The Masstransit train is arriving late to the wake for Christopher Hitchens. The trains don’t always run on-time at Masstransit, but that won’t stop Masstransit from joining the Johnny Walker soaked party. Light up a Rothman and enjoy. One can learn about Hitchens from other people, just as one can learn about Wodehouse, Waugh and Orwell from reading Hitchens. Reading the multiple writings pouring forth these days, one gets a complex picture. If Hitchens is a new name to you, you can start here with his obituary.
The most unsparing piece was Alexander Cockburns‘. Cockburn is not in a forgiving mood, and he has grudges worth carrying.
As so often with friends and former friends, it’s a matter of what you’re prepared to put up with and for how long. I met him in New York in the early 1980s and all the long-term political and indeed personal traits were visible enough. I never thought of him as at all radical. He craved to be an insider, a trait which achieved ripest expression when he elected to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen by Bush’s director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. In basic philosophical take he always seemed to me to hold as his central premise a profound belief in the therapeutic properties of capitalism and empire. He was an instinctive flagwagger and remained so. He wrote some really awful stuff in the early 90s about how indigenous peoples — Indians in the Americas — were inevitably going to be rolled over by the wheels of Progress and should not be mourned.
On the plane of weekly columns in the late eighties and nineties it mostly seemed to be a matter of what was currently obsessing him: for years in the 1980s he wrote scores of columns for The Nation, charging that the Republicans had stolen the 1980s election by the “October surprise”, denying Carter the advantage of a hostage release. He got rather boring. Then in the 90s he got a bee in his bonnet about Clinton which developed into full-blown obsessive megalomania: the dream that he, Hitchens, would be the one to seize the time and finish off Bill. Why did Bill — a zealous and fairly efficient executive of Empire – bother Hitchens so much? I’m not sure. He used to hint that Clinton had behaved abominably to some woman he, Hitchens, knew. Actually I think he’d got to that moment in life when he was asking himself if he could make a difference. He obviously thought he could, and so he sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon and tried to topple Clinton via betrayal of his close friendship with Sid Blumenthal, whom he did his best to ruin financially (lawyers’ fees) and get sent to prison for perjury.
Since then it was all pretty predictable, down to his role as flagwagger for Bush. I guess the lowest of a number of low points was when he went to the White House to give a cheerleading speech on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I think he knew long, long before that this is where he would end up, as a right-wing codger. He used to go on, back in the Eighties, about sodden old wrecks like John Braine, who’d ended up more or less where Hitchens got to, trumpeting away about “Islamo-fascism” like a Cheltenham colonel in some ancient Punch cartoon. I used to warn my friends at New Left Review and Verso in the early 90s who were happy to make money off Hitchens’ books on Mother Teresa and the like that they should watch out, but they didn’t and then kept asking ten years later, What happened?
Anyway, between the two of them, my sympathies were always with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Bombay, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? You’d get one from Mother Teresa. Hitchens was always tight with beggars, just like the snotty Fabians who used to deprecate charity.
One awful piece of opportunism on Hitchens’ part was his decision to attack Edward Said just before his death, and then for good measure again in his obituary. With his attacks on Edward, especially the final post mortem, Hitchens couldn’t even claim the pretense of despising a corrupt presidency, a rapist and liar or any of the other things he called Clinton. That final attack on Said was purely for attention–which fuelled his other attacks but this one most starkly because of the absence of any high principle to invoke. Here he decided both to bask in his former friend’s fame, recalling the little moments that made it clear he was intimate with the man, and to put himself at the center of the spotlight by taking his old friend down a few notches. In a career of awful moves, that was one of the worst. He also rounded on Gore Vidal who had done so much to promote his career as dauphin of contrarianism.
While Cockburn’s take-down is personal and brutal, the take-down by Katha Pollitt is perhaps more damning. In her piece, she calls out Hitchens’ nastiness towards women, is unforgiving of his alcoholism, and nails him out for careless writing. On careless writing:
I used to wonder, enviously, how he could write so much, especially given his drinking, his travels, his public appearances and his demanding social life. He told me once that a writer should be able to write with no difficulty, anytime, anywhere—but actually, not many writers can do that. I think part of the reason why he was so prolific—and the reason he had such an outsize career and such an outsize effect on his readers—is that he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth. For a man who started out as an International Socialist and ended up banging the drum for the war in Iraq and accusing Michelle Obama of fealty to African dictators on the basis of a stray remark in her undergraduate thesis, he seems to have spent little time wondering how he got from one place to another, much less if he’d lost anything on the way. After he left The Nation he said he had a “libertarian gene.” It’s a rum sort of libertarianism, and a rum sort of gene, that expresses itself first as membership in a Trotskyist sect, and then as support for the signal deed of an administration that stood for everything he had spent his life fighting, from economic inequality to government promotion of religion.
