Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011

December 16th, 2011 at 2:25 am David Frum | 104 Comments |

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A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.

“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club. No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”

Christopher was never a man to back away from a confrontation on behalf of what he considered basic decency. Yet it would be wrong to remember only the confrontational side. Christopher was also a man of exquisite sensitivity and courtesy, dispensed without regard to age or station. On one of the last occasions I saw him, my wife and I came to drop some food–lamb tagine–to sustain a family with more on its mind than cooking. Christopher, though weary and sick, insisted on painfully lifting himself from his chair to perform the rites of hospitality. He might have cancer, but we were still guests–and as guests, we must have champagne.

I once had the honor of sharing a debating platform with Christopher, on the same side thank God. It was like going into battle alongside the US Marine Corps. The audience was overwhelmingly hostile. The longer Christopher talked, the more subdued they became. As the event broke up, a crowd of questioners formed around him. I created a diversion thinking it would help him escape for some needed rest. But Christopher declined the offer.  He stood with them, as tired as I was, but ready to adjourn to a nearby bar and converse with total strangers till the bars closed.

Hitchens was not one of those romantics who fetishized “dialogue.” Far from suffering fools gladly, he delighted in making fools suffer. When he heard that another friend, a professor, had a habit of seducing female students in his writing seminars, he shook his head pityingly. “It’s not worth it. Afterward, you have to read their short stories.”

He delighted in writing himself of course, and in all that surrounded by writing. I had the dazzling experience one night of listening to Christopher and Salman Rushdie replay a favorite game, wrecking book titles by changing a single word. I wish I could remember them all, not only because they were so funny, but because I still wince at the scolding Christopher gave me when he overheard me relating the anecdote from memory and mangling his alternative to “The Great Gatsby” as “The Good Gatsby” rather than “The Big Gatsby.”

He especially liked gallows humor. When the nurses asked him, in that insinuatingly cheerful way they have, how he was feeling that day, he’d answer, “I seem to have a little touch of cancer.” If he was late to emerge from his living room to see you because of the exhaustion and  nausea of chemotherapy, he’d excuse himself with, “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I was brushing my hair”–of which of course there were only a few wisps left.

I never expected to become friends with him.

It was my wife Danielle who sparked the relationship. She and Christopher were booked as guest commentators on the same TV network – CBC I think – on election night 1996, shortly after we’d moved to Washington. The format had them talking for 10 minutes at the top of every hour, then adjourning for 50 minutes of newscast. At the end of the first 10 minutes, my wife decided she did not want to spend most of the rest of the evening in the nasty green room provided. “I’m getting a drink,” Danielle announced. Christopher never had to hear that invitation twice, certainly not from a very beautiful woman. Over the next four hours, they moved back and forth between the studio and a nearby bar, talking for 10 minutes per hour and drinking for 50. When Danielle lurched home that evening, she raved about this brilliant and charming writer I had to, had to meet.

I vetoed the idea. I knew Christopher’s writing and had encountered him a few times in the 1980s. He was an impressive person, no question about that, but I objected to his ad hominem attacks on people I greatly admired. Then a few weeks later, I had my own face-to-face encounter with him. We were guests together on C-Span’s morning program, which convened at 7 AM. He rolled in looking absolutely like hell. Of the dead, nothing should be said but good, but … wow. Christopher’s eyes were bloodshot, his clothes were crumpled, his face was ghastly. And then he started to talk. And then he made me laugh and laugh and laugh.

The show ended at 8 AM. Even for Christopher, that was not drinking time. We adjourned to the nearby Phoenix Park hotel for a coffee, and two more hours of talk. When I did finally get home I had to admit to my wife, “OK, you were right.”

Danielle mobilized Christopher to write for a magazine she then edited, the Women’s Quarterly. For the very uncharacteristic fee of $200, he and David Brooks divided a page to settle the question, who were sexier: left-wing women or right-wing women? Christopher championed right-wing women, and told the story of the erotic thrill he had experienced when Margaret Thatcher had slapped him on the bottom with a rolled-up newspaper.

For such a pugilistic intellect, Christopher Hitchens could be surprisingly sensitive and deferential. I well remember my anxiety before the first time he joined a party with my in-laws. My father-in-law is perhaps the only person I know who has visited even more countries than Christopher, but politically … uh oh. Peter Worthington is not one to mince his words about anything, least of all his view that British colonialism did the people on the receiving end much more good than harm. But when Christopher heard that Peter had been with Hitchens’ beloved Indian Army on the eve of the 1962 Himalayan war with China, politics flew out the window, as the great journalist in him extracted every anecdotal detail.

Not every evening went so well. In the aftershock of 9/11 and Hitchens’ great political rotation, I made the mistake of organizing a dinner to try to reconcile him to the Middle East expert, Daniel Pipes. That time, Christopher arrived spoiling for a fight. The evening ended with Christopher storming out of the house. Carol struggled to follow him, but he moved so fast that he had vanished around the corner of a neighboring street before Carol reached the sidewalk. She realized  she couldn’t get home on her own because Christopher had departed with the keys to their car in his pocket. Nor could she re-enter the house, without an awkward explanation to all the other dumbfounded guests. Andrew Sullivan played Sir Galahad and returned Carol home. The Hitchens’ car remained parked on our curb till late the next morning.

At most parties, though, he was wit in a white suit. He’d enter the house and push past the offer of what he called the worst phrase in the English language: “White or Red?” He’d walk into the kitchen, to the small pantry where we keep our own stock of liquor, and help himself to a slug of Johnnie Walker Black, which I learned to think of as the whisky you drink when you’re drinking more than one. Soda, no ice. In recent years, and contrary to reports, the pours got smaller and the spacing between them grew wider. Was his body rebelling? Or did the mind need less artificial impetus as it raced faster and faster down the current toward the waterfall at the end?

