Hitch 1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens sustained his distinctive polymath-on-a-bender style until very near the end of his public battle against cancer and it is a measure of his prodigious output — and his singular political path veering from left to right — that nearly every English-language publication on the planet has assembled an anthology of the pieces he did for them.  Like many, I relished reading him even when I disagreed with him — maybe, most of all then — and dipping almost at random into the essays he wrote for Slate, the Atlantic, the New Republic, or the Nation (just to pick from the American titles) the marvel is not simply the volume or the courage but the sheer entertainment.  Consider this conclusion to an essay in Slate after the Republican Sen. Larry Craig was found soliciting sex from men in public bathrooms:

Next time you hear some particularly moralizing speech, set your watch. You won’t have to wait long before the man who made it is found, crouched awkwardly yet ecstatically while the cistern drips and the roar of the flush maddens him like wine.

I am not even entirely certain what that means and I still love the flourish of it.  Of course, with Hitchens, as with poetry, you inevitably grasp the feeling of the thing and understand its substance on some level not always literal.

But it must be acknowledged that Hitchens took a wrong turn on “Islamofascism” and the Iraq war — for which he continued to proselytize tirelessly and vociferously long after most every other liberal hawk had repented — and never found his way back.  He was correct, I believe, in asserting that the Islamist strain is anti-liberal (though he showed an uncharacteristic inability to differentiate among Islamists or perceive the evolution in their thinking) but profoundly wrong in imagining that an unprovoked invasion led by ignorants who, themselves, did not give a damn about liberalism but only about liberty and then only for some would be an effective countermeasure to the Islamist encroachment.  Then, having made that choice, he who had so roundly denounced the abuse of rights and liberty in Latin America in the 1970s could never quite navigate the moral atrocities perpetrated by the likes of Bush.

That is too bad.  I regret never having been able to read the absurdly learned evisceration of Bush-era mendacity that Hitch alone could muster when he found himself on the right side of an issue.

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The photograph above comes from a Vanity Fair article entitled “On the Limits of Self-Improvement” and the sight of Hitchens in a mud mask with a cigarette dangling from his mouth is, surely, perfect illustration of the range of his interests.  I often referenced essays by Christopher Hitchens in these posts even when, as with the London riots earlier this year, I thought his argument was less sharp than usual.  But he was always good for a fight about the outsize role of religion in American life — or, for that matter, of the military in Turkish life, though there his love of democracy and political liberty ran up against his reflexive fear of Islamists on the march.

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Update: By nightfall, I have had to conclude that, regretfully, I may be the only writer in any language who did not have the privilege of joining Hitchens for dinner or a drink, debating with him, sharing a cigarette with him, editing him, or otherwise intersecting with his life long enough to lose an argument to him that I could re-fight in a published remembrance today.  Slate alone must have published thirty such pieces, of variable quality.  The one by Julian Barnes about Hitchens refusing to ask Barnes’s opinion of his first book struck me as waspish and petty, under cover of what I suppose was meant to be schoolboy jousting.  Likewise, I would have expected more insight from the poet James Fenton for all the years he knew the man, though the one by Anna Wintour was a pleasant surprise.  Rabbi David Wolpe, who frequently debated Hitchens on matters of faith, offers this brilliant description of the experience:

Arguing with him did not involve meeting the punch you knew he would throw, but the hopeless task of combating the unexpected uppercut, the stinging apercu offered in his British baritone.  Hitchens evoked laughter the way master comedians do, even before speaking. His throat clearing was like the unbuttoning of a stripper’s overcoat, promising delights to come.

As every Hitch fan knows, it was not the range of reading alone but the astonishing recall that made Hitchens so formidable in combat. You could catch him out—he was often careless with details, especially about religion—but supplementary citations would cascade, overwhelming the solitary crumb of history you had industriously unearthed for the moment.  I made the mistake once of mentioning that Evelyn Waugh—great writer, nasty man—had said that his Catholicism made him better than he would otherwise have been.  I was then buried under an avalanche of Waugh—his misdeeds, his pronouncements, the depradations of Catholicism throughout the centuries culminating in his vile Waughness.  Afterward, ruefully, I said, “I will never give you the gift of Waugh again.” He smiled, because it didn’t matter.  I could have said something about !Kung culinary habits and been similarly assailed by his travels in the Kalahari and how he helped the !Kung salt their meat.

But the most moving, to me, was by Ian McEwan, writing in the New York Times of Hitch in the hospital on one of his final days:

We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton.

Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.

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