Something about Christopher

Something about Christopher

Hitch 22: A Memoir
by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve/Hachette Book Group, 2010
448 pp., $26.99

HAS THERE ever been anyone quite like Christopher Hitchens? As a writer and a thinker, Hitchens may be the greatest performance artist the profession has ever produced. He is Oscar Wilde without the plays; Gore Vidal without the novels; Edmund Wilson without the ideas; George Orwell without the integrity; and Richard Burton without the movies (and Elizabeth Taylor). What he is not, however, is the author of lasting works of reportage, criticism, philosophy, or, dare I say it, literature.

Despite his myriad (and on occasion, damn-near miraculous) talents as literary critic, columnist, and long-form journalist, Hitchens’s genius undoubtedly lies in the art of the argument. “The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them,” he has explained, adding, “I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract one for its own sake rather than concede even a small point.”

And woe unto those who find themselves on the wrong side of the fight. An unrepentant Trotskyist, stylistically if nothing else, he credits his early certainties—now discarded—as responsible for his marvelous ability to drive home a point long after his opponent has been crushed, gasping for air. “­It teaches you forms of argument and method that you never lose, and that I wouldn’t be without,” he told one profiler. His amazing instant recall of everything he has ever read or heard about—what his friend the novelist Ian McEwan notes to be “instantly neurologically available”—further contributes to the aura that surrounds Hitchens wherever he goes.

Here, I should disclose that, in addition to being columnists together at the Nation for quite a while, we are also lapsed good friends. During much of the ten years I lived in Washington, my social life heavily depended on Christopher’s good offices—by which I mean his invitations to incredibly lavish parties for every visiting left-wing intellectual, dignitary, or high-brow novelist who floated through town—all of it paid for by Vanity Fair—as well as an endless stream of less luxurious gatherings, equally rich in conversation if not food, drink, or a tuxedoed wait-staff.

The first time we met, back in 1982, we spent the afternoon drinking Johnny Walker Black in a bar in DuPont Circle. I was fresh out of college, and I lasted for maybe five or six before going home to sleep for twenty-four or so hours. Hitchens went off to cover a speech by Ronald Reagan’s labor secretary, Ray Donovan, who had just been indicted for something or other. He filed for the Nation the same night, though I seem to recall he later told me he had lost his shoes at the fancy hotel where it took place.

To spend time with Hitchens was to enter a magic circle of bacchanalia. The drinking started after breakfast, accompanied by genuinely scintillating conversation. Both proceeded at a breakneck pace, and neither one ever appeared to end, save for intermittent interruptions for lavish meals, endless phone calls, and occasional retirements for the purpose of pounding out columns in less time than it takes most of the rest of us to read the newspaper. It was like sparring in an imaginary ring and playing three-dimensional chess simultaneously.

Anyone who has spent time with Christopher knows him to be a gracious host, a world-class raconteur, a charming companion under any circumstances, and the center of attention at all times, no matter the competition. His style of argument, moreover, deserves mention as well. Christopher rarely conceded a point, but neither did he, as so many sophists do, undercut his previous arguments for the sake of trying to win at all costs. He listened carefully and came up with the most marvelously inventive reasons why you had just made his point for him, if only you understood yourself better. We once argued for hours over some (Bill) Clinton foreign policy or another, I forget which, when he insisted that he was right because of a scene depicted in a painting that had been hanging in the British National Gallery (I think) for the past couple of hundred years. If memory serves, it had something to do with cannibalism. And I wasn’t at all shocked by the turn this conversation took. It was just another day in the most entertaining and stimulating period of my post-collegiate life.

And just how anyone can drink so much, remain sober (sober-sounding anyway), and still function both on a day-to-day but also a decade-to-decade basis will remain one of the great mysteries of my half-century on this planet, on a par with who built Stonehenge and why, and how did those enormous boulders for the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza get up there using available transportation technology, circa 2560 BCE. I see no explanation that does not somehow contradict all accepted knowledge that history (and humanity) had hitherto embraced.

DURING THE past decade, Hitchens has become a bona-fide American celebrity. He may be the only self-described Trotskyist to be so and certainly its most beloved atheistic ideologue. Tellingly, however, the moment that sent Hitchens into the thin-aired atmosphere he now occupies, where taxi drivers and transit workers recognize him across the country and much of the English-speaking world, was his decision to turn on his close friend and then presidential adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, and accuse him to congressional impeachment investigators of deliberately lying about Monica Lewinsky for the purposes of planting a story about her alleged “stalking” of the president.