In recent years, as I’ve undergone a political rotation of my own, I’ve thought more and more about the example Christopher set. Interviewed in about 2003 by C-Span’s Brian Lamb, Christopher gave this answer to a question about his former belief in socialism: “I miss it the way an amputated man misses an arm.” It’s a bewildering experience to move away from prior certitudes. The most usual response is to careen to exactly opposite certitudes–to clutch at some prosthetic substitute for the vanished limb. Christopher refused this ready aid.

Perhaps his formal moment of departure from the political left came when he was summoned to answer for his deviations before the editors of The Nation in 2002. He rode the train up from Washington, sat at the long conference room table to await the interrogation–and lit up a cigarette in defiance of all no-smoking ordinances. What was there to be said after that?

If Christopher quit the left, however, he never joined the right. Like his hero George Orwell, Christopher was a man whose most creative period of life was a period of constantly falling between two stools: his new hatred for George Galloway never dimmed his old animosity toward Henry Kissinger. He was for the Iraq war without ever much trusting or liking the leaders who led that war. The stock phrase of the 2000s on the right was “moral clarity.” If moral clarity means hating cruelty and oppression, then Christopher Hitchens was above all things a man of moral clarity. But he was also a man of moral complexity, who would not submit to Lenin’s demand that who says A must say B. Christopher was never more himself than when – after saying A – he adamantly refused to say B.

By the end, the one-time Trotskyist doctrinaire allowed no furnishings inside his mind except those that he had deliberately chosen and then shaped to his own use.

One sometimes hears of people who try to model their writing or their persona on Christopher Hitchens’ example. The results are usually absurd and sometimes perverse. Christopher did not offer a model of what to think. He offered a model of how to think – and how to live. Fully. Fearlessly. Joyously. And then, alas too soon, of how to die: without bluster but without flinching, boldly writing until the fingers moved no more.

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104 Comments so far ↓

  • anniemargret

    To Nuser (11:26 PM on 12/16):

    Nuser, I am very sad for you that you are facing serious illness. If you ask me if I know what’s beyond the grave, I certainly don’t and I would be suspicious of anyone who claims to know. But we can hope, can’t we?

    Have you read any of the works by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross? She is an acclaimed physician known for her extensive research with the dying. She was also a pioneer in the near-death phenomenon and was convinced….convinced beyond doubt, because of her work in this area, that there is life beyond this existence, and that it did not depend on any religiosity, creed or particular belief. It was, in fact, a part of the life and death cycle for all human beings. Of course, if you look at the history of mankind, this type of experience spans eons and cultures…very interesting indeed.

    But I can only tell you that for me, I have thought about all this from my childhood when I first realized with death was. I have gone through various stages of agnosticism, atheism, or near-atheism, fierce religiosity as a child growing up in the Catholic Church and now at this point in my life, I am still thinking…

    ….it seems more logical and right to my mind that that the human struggle for existence, our suffering, our awareness of right and wrong, consciousness, love, hate, fear, etc….means something. As a child I asked my Dad one time if he believed in God.

    “Of course, I believe in God.” If I didn’t believe there was a God, then it would mean everything was meaningless, and that I was nothing. And I don’t feel like I’m nothing.”

    I loved his answer and I understood exactly what he meant. Logically you cannot prove God. But atheists cannot prove the non-existence of God either. Isn’t it a choice? What feels right in your heart, and not only your mind?

    So I hope I don’t offend you, but God bless you and give you courage and hope.. I am no longer overtly religious, but my spirituality has never left me. It just feels right.

  • anniemargret

    oh…I never answered your question! That is do ages of person who have died mean anything? I honestly don’t know. I like to think that when we pass to other side (my belief only), we see the people we have loved the most. And if that person was a child or died at birth, we will see that person as an adult, not as a baby…

    Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But there’s really nothing we really know about the mysteries surrounding us…and until we do, I prefer to err on hope…and faith in a peace beyond.

  • anniemargret

    to my fellow bloggers….sorry for the above-referenced off-topic.

  • SFTor1

    Rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens.

    I especially appreciate everything he did to correctly point out that the Catholic Church is a criminal organization.

    All the way. From ratlines to child rape.

    • anniemargret

      Yes, the CC has a mortal sin on its collective soul. But do not disparage the everyday man woman and child who belong to the Church and do good. Thousands do everyday, the best ones do it silently – they are there. Put the blame and onus on the hierarchy….as with all people at the top of the echelon, they escape blame and finger-pointing.

      As a lapsed Catholic, I cherish the good things I was taught as a child that still keep me sane and hopeful, threw out the silly stuff, and have hope for the best. And I join you and others in seeing the true sinners there not only admit their sins but repent and do good.

      That is what Christ taught…and we can only do what we can as humans with failings.

    • WaStateUrbanGOPer

      Well, since we are on a thread memorializing the passage of Christopher Hitchens, I’ll paraphrase his remarks on the death of Jerry Falwell: It is a shame that there is no hell for Kim Jong-il to go to.

  • xconserve

    The main thing I admired about Hitchens is that he was extremely rational, in a world that seems to hate facts and figures, because they love to believe the irrational.
    Some people think they hated Hitchens becaused he ‘defiled’ their beliefs, but they really disliked themselves because he exposed the facts they themselves had denied in pursuit of their irrationality.
    And in spite of his often rude manner, his ability to communicate his point was incredible, often leaving the “believer” in a stupor.
    He will be missed by all of us who admire logic and reason…

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