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Letters to a Young Contrarian
Christopher Hitchens
New York & Cambridge, MA: Basic Books / Perseus, 2001.
$22.00, £15.99, 141 pages, ISBN 0-465-03032-7.

Valentin Locoge
Université de Rouen

Letters to a Young Contrarian will delight those of you who enjoy Christopher Hitchens's often scathing columns in Vanity Fair and elsewhere. He is well-known for his mordant wit and sharp social criticism. He has published, among other things, For the Sake of Argument: Essays and Minority Reports (1993), The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995), No One Left to Lie To (1999), and most recently the impressive Why Orwell Matters (2002). Letters to a Young Contrarian is presented as a collection of letters by Christopher Hitchens to a young (wo)man, it is part of a series called "The Art of Mentoring", based on Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. We soon understand, however, that Hitchens's purpose is not quite the same as Rilke's. Rilke's "poetry and prose [...] exhibit that species of German romanticism and idealism that [Hitchens finds] suspect even in the most scrupulous hands". [13] Comparisons with Gore Vidal, Edward Said or Susan Sontag (very possibly influences and models) are more in order. Indeed Vidal, Said and Sontag have all praised Hitchens. We also assume that mentoring someone who is to become a poet and mentoring someone who is to become a "contrarian" are two different things. The choice of the word "contrarian", apparently a neologism, is a way for the author to start from scratch and to avoid the use of words like "radical" or "rebel" that are too connoted or equivocal. A loose definition of what a "contrarian" should be is provided in one of the letters: "an independent and a questioning person; a dissenter and freethinker". [63] And it takes Hitchens a Preface, an Introduction, eighteen letters and an Envoi to give us "contrarian" wannabes his full advice.

His pedagogical method revolves around three main devices: long quotes from beloved and admired authors, the top 5 being it would seem George Orwell, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Sigmund Freud and Salman Rushdie, examples of resistance by contemporary political dissenters, from media-friendly Vaclav Havel and Nelson Mandela to the more discreet Thabo Mekbi and Kim Dae Jung, as well as samples of Hitchens's own private experiences. In his original and controversial tone he reviews different targets: religion ("I not only maintain that religions are all versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful" [55]); public opinion and consensus ("people in the mass or the aggregate often have a lower intelligence than their constituent parts" [75], "you seem to have grasped the point that there is something idiotic about those who believe that consensus is the highest good" [19]); and the political and ruling class through his usual examples of Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Hitchens warns us to always look at the language and to oppose common sense and a strong argumentation to self-proclaimed moral authorities, reminding us that nobody and nothing is completely black or white (cf. Mother Theresa's endorsement of the Duvalier regime in Haiti or Nelson Mandela’s declaration on AIDS). Even though Hitchens doesn’t perhaps have quite the exactness of a Noam Chomsky or the erudition of a Gore Vidal, his collection of letters is a fine and often enlightening essay. His flamboyant and humoristic prose is a good way to remind us that it is awfully easy to fall in the trap of the "general will" and that "being in opposition is something you are, and not something you do". This book will be a welcome addition to the libraries of people who agree that "radicalism is humanism or it is nothing".

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