On nastiness towards women:
So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his 1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.
It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write. “Anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour with a textbook on embryology knows” that pro-life women are on to something when they recoil at the idea of the “disposable fetus.” Hmmmm… that must be why most OB-GYNs are pro-choice and why most women who have abortions are mothers. Those doctors just need to spend an hour with a medical textbook; those mothers must never have seen a sonogram. Interestingly, although he promised to address the counterarguments made by the many women who wrote in to the magazine, including those on the staff, he never did. For a man with a reputation for courage, it certainly failed him then. (Years later, when he took up the question of abortion again in Vanity Fair, he said basically the exact same things, using the same straw-women arguments. Time taught him nothing, because he didn’t want to learn.)
As to the alcoholism, it is worth transitioning to another perspective from David Zirin, a writer from the Nation who was from a younger generation than Hitchens, and once had the honor of being spat upon by Hitchens. He relates his story as follows:
Christopher Hitchens, best-selling author, polemical powerhouse, Bush Doctrine supplicant and militant atheist, died of cancer yesterday at the age of 62. Perhaps more than any Western intellectual, Hitchens deserves credit for popularizing the framework that the United States was absolutely correct to invade Iraq as part of a “clash of civilizations” against “Islamofascism.” It was quite a journey for Hitchens, who went from fierce polemicist against imperial war to being equally fierce in favor of it, a process anti-war British MP George Galloway described as “evolution in reverse, from butterfly to slug.”
I met Christopher Hitchens once and once only in October of 2005. I had just written my first article for The Nation, Hitchens’s former employer. Its subject was the death of NFL player turned army ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. This was before anyone knew anything about the lies or cover-up following Pat’s death. My piece was more a lament that Pat Tillman—described by friends as a complex, iconoclastic, human being—was already being exploited by the Pentagon in a way he would have despised. I was also at the time a regular marcher and agitator against Bush’s wars, having helped start a group called DAWN (the DC Anti-War Network). I found myself drinking in a New York City downtown bar, and there, sidling up next to me, was Christopher Hitchens.
With a couple Jamesons in me, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Hitchens.” He faced me with a glass of brown liquor in each hand and an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Hitchens had been drinking, and about to join a table of 20-somethings who peered up at him like they were tweens at a Bieber concert. I said to him, “Sir, I write about politics and sports for your former employers at The Nation magazine.”
Before I could speak another word, Hitchens interrupted. Cigarette fastened in the corner of his mouth, he said, “Did you write this week’s piece on Pat Tillman?” I was taken aback, a little shocked, and frankly flattered. I stammered a “yes” and Hitchens, out of kindness or sensing weakness said, “That was the finest piece of anti-war polemics I’ve seen since combat began.” Now I was practically blushing. Praise from Caesar.
Then he said four words that soured the discussion dramatically. He said, turning away from me, “You used Tillman brilliantly.” I couldn’t tell if he was still buttering me up or sticking the stiletto between my ribs, but after speaking to people who loved Pat all week, it was more than I could stand.
Before he could walk away, I called out, “Well, he was a great human being. And if it wasn’t for your war he’d still be alive.” There was now a pause and Hitchens turned back around like he was “Wild Bill” Hickok in the Polemicists Saloon. He responded, “I see you bought the Nation magazine lies about there being no weapons of mass destruction though.”
I said, “Come on. Not even Dick Cheney argues that there were WMDs in Iraq. You can do better than that.”
Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. I stood there stunned, embarrassed and oddly proud. To be spit upon by Christopher Hitchens, for an anti-war activist in 2005, was an honor worth its weight in gold. It also felt real. Most public figures of his ilk are so full of hot air and self-regard, they aren’t even human. For Hitchens, you could see, decades after his days as a student socialist agitator, he was conflicted by what he had become. This is obvious in much of his recent writings: a constant effort to reassure himself that he hadn’t really morphed into what he had once despised. If nothing else, he was consistent in his hatred of Henry Kissinger, and I for one, regret that the aged war criminal outlived his most effective foe.
