicist, and invoked Orwell on matters of principle and ethics regarding his own conservative turn. Indeed, the two are similarly noteworthy for their incorporation of morals into their politics.
Nevertheless, does all or any of this suffice to anoint Hitchens the inheritor, not of Orwell’s work, but of Orwell’s pen? The idea certainly has its critics. In his obituary on Hitchens, the New Statesman’s editor Jason Cowley argued that many of the comparisons made between the two are false. And although it’s popular to identify Hitchens with Orwell, the only serious, fleshed-out argument for exactly how the younger furthered the elder’s work that I’ve seen is from the Orwell scholar John Rodden, whose excellent essay on the topic appeared in The Kenyon Review in 2004. Rodden considers the idea thoroughly and concludes that there was “an intellectual passing of the torch between the two men,” and that Hitchens viewed his break with the Left as what Orwell would have done, although Rodden writes that the comparisons were too simplistic and he had reservations about such phrasings of inheritance.
However, the connection is a very useful way, if not the best way, to understand Hitchens’ importance—one that hasn’t been properly discerned. Because Hitch didn’t just follow Orwell in similarities over leftish dissent. What he did was to further Orwellian work on the totalitarian, namely by showing the importance of overcoming tyrannies held over the individual through a lack of robust criticism. This, along with his exceptional personality, is why Hitchens will be remembered and studied, because it takes the idea of the totalitarian to the next level, treating the concept as more sublime than is often believed. “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy,” Hitchens said in his final interview, conducted with Richard Dawkins and published in the December 2011 New Statesman. “The one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquize the divine and tell us what to do.”