I came across Hitchens through strings of YouTube and were awestruck by his confrontational style which often overtook the radical premises he built his debates around. It was his influence that further compelled me to write a book review for Letters to A Young Contrarian to see if I understood it well enough. Reviewing Christopher Hitchens’s book is like navigating through the chaos for clarity. I am glad that I undertook this exercise. (It’s a not less than a tragedy that I discovered Hitchens way too late, so much that he was dead already for many years and I have just read his Wikipedia page, nevertheless, I like to assert his being in the present in reference to the book.
Book Review Letters to A Young Contrarian – Anatomy of Dissent!
Before you begin to take on this deceptively slim book of mere 140 pages, be aware that you might be in it for a long educational haul. It is going to warp your reading impetus with the weight of the memory of history’s most influential eccentrics. You will see Hitchens digging one pioneer’s grave after another to hint at the patterns, language, periods and social sceneries in order to exact the innate nature of dissent and its banner-men. Letters to A Young Contrarian picks up some (in fact lots) of the history’s most original free thinkers in an attempt to build a case for the diverse nature of intellectual prowess battling tautological assertions and bigotry throughout history. Beginning with the famous Dreyfuss Affair, the book brings back from time, author’s beloved superhero Emile Zola who single handedly ran the justice campaign for the wrongly maligned Alfred Dreyfuss by writing open letters to France. Apparently, Hitchens’s obsession with Zola is neither superficial nor just romantic. Not only he brings out Zola’s foxiness in exposing French government’s sophist tactics of blindsiding the entire nation but also meticulously relates its causality with the ritual of immolation.
Interestingly though, Letters to A Young Contrarian is not fixated on flashing readers with the model citizens demonstrating exceptional courage while combating idolatry. While it cares to look deep into the heart and soul of a dissenter, exposing his desires and vulnerabilities to belong to both truth and the people, the book serves the readers with more than just the gratitude for the likes of Galileo, Bertrand Russell and many others. It is sufficiently tactful to tackle the underlying precepts of romantic idealism, utilitarian principles and sectarian attitudes through its sharp wit, keenly logical premises and passionate fervor. Hitchens has judiciously employed history to stir the present with a compelling argument built in and as the Letters to A Young Contrarian. The book benefits immensely from the author’s exposure to ingenious works of hidden figures in the field of legal and analytic philosophy and other natural sciences. The otherwise popular icons like Spinoza, Huxley, Rainer Rilke, George Dangerfield, John Brown, Orwell, Rosa Luxemburg, John Milton, Frederick Douglass, Chomsky and countless others had been dug out from history and disposed off well in the service of this book. Likewise, the excerpt from Microcosmographia Academica by F. M. Cornford ( Cambridge Professor) briefing The Principle of Wedge & Principle of Dangerous Precedent is blissfully riveting in its philosophical scope. The sheer riches of the references of writers, activists, philosophers, economists, politicians and course-altering episodes in global politics alone, make the book a worthy reading but the polemical tone of the author might upset or alert the readers to exercise discretion. Leaving the chapters untitled and keeping the readers unnecessarily engaged in the arduous task of identifying the broader theme of the given context that keeps on changing abruptly, is a major flaw of the book. Though, it is more of an oversight at the editing front. Truly and absolutely, the book borrows heavily from history, it still should not be mistaken for an index of radicals or their counterparts. It does qualify for a literary piece as you will see the author throwing powerful punches here and there to surmise his regard for an opinion. Meanwhile, the readers can find Hitchens in his usual self for a deplorable take on religion, authoritarian governments and absolution in ideologies.
“I am always and at once on the defensive, for example, when people speak of races and nations as if they were personalities and had souls and destinies and suchlike.”
However, the essence of the book lies in the author’s ability to present a dissenter’s broken and fragmented world where he is often made to make difficult choices and abandon the comforts of solidarity. It should not surprise you when he mentions Albert Camus’s choosing his mother over morals if ever found in a tight spot or Chomsky’s depression over the bombing of Hiroshima. As Hitchens collects one defiant after another, the book begins to take shape from a fluid anecdote to a coalescent narrative offering penetrative insights into the nature of forces holding these sundry contrary elements together in the face of overwhelming rejection. What follows in between is an author trying to wade off atrophy settled in the routine of a thinker who is too shy to act. Or otherwise, dispelling the fears of being accused as an Elitist or Nihilist in a world that functions on majoritarian principles even in spiritual matters. Hitchens though does not just remind history’s malicious episodes but also captures delightful cues and spontaneous sparks that have catapulted into revolutions through what he calls as ‘As If’ philosophy. Be it Rosa Parks claiming a reserved-for-white seat or Chomsky’s Power of the Powerless principle, the book is an antidote for dampened spirits or mixed up made-up minds and is likely to do its intended job into inspiring independent thinking among his readers whom the writer believes, are born in a rather propitious political climate.
Letters to a Young Contrarian is a passionate account of history and its instructive relationship with the present which the author substantiates through an enormous referential framework, is the consequence of dissent. The very nature of this relationship compels the author to counsel his fellow contrarians about upholding their moral affinities in high regard or build them for that matter within their independent jurisdictions. It should come quite useful to anyone who is looking to understand radically different perspectives and ideas that a dissenter offers and how his existence had been the cornerstone of the very democratic institutions we live under safely and comfortably today.
The book can be best defined in one encompassing quote by the author – “The essence of an independent mind lies not in what it thinks but how it thinks.”
Christopher Hitchens – The Author
If you ever came across Hitchens’s debates or columns or editorials, chances are you have been mesmerised (or more likely offended) by the man’s intelligence, his effectively acrid tongue and confident demeanour preserved by a tightly held smile that never blew out of proportion. A veteran journalist and a skilled polemicist, Hitchens enjoyed the reputation of an angry man in the business of making people angry with his subversive opinion on timeless matters of war, religion, sexuality and political ideologies. His ability to take on the godly figures from the likes of Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, President Clinton or Henry Kissinger and peel off of them layers of wishful efficacies nurtured by media, made him one of the most fearsome intellectuals in the public discourse. Having authored dozens of books, weekly columns and countless public debates against totalitarian ideas and idols, Hitchens braved the ridicules of conservatives and liberals alike on his way to mainstream rational thinking and protect free speech from the shackles of consensus driven mentality. Letters to a Young Contrarian is yet another effort by the author into building consciousness of the younger generation about the perils of resigning from the critical faculties of will, intellect and expression in view of comforting concurrence. Through this epistolarian novel, Hitchens shares the influences and experiences he gathered throughout his life, hoping to inspire reasoning and critique among his readers.