Christopher Hitchens was a man of prodigious gifts, but in the end, he used those gifts to promote wars that produced a killing field in the Middle East. That, tragically, is his lasting legacy to the world, and no amount of flowery obituaries can change this stubborn fact.
At this point, if you hadn’t already heard of Hitchens you’d probably wonder what all of the fuss was about. Most of what I’ve posted makes him sound like a drunken prick who betrays friends, and has protean principles. Well, he was a fantastic writer who was well read, and I loved reading his literary criticism. I’ve never bothered to read P.G. Wodehouse, but I certainly enjoyed reading Hitchens talk about him. Hitchens had a great command of literature, and the reverential obituaries and lasting friendships appear to be centered in this world. In this piece , Christopher Buckley (son of William) writes admiringly of a friend that clearly dazzled him.
We were friends for more than thirty years, which is a long time but, now that he is gone, seems not nearly long enough. I was rather nervous when I first met him, one night in London in 1977, along with his great friend Martin Amis. I had read his journalism and was already in awe of his brilliance and wit and couldn’t think what on earth I could bring to his table. I don’t know if he sensed the diffidence on my part—no, of course he did; he never missed anything—but he set me instantly at ease, and so began one of the great friendships and benisons of my life. It occurs to me that “benison” is a word I first learned from Christopher, along with so much else.
A few years later, we found ourselves living in the same city, Washington. I had come to work in an Administration; he had come to undo that Administration. Thirty years later, I was voting for Obama and Christopher had become one of the most forceful, and persuasive, advocates for George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. How did that happen?
In those days, Christopher was a roaring, if not raving, Balliol Bolshevik. Oh dear, the things he said about Reagan! The things—come to think of it—he said about my father. How did we become such friends? I only once stopped speaking to him, because of a throwaway half-sentence about my father-in-law in one of his Harper’s essays. I missed his company during that six-month froideur (another Christopher mot). It was about this time that he discovered that he was in fact Jewish, which somewhat complicated his fierce anti-Israel stance. When we embraced, at the bar mitzvah of Sidney Blumenthal’s son, the word “Shalom” sprang naturally from my lips.
A few days ago, when I was visiting him at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, for what I knew would be the last time, his wife, Carol, mentioned to me that Sidney had recently written to Christopher. I was surprised but very pleased to hear this. Christopher had caused Sidney great legal and financial grief during the Götterdämmerung of the Clinton impeachment. But now Sidney, a cancer experiencer himself, was reaching out to his old friend with words of tenderness and comfort and implicit forgiveness. This was the act of a mensch. But then Christopher was like that—it was hard, perhaps impossible, to stay mad at him, though I doubt Henry Kissinger or Bill Clinton or any member of the British Royal Family will be among the eulogists at his memorial service.
I first saw his J’accuse in The Nation against—oh, Christopher!—Mother Teresa when my father mailed me a Xerox of it. He had scrawled a note across the top, an instruction to the producer of his TV show “Firing Line”: “I never want to lay eyes on this guy again.” W.F.B. had provided Christopher with his first appearances on U.S. television. The rest is history—the time would soon come when you couldn’t turn on a television without seeing Christopher railing against Kissinger, Mother (presumptive saint) T., Princess Diana, or Jerry Falwell.
But even W.F.B., who tolerated pretty much anything except attacks on his beloved Catholic Church and its professors, couldn’t help but forgive. “Did you see the piece on Chirac by your friend Hitchens in the Journal today?” he said one day, with a smile and an admiring sideways shake of the head. “Absolutely devastating!”
When we all gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a few years later, to see W.F.B. off to the celestial choir, Christopher was present, having flown in from a speech in the American hinterland. (Alert: if you are reading this, Richard Dawkins, you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph.) There he was in the pew, belting out Bunyan’s “He Who Would Valiant Be.” Christopher recused himself when Henry Kissinger took the lectern to give his eulogy, going out onto rain-swept Fifth Avenue to smoke one of his ultimately consequential cigarettes.