I do not exaggerate when I say that pretty much everything about the incident came as a shock to the people who knew Hitchens well. The notion that he would use the casual bullshitting one so often heard (over drinks) at the table—often exaggerated and shocking for the purposes of the joy of the frisson itself—against a close friend in a public forum was only slightly less disconcerting—and far less easily explicable—than his apparent eagerness to empower the dangerously reactionary forces that lay behind the Republican Congress’s impeachment expedition. After all, some of the things Hitchens would himself say at the time, most disturbingly his lengthy and passionate defenses of Holocaust denier David Irving, were far more disturbing and shocking than anything he attributed to Blumenthal. And it was understood that such things were said under a cloak of honorary omerta that one would never breach in public. (Indeed, I can still recall with considerable shock some of the never-to be-repeated things Hitchens said to me during that first afternoon drinking binge.) Hitchens, meanwhile, went on Meet the Press—evidence of his new standing in the world—claiming that he would face jail rather than agree to testify in perjury proceedings against his new ex-friend. He had volunteered the information, he insisted, to get at Clinton, not at Blumenthal.

The explanation was only partially credible. True, Hitchens had an obsessive hatred for Bill Clinton. “My dislike for him stemmed from his discrediting of something precious to me: the alliance between the anti-war and civil rights movements of which he’d been a vestigial member in the 1960s, and which was my formative politics,” he told Alexander Linklater, author of a brilliant profile of Hitchens in the British magazine Prospect. “The way he cashed that in, lied about whether he was a draft-dodger; the way he smarmily pretended to be more in favour of civil rights than he had been at the time, the way he cheapened everything. He was nothing but a cynical, self-seeking, ambitious thug, and the realisation that this would be the closest that my class of ‘68 would get to the top job gave me a terrible sickening feeling.”

Hitchens’s explanation for his Clinton hatred—and his willingness to betray his friend and make common cause with some of the most distasteful elements of American politics—is, like pretty much everything about the man, sui generis. But it is also intellectually unsatisfying. I mean, sure Clinton had unattractive qualities in abundance. But since when do intellectuals admit to making political choices purely on the basis of personalities? By ceaselessly attacking Clinton’s character, Hitchens was empowering a group of theocrats, corporate profiteers, and nativist know-nothings who were poised not only to frustrate what remained of the Democrats’ progressive agenda—and as it happens, we’ve rarely heard a more progressive agenda for the country outlined by a president than Clinton did during the initial Monica-related hysterics in his 1998 State of the Union address—but also invited the takeover of the levers of political and economic power by the Republicans’ right-wing overclass constituencies. Indeed, on the one issue that appeared to excite Hitchens during the 1990s—intervention in the Balkans—Clinton and the Democrats pushed through the aggressive U.S. response over the endless objections of the very Republicans with whom he was now so eager to associate himself.

But to take any of Hitchens’s positions on policy issues is to miss the point of the man. His talent is for the performance; let lesser minds sort out the various contradictions. His turncoat performance during the impeachment hearings both made him a star and eased his transition into the highly remunerative world of right-wing speechifying, where he is sometimes joined by the likes of Ann Coulter or David Horowitz in denouncing those who continued to say and believe what he had said and believed until a few months earlier. The fact that he does so on occasion in lurid, McCarthyite language that he could not possibly defend on merits of the positions taken by those liberals he so relentlessly and carelessly attacks only increases his celebrity quotient in the Fox News/talk-radio-driven political culture.

I relate all this not only because of its intrinsic interest, but because, while it is, I believe, unarguably the fulcrum point in the making of the celebrity we now know as “Christopher Hitchens,” it receives no discussion whatever in this 448-page memoir. (The galleys sent out to reviewers did not contain the words “Sidney Blumenthal.” In the final book, they appear in a photo caption, though not of Blumenthal.)

Anyone interested in Hitchens’s life will find the book fascinating and marvelously well written. His discussion of his taciturn father, his tragically unhappy and ultimately suicidal mother, and his early years undergoing the transformation from working class naïf to left-wing Oxford troublemaker/partygoer are marvelously wrought. His accounts of his friendships with Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, and Martin Amis are also irresistible to those with an interest in such matters. The book does a fine job of explaining the unlikely journey whereby Hitchens became the initial Christopher Hitchens: the Nation and New Statesman columnist who announced his solidarity with the world’s downtrodden doubly and triply during the day while drinking and dining with the rich and famous in the evening. Where it fails miserably, however, is as an explanation for how Hitchens became the character he plays on television today. It’s not just Blumenthal who is missing; so too are his wives and children. Hitchens, it is well known, left his first wife for his second while the former was six months pregnant and did so without the usual sneaking around and professions of public shame that usually accompany such actions.

