Sometimes, more is less

Christopher Hitchens’s autobiography is at its best when it echoes his essays. Unfortunately, the rest of the time it’s largely pointless and self-indulgent

Alexander Linklater

In 1988, Christopher Hitchens wrote a characteristically scintillating essay for the American magazine, Grand Street, which was, uncharacteristically, about himself. Though his public arguments have always been driven by a powerful urge to self-advertise, this article has remained, until now, his only directly autobiographical piece of writing. In it he turned the business of self-disclosure into a warning about the pitfalls and deceptions of identity politics.

Entitled “On Not Knowing the Half of It,” the essay told the story of how his younger brother, Peter, had discovered that their late mother had been Jewish—a fact unknown even to their father. Hitchens then uses this as material with which to examine the problem of “thinking with the blood”; of the curiosity of ethnic identity and of its relevance, and irrelevance, to one’s political ideas. He describes his irritation at an editor who had suggested that this discovery would make his life easier, because “Jewish people are allowed to criticise Israel.” Had it really come to this, he wonders, that who you are might either justify or undermine your arguments?

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