“It’s the fags that’ll get me in the end, I know it,” he said once, at one of our lunches, tossing his pack of Rothmans onto the table with an air of contempt. This was back when you could smoke at a restaurant. As the Nanny State and Mayor Bloomberg extended their ruler-bearing, knuckle-rapping hand across the landscape, Christopher’s smoking became an act of guerrilla warfare. Much as I wish he had never inhaled, it made for great spectator sport.
David Bradley, the owner of The Atlantic Monthly, to which Christopher contributed many sparkling essays, once took him out to lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown. It was—I think—February and the smoking ban had gone into effect. Christopher suggested that they eat outside, on the terrace. David Bradley is a game soul, but even he expressed trepidation about dining al fresco in forty-degree weather. Christopher merrily countered, “Why not? It will be bracing.”
Lunch—dinner, drinks, any occasion—with Christopher always was. One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
When we made a date for a meal over the phone, he’d say, “It will be a feast of reason and a flow of soul.” I never doubted that this rococo phraseology was an original coinage, until I chanced on it, one day, in the pages of P. G. Wodehouse, the writer Christopher perhaps esteemed above all others. Wodehouse was the Master. When we met for another lunch, one that lasted only five hours, he was all a-grin with pride as he handed me a newly minted paperback reissue of Wodehouse with “Introduction by Christopher Hitchens.” “Doesn’t get much better than that,” he said, and who could not agree?
The other author that he and I seemed to spend most time discussing was Oscar Wilde. I remember Christopher’s thrill at having adduced a key connection between Wilde and Wodehouse. It struck me as a breakthrough insight; namely, that the first two lines of “The Importance of Being Earnest” contain within them the entire universe of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.
Algernon plays the piano while his butler arranges flowers. Algy asks, “Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?” Lane replies, “I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir.” And there you have it.
Christopher remained perplexed at the lack of any reference to Wilde in the Wodehousian oeuvre. Then, some time later, he extolled in his Vanity Fair column the discovery, by one of his graduate students at the New School, of a mention of “The Importance” somewhere in the Master’s ninety-odd books.
During the last hour I spent with Christopher, in the Critical Care Unit at M. D. Anderson, he struggled to read a thick volume of P. G. Wodehouse letters. He scribbled some notes on a blank page in spidery handwriting. He wrote “Pelham Grenville” and asked me, in a faint, raspy voice, “Name. What was the name?” At first I didn’t quite understand, but then, recalling P.G.’s nickname, suggested “Plum?” Christopher nodded yes, and wrote it down.
I took comfort that, during our last time together, I was able to provide him with at least that. Intellectually, ours was largely a teacher-student relationship, and let me tell you—Christopher was one tough grader. Oy. No matter how much he loved you, he did not shy from giving it to you with the bark off if you had disappointed.
I once participated with him on a panel at the Folger Theatre on the subject of “Henry V.” The other panelists were Dame Judi Dench, Arianna Huffington, Chris Matthews, Ken Adelman, and David Brooks; the moderator was Walter Isaacson. Having little original insight into “Henry V,” or into any Shakespeare play, for that matter, I prepared a comic riff on a notional Henry the Fifteenth. Get it? O.K., maybe you had to be there, but it sort of brought down the house. Nevertheless, when Christopher and I met for lunch a few days later, he gave me a tsk-tsk-y stare and sour wince and chided me for “indulging in crowd-pleasing nonsense.”
I got off lightly. When Martin Amis, his closest friend on earth, published a book in which he took Christopher to task for what he viewed as inappropriate laughter at the expense of Stalin’s victims, Christopher responded with a seven-thousand-word rebuttal in The Atlantic that will probably have Martin thinking twice before attempting another work of historical nonfiction. But Christopher’s takedown of his chum must be viewed alongside thousands of warm and affectionate words he wrote about Martin, particularly in his memoir, “Hitch-22,” which appeared ironically—or perhaps with exquisite timing—simultaneously with the presentation of his mortal illness.
The jacket of his next book, a collection of breathtaking essays, perfectly titled “Arguably,” contains some glowing words of praise, including my own (humble but earnest) asseveration that he is—was—”the greatest living essayist in the English language.” One or two reviewers demurred, calling my effusion “forgivable exaggeration.” To them I say: O.K., name a better one. I would alter only one word in that blurb now.
