“Hannah Arendt used to speak of ‘the lost treasure of the revolution’: a protean phenomenon that eluded the capture of those who sought it the most. Like Hegel’s ‘cunning of history’ and Marx’s ‘old mole’ that surfaced in unpredictable and ironic places, this mercurial element did quicken my own short life in the magic, tragic years that are denoted as 1968, 1989, and 2001. In the course of all of them, even if not without convolutions and contradictions, it became evident that the only historical revolution with any verve left in it, or any example to offer others, was the American one. (Marx and Engels, who wrote so warmly about the United States and who were Lincoln’s strongest supporters in Europe, and who so much disliked the bloodiness and backwardness of Russia, might not have been either surprised or disconcerted to notice this outcome).
To announce that one has painfully learned to think for oneself might seem an unexciting conclusion and anyway, I have only my own word for it that I have in fact taught myself to do so. The ways in which the conclusion is arrived at may be interesting, though, just as it is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think. I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified. With some part of myself, I still ‘feel,’ but no longer really think, that humanity would be poorer without this fantastically potent illusion. ‘A map of the world that did not show utopia,’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘would not be worth consulting.’ I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.
But I hope and believe that my advancing age has not quite shamed my youth. I have actually seen more prisons broken open, more people and territory ‘liberated,’ and more taboos broken and censors flouted, since I let go of the idea, or at any rate the plan, of a radiant future. Those ‘simple’ ordinary propositions, of the open society, especially when contrasted with the lethal simplifications of that society’s sworn enemies, were all I required. This wasn’t a dreary shuffle to the Right, either. It used to be that the Right made tactical excuses for friendly dictatorships, whereas now most conservatives are frantic to avoid even the appearance of doing so, and at least some on the Left can take at least some of the credit for at least some of that. It is not so much that there are ironies of history, it is that history itself is ironic. It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties. It is not only true that the test of knowledge is an acute and cultivated awareness of how little one knows (as Socrates knew so well), it is true that the unbounded areas and fields of one’s ignorance are now expanding in such a way, and at such a velocity, as to make he contemplation of them almost fantastically beautiful. One reason, then, that I would not relive my life is that one cannot be born knowing such things, but must find them out, even when they seem bloody obvious, for oneself. If I had set out to put this on paper so as to spare you some or even any of the effort, I would be doing you an injustice.”
From Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) was a force of nature. As the most articulate and informed and persuasive polemicist of his generation, he towered over the marketplace of ideas in politics, literature, philosophy and art. He was also the most charming guy in the room – no matter what room (or theater or auditorium or watering hole) he happened to walk into.
The above paragraphs come at the very end of his very weighty memoir, and they distill the myriad lessons of a life spent fighting for causes – political, cultural, ideological – into some beautiful first principles. Given his Anglo heritage and Marxist affinities, his affirmation of the American Revolution is especially significant. Given the book’s title, Hitch-22, the closing sentences are pertinent and powerful reflections on the paradoxes of a life spent learning from history while attempting to shape the future. Given his abrupt and tragic passing nine months ago, the words resonate and echo on even more.