While the personal may not be political, it appears churlish to ignore it entirely; a word of why one thinks it inappropriate for discussion is at least warranted. Nor is there anything like a convincing explanation for how an allegedly serious political thinker went from thinking of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said as close comrades to believing the same of David Horowitz and Ahmed Chalabi. There is a lot of hero worship for guerrilla fighters in this book, but not much careful analysis of the likely impact of their respective revolutions on the lives of the less celebrated in the nations in question. Much is made of personality, as well as a vaguely Hegelian march of historical ideals, but very little of real world consequences, much less the actual policy implications of clever-sounding arguments. As Hitchens writes of himself and his vociferous support for the war—to say nothing of his contempt for those who held another position, “I rather tended to assume that things of [the] more practical sort were being taken care of.” Similarly Hitchens’s deep attachment to Bush warriors such as Paul Wolfowitz or Michael Chertoff is unsatisfactorily explained. How is it that Hitchens could endorse Bush/Cheney in 2004 and Obama/Biden in 2008 without ever admitting that he made a mistake in the interim? You won’t find the answer here.

AS WITH all memoirs, accuracy is a question mark. I have a specific memory of one of the incidents described in detail in this book that differs in considerable detail from that of Hitchens, whose version places him at the center of events. Others, including the journalist John Judis, have noticed that Hitchens’s versions of events cannot be relied upon, even when he confirms them. These question marks are consistent with my impression of Hitchens’s overall work since his conversion. He frequently attributes to American liberals views that, though once held by him, appear only in the columns of the conspiracy-minded Gore Vidal, his ex-Nation comrade Alexander Cockburn, and a few unreconstructed “anti-Americans” that occasionally people the magazine’s pages. Alas, they are no more “liberal” than he is—or was—however convenient a target they may provide for purposely careless conservatives. One would never have guessed from his constant vituperation, for instance, that roughly 90 percent of those who term themselves “liberal” supported the initial U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, and indeed, Hitchens claimed to be shocked by this fact when I informed him of it during an Internet debate six years after the fact.

So read this book for its entertainment value. Read it for its lovely set pieces and its insight into the English educational system and the role it plays in perpetuating class attitudes. I have long thought Hitchens’s most moving and lasting contributions to literature have been the passages he has written about his mother, Yvonne, and her sad life and suicide. These are no exception. A great deal can be forgiven of a son who can write, “What she wanted was the metropolis, with cocktail parties and theater trips and smart friends and witty conversations, such as she had once had as a young thing in prewar Liverpool, where she’d lived near Penny Lane and briefly known people like the madly gay Frank Hauser, later director of the Oxford Playhouse, and been introduced by a boyfriend to the work of the handsome Ulster poet Louis MacNeice, a contemporary of Auden and author of Autumn Journal and (her favorite) The Earth Compels. She was the exotic and the sunlit when I could easily have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English gray.”

Read it for passages like that one. Read it, moreover, for its colorful and often illuminating descriptions of Hitchens’s early adventures in bisexuality; his adventures in Cuba, in Africa, in Kurdistan, and so on; and at long, liquid lunches in London and New York with many of the leading literary lights of his generation. But do not read it if you want lasting insights into the nitty-gritty of how difficult political and philosophical choices are made by careful thinkers or real-world practitioners. Do not read it if you wish for a fair-minded assessment of the role American liberalism—or even American conservatism—has played in bringing this country to its current collection of conundrums. Don’t read it if you’re looking for a genuinely searching self-investigation of just how a radical leftist becomes a radical right-winger. (May the God that Hitchens is so certain is imaginary strike me down for saying this, but David Horowitz actually does a much better job of this in his political memoir, Radical Son.) Just read it and admire the performance.

On that score only, there is truly nothing like it and no one like Christopher Hitchens, which is fortunate, but then again, we are also fortunate—despite all I have said previously—to have the one we do.

My friendship with Christopher lapsed when I moved away from the neighborhood we shared in late 1995—my going-away party was one of those wonderful Vanity Fair–catered affairs in which Christopher and others said a great many wonderful things with as much scorn, sarcasm, and genuine affection as one can stand at any given moment in life. Moreover, we began to diverge politically in more significant ways than before, first over Blumenthal, then over his ill-considered support for Ralph Nader, and finally over his conversion to what I take to be a nasty variant of neoconservatism that treats liberal conscience and caution as a particularly contemptible form of cowardice. There was no break, and we were quite warm toward one another when I last ran into him, with his beautiful daughter, in the lobby of a Bob Dylan concert last year. Upon hearing the news that he is now battling esophageal cancer in the midst of writing this essay, I naturally wondered if perhaps I should tone down some of the spinach and throw in a bit more pudding. Alas, I demurred. Christopher would have nothing but contempt for a writer who allowed sentimental memories to cloud—or even to obscure—his considered political and literary judgments. I hope he reads them as a tribute to his spirit of never giving up the fight, even perhaps, when one is in the wrong. And even more so, I hope he lives to fight with this liberal another day.

 

Eric Alterman is Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. His most recent book is Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals.


Lima