Behind every dead man is a great fallacy

Hitchens and Blue

Christopher Hitchens, who died on Thursday, has rightly been venerated as a great thought producer and sentence artist (as well as a fan of Orwellian clarity in the use of English). The obituaries noted his force of personality and the zeal with which he demolished charlatans and hypocrites. Better still, his refusal to reach for crutches like sentimentality, whimsy and received wisdom when stroking the big beasts of politics, art and religion, gave us cause to believe that the battle of ideas hasn’t been lost just yet.

Hitchens was an iconoclast and rationalist (or a Godless contrarian if you’re simple). Consequently, anyone writing about the man following his death would be disrespectful if they failed to evaluate his life and achievements with anything other than sobriety: not easy when writing about an unrepentant alcoholic.

Hitchens, when writing obituaries, was famously unmoved by the fact of the subject’s death, never allowing the piece to be blighted by romanticism. If the individual had been a grotesque in life, he thought, then the retrospective should discuss their minus contribution to the sum total of human progress, unencumbered by the sympathy and proxy fear we all feel when someone goes ahead of us into eternal nothingness.

In accessing him, most obituarists eschewed Hitch-style character demolition and worldview dissection in favour of an honest summary of his contribution to journalism; a considerable contribution that saw him posthumously grouped as an essayist with the likes of the aforementioned Eric Blair. It’s not a bogus comparison.

Many resisted political readings of his life, being content to document the, for some, inexplicable truth, that he held views belonging to both the left and right. Okay, this may be true for every human being on Earth, but Hitchens, whose pragmatism allowed him to slip out of an ideological straightjacket, was hated by many on the left for that relativist instinct. That it was informed by a mind that targeted the complexities and vicissitudes of each situation, however inconvenient, was incidental to those that didn’t care to bear down on the facts quite so hard.

Still, in the days following his death, his enemies, comprehensively beaten in life, had the good grace to remain silent, while his admirers kept hyperbole to a minimum, often quoting their subject in depth. He was permitted to speak for himself. In fact, all in the land of remembrance was well until the Independent columnist Viv Groskop thought she saw a chasm sized flaw in the obituary writers’ logic and moved to fill it: Hitchens may have been a great man but what about the great woman behind him? Wasn’t anyone going to credit Carol Blue, his wife, for her part in the man’s prestigious output?

You might think the short answer to that is no. Blue, no doubt a fine companion for the late writer, wasn’t responsible for his intellectual curiosity, his early drive, his political awakening, his fastidiousness or, and this is somewhat important, a single word of any essay or piece of prose written by him in his lifetime. At first glance, if one were to extract Blue from the scene, Hitchens would have been no less a successful journalist and writer, but hold the fuck on, says Groskop, we, like so many of Christopher’s detractors, are missing the bigger picture. She was there to mother him and that made all the difference. The impact of said mothering is impossible to quantify of course but nevermind.

Our society’s numerous problems are offset using intangible covers ups; ideas that don’t quite have weight, form, indeed any kind of substance, but nevertheless provide reassurance; ideas that function to relieve us of the burden of having to think too closely about the root causes of certain difficulties. They’re terribly convenient because they explain away the everyday without recourse to time consuming trials like scrutiny, investigative thought and imagination. You and I know these fragments from a netherworld of bullshit, built from psychical bungaroosh, as truisms, a.k.a received wisdom; the sort of nonsense that Hitchens hated but is now, post-mortem, being used to retrospectively rewrite his life’s narrative by Viv Groskop.

Gender inequality is one of the scourges of our age; the only people who don’t think so are men that fear a feminised world. Women, it seems to me, have a choice; they can either accept they’re down and are achieving less, on average, and turn militant in a bid to emancipate themselves and challenge the existing patriarchy or they can try to feel better about male dominance with comforting lies like “behind every great man lies a great woman”.

In addition to being a thought terminating cliché, Groskop’s thesis, that Hitchens’ wife managed and tolerated his difficult persona plus a work ethic “close to lunacy”, selflessly putting her own needs aside so he could work unimpeded, is disingenuous, not to mention a flight of fancy. Her evidence is a quote from Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who noted that Blue “set a high bar in how to handle a flower like Christopher”. That’s one way of looking of it. Another is to say that Blue was lucky to be married to a man as interesting as Hitchens.

If we’re allowing our gender and imagination to intertwine and inform speculation, couldn’t we just as plausibly argue that Blue got more from spending her life with Hitchens than the reverse? “Most of the obituaries don’t mention her at all,” laments Groskop. They were just clinical assessments of a dead man’s achievements that eschewed the domestic, the trivial and the sexual. What an embarrassment of relevance. No wonder Viv was bemused.

Groskop went on to cite Natalia Svetlova, wife of Solzhenitsyn, who answered the telephone on his behalf because he refused to do so. By indulging his reclusive tendency and allowing him to work uninterrupted, Svetlova, in Groskop’s mind, can take much of the credit for the literary leviathan’s oeuvre. “Imagine if that were your husband,” she says, appealing to the dutiful and economically inactive partner in us all. But Viv, we reply, if we’re lucky enough to be shackled to a genius we wouldn’t worry. Those of us that want a simple life have a million middling, vanilla people to choose from.

Groskop’s article, “Behind every Christopher Hitchens…”, though she could just have easily have gone for broke and entitled it, “the power behind the throne”, dangerously assumed that complicated people who are gifted in some way always benefit from having a less complicated, less gifted partner in tow. Perhaps they do in the sense that it relieves them of the tedium that comes with an ordinary life; answering the phone, going to your kid’s parents evening, walking Shep; but as far as posterity’s concerned, this is an irrelevant sideshow.

Not one of Hitchens’ obituaries praised the role of his liver in keeping him alive during his lifetime of excess; no one heralded his fingers for depressing the keys on his typewriter. Perhaps Groskop’s editor cut those passages for space. And what of the reality that Groskop neither acknowledged nor considered? Isn’t it true that in many cases, your better half is a break on your ambition, not its facilitator?

If we’re to entertain the notion, buoyed by reams of anecdotal evidence, that both men and women are held back by poor partners; the kind that saddle them with responsibilities they don’t want, stunt their ambition with derision borne of envy or competition, and bully them into conforming to an imaginary archetype that cripples rather than compliments their personality; might we not agree that successful people may make an impact despite their love-squeeze, not because of them? Doesn’t it denigrate a person’s achievements to have them rooted in and ascribed to, the back room efforts of a less gifted fuckmate?

Hitchens credited alcohol as being his friend and sponsor. So why didn’t the Indy run a piece praising Johnny Walker Black Label as an integral part of his success? Most of the obituaries didn’t mention the brand at all. Probably because such a link wouldn’t make the vaginally endowed columnist feel better about the fact that there’s few current female polemicists writing to the standard of the recently deceased.

“Man cannot live by genius alone. So please, obituary writers, don’t let’s pretend he did”, concludes Groskop. Well Viv, I say let’s not pretend he didn’t succeed despite all of the nonsense that life puts in your way, or indeed that his achievements weren’t his own, however comforting it may be to assume otherwise.

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