Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere – Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is, if not always agreeable, usually entertaining. The character he’s created: a fat, drunken, chain-smoking hack journalist, taking advantage of the USA’s looser libel laws to hurl scabrous imprecations in every direction, livens up whatever Washington talk show upon which he descends. Interestingly, when he turns away from politics to address issues of history or literature, a nuanced thinker emerges, spinning out long essays of brilliant, erudite analysis. This other Hitchens has collected a series of pieces, from various magazines and newspapers, into the current volume, and they are almost uniformly excellent. (It’s unfailingly astonishing that Vanity Fair publishes writing of this quality amid the glossy photographs and fawning celebrity puff-pieces that actually sell the wretched thing.)

This book has very few flaws, but one emerges early on: repetitiveness. As he has chosen to reprint three separate essays on Oscar Wilde, from three different publications, the reader stumbles over the same facts, and indeed the same logical and rhetorical constructions, thrice over. Fair advice would be, upon first tackling this book, to pick one (they’re all in a row, for convenience’s sake) and come back for the others on subsequent jaunts through the text.

Hitchens’s literary criticism is, as stated above, much subtler than his political journalism, but there is still fun to be had here, particularly when he assaults the work of writers with whom he disagrees politically. The essay “Unmaking Friends,” which vivisects Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz and his idiotic memoir Ex-Friends in a thoroughly satisfying manner, contains insults which are worth the price of purchase by themselves. Probably the most mild quote is: “Like Andrei Zhdanov, Stalin’s literary enforcer, Podhoretz doesn’t content himself with saying that a certain novelist is no longer in favour or no longer any good. That would be banal. No, it must be shown that he never was any good, that he always harboured the germs of anti-party feeling, that he was a rank rodent from the get-go. Then comes the airbrush, the rewritten entry in the encyclopaedia, the memory hole.” [Italics and British spellings in original.] Tom Wolfe also comes in for gleeful destruction: “Wolfe got lucky, once, by eavesdropping a Late Sixties party given by conscience-stricken Jews for not very conscience-stricken blacks. He has, at least as a realist but I would say also as a stylist, been running on empty ever since. His self-esteem tank, in bold contrast, has been filled to overflowing.”

Hitchens himself is rather well-stocked in the self-esteem department, aided and abetted by Verso, who seem ready to publish anything he writes. [They’ll be dining out on last year’s bestselling No One Left To Lie To for awhile yet.] This is a good one, though, and worth reading. Many collections of cultural or literary essays merely allow the reader to compare his own existing viewpoints with the author’s. Unacknowledged Legislation does that, but at its best it causes a wholesale reconsideration of the works in question, and may in fact inspire multiple trips back to the bookstore. That’s rare.

Phil Freeman