Over the course of his heroic, uncomplaining eighteen-month battle with the cancer, I found myself rehearsing what I might say to an obituary writer, should one ring after the news of Christopher’s death. I thought to say something along the lines—the air of Byron, the steel pen of Orwell, and the wit of Wilde.
A bit forced, perhaps, but you get the idea. Christopher may not, as Byron did, write poetry, but he could recite staves, cantos, yards of it. As for Byronic aura, there were the curly locks, the unbuttoned shirt revealing a wealth—verily, a woolly mastodon—of pectoral hair, as well as the roguish, raffish je ne sais quoi good looks. (Somewhere in “Hitch-22,” he notes that he had now reached the age when “only women wanted to go to bed with me.”)
Like Byron, Christopher put himself in harm’s way in “contested territory,” again and again. Here’s another bit from “Hitch-22,”a chilling moment when he found himself alone in a remote and very scary town in Afghanistan,
in a goons’ rodeo duel between two local homicidal potentates (the journalistic euphemism for this type is “warlord”; the image of the goons’ rodeo I have annexed from Saul Bellow). On me was not enough money, not enough food, not enough documentation, not enough medication, not enough bottled water to withstand even a two-day siege. I did not have a cell phone. Nobody in the world, I abruptly realized, knew where I was. I knew nobody in the town and nobody in the town knew (perhaps a good thing) who I was, either…. As all this started to register with me, the square began to fill with those least alluring of all types: strident but illiterate young men with religious headgear, high-velocity weapons and modern jeeps.
His journalism, in which he championed the victims of tyranny and stupidity and “Islamofascism” (his coinage), takes its rightful place on the shelf along with that of his paradigm, Orwell.
As for the wit … one day we were talking about Stalin. I observed that Stalin, eventual murderer of twenty, thirty—forty?—million, had trained as a priest. Not skipping a beat, Christopher remarked, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?”
I thought—as I did perhaps one thousand times over the course of our three-decade long tutorial—Wow.
A few days later, at a dinner, the subject of Stalin having come up, I ventured to my dinner partner, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” The lady to whom I had proferred this thieved aperçu stopped chewing her salmon, repeated the line I had so casually tossed off, and said with frank admiration, “That’s brilliant.” I was tempted, but couldn’t quite bear to continue the imposture, and told her that the author of this nacreous witticism was in fact none other than Christopher. She laughed and said, “Well, everything he says is brilliant.”
Yes, everything he said was brilliant. It was a feast of reason and a flow of soul, and, if the author of “God Is Not Great” did not himself believe in the concept of soul, he sure had one, and it was a great soul.
Two fragments come to mind. The first is from “Brideshead Revisited,” a book Christopher loved and which he could practically quote in its entirety. Anthony Blanche, the exotic, outrageous aesthete, is sent down from Oxford. Charles Ryder, the book’s narrator, mourns: “Anthony Blanche had taken something away with him when he went; he had locked a door and hung the key on his chain; and all his friends, among whom he had been a stranger, needed him now.”
Christopher was never a “stranger to his friends”—ça va sans dire, as he would say. Among his prodigal talents, perhaps his greatest was his gift of friendship. Christopher’s inner circle, Martin, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Julian Barnes, comprise more or less the greatest writers in the English language. That’s some posse.
But in leaving them—and the rest of us—for “the undiscovered country” (he could recite more or less all of “Hamlet,” too) Christopher has taken something away with him, and his friends, in whose company I am so very grateful to have been, will need him now. We are now, finally, without a Hitch.
The other bit is from Housman, and though it’s from a poem that Christopher and I recited back and forth at each other across the tables at Café Milano, I hesitate to quote it here. I see him wincing at my deplorable propensity for “crowd-pleasing.” But I’m going to quote it anyway, doubting as I do that he would chafe at my trying to mine what consolation I can over the loss of my beloved athlete, who died so young.
Smart lad to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Hitchens was a giant. The amount of cyberspace his death has occasioned is a testament to his influence. Essayists don’t always age well, and his writing on Henry Kissinger or the Iraq War may not be carefully remembered. When was the last time someone exhorted you to read H.L. Menken? We need writers like Hitchens, and we can hardly expect them to come without regrettable positions, nor can we ask them lead saintly lives.