Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

The last of the several times that I have had the pleasure of being in the same room with Christopher Hitchens was at a university colloquium on the Iraq War. The indefatigable journalist-essayist had supported this fool's errand at its outset but eventually had come to oppose aspects of it, as well as feel deep guilt after he learned that a young California man had been persuaded by his writings to enlist and volunteer for Iraq, where an encounter with a roadside bomb extinguished a once promising life.

Hitch was tired and by appearances more focused on his next cigarette of the day and first Johnny Walker Black of the evening, so it was with some trepidation that I stood and announced that I was going to ask "the dread three-part question."

Perhaps five minutes had elapsed before he had galloped through his answers to the first two questions and I half expected he'd forgotten the third. But as he reached for a water glass on the dais and prepared to take a sip, he looked directly at me and with a twinkle of his legendarily mischievous eyes, said, "And to answer your last question, Mr. Mullen," bringing down the house.

* * * * *
As literary genres go, biographies of journalists tend to be tedious and autobiographies by journalists even more so. But Hitch, as he so often has done over a four-decade career of skewering the high and mighty (Henry Kissinger, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Mother Teresa and God Himself, among others) tries to break the mold with Hitch-22: A Memoir and largely succeeds in his trenchant and witty way.

First and foremost, Hitch 22 debunks the notion that he is a flip-flopper. Indeed, he has changed his mind about a whole lot more in the course of human events than the average bear, and it is the private -- as opposed to public -- moments he shares that reveal why his thinking metamorphosized on this issue or that.

As well as his politics, which were forged in Oxford's International Socialist crucible in the mid-1960s where he availed himself of sex and rock 'n' roll, but not drugs, while striving to become "a serious person" -- a rebel with a cause who could rally a crowd with a bullhorn while speaking from an upturned milk crate outside a factory gate. He grew a lengthy rap sheet for being arrested at demonstrations, and remains enormously proud of that.

While Hitch's world travels, as well as hobnobbing with the leading political and literary lights of the age, are interesting, it is those private moments that elevate this bio above the journalist-contemplates-navel norm. Notable is the tragic story of his beloved mother, whom he later learned was Jewish, which led him on a quest to learn about her side of his family, many members of which perished in the Holocaust.

Hitch's travels inevitably led him to a long-term stay in the U.S., where he shed his ambivalent view of we Yanks fostered in part by his father's upset over the accidental introduction of American gray squirrels, which had soiled the English red squirrel gene pool. He fell head over heels in love with the "generosity and large-mindedness" of Americans, if not the soiling of their political gene poll and the vapidity of the American Left, and in 2007 he became a citizen.

Do not call Hitch a contrarian. Or gadfly, dissident or maverick, all of which he finds "somehow trivial and condescending, as well as over-full of self regard." What then to call a man who testified about "the frightful faults and crimes of the departed fanatic" Mother Teresa before a Vatican committee who was obliging Pope John Paul II's wishes to fast track her beatification? He concludes that "It actually is a pity that our culture doesn't have a good vernacular word for . . . someone who tries to do his own thinking."

Then there is Hitch's enviably voracious appetite for the Great Books of the past and not so past, and the often forgotten lessons that they impart on contemporary events. Despite my own insatiable appetite for these tomes, I regret to say that I have read a mere handful of the ones he draws upon.

I do have a few quibbles about Hitch-22.
As has been oft noted, Hitch was a notorious boozer at one time, conduct that he doesn't so much apologize for as dance around in a curious but flat section in which he asserts that he always has been on time for lectures and other commitments, was a little lit only during a single BBC interview, and admonishes young drinkers to not do so on empty stomachs or when depressed. Oh, and recommend that journalists not develop a taste for single-malt Scotch because it is hard to find in backward lands. 
And although he has been married twice, has three children and writes at length about sewing wild oats as a young man (including forays into bisexuality and a claim he shared two girlfriends with Bill Clinton at Oxford, although not at the same time), he pretty much clams up when it comes to his home life, although I would imagine his wives might well qualify for sainthood.

* * * * *
I would never favorably compare my chops to Hitch's although our careers as ink-stained wretches have coincided.

We both came of age in the turbulent Sixties, both cultivated a sense of outrage over official tomfoolery that the years have not diminished,
were lured into this Janus-faced profession for love and not money, always answered the bell when the Teletype machines in the wire room went nuts and reveled in the intoxication of "taking a taxi to the airport," as Hitch writes, "clutching a brick of traveler's checks with an exotic visa" in one's hand, as well as the thrill of being shot at the first time, quickly to be replaced by a more sober view of mortality and then relief when you board the plane for the trip home.

when faced with inconvenient facts that put the lie to a dearly-held view, we both have been willing to modify that view rather than talk ever more loudly like a child trying to drown out a mother's admonitions, as do too many of our peers.

A conspicuous exception that we both share is the creation of the state of Israel, which I would defend with my own Jewish blood (and presumably Hitch, as well) but have always and will continue to object to in principle because of my Grandfather Snellenberg's dictum that "Jews are citizens of the world, not a single place." The messianically bellicose Netanyahu regime has hardened my view.

On a finer point, I'm also with Hitch when he says that he could never write an obituary on anyone "until Minerva's owl had taken wing."

Besides which, I do not believe that any obit I wrote before the fact would have the impact of when the subject became a goner and their full measure could be taken, so I refused all such assignments. Three of my better written-on-deadline obits -- the power trio of Jerry Garcia, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Frank Sinatra -- prove my point.

Be that as it may, I was concerned that this review might somehow bend that rule.

Hitch has late-stage esophageal cancer, looks like a sixtysomething skinhead in his TV appearances these days, and admits that his prognosis is "very poor." So after blasting my way through Hitch-22, I was concerned that this review would be ipso facto an obit.

I hope, dear Hitch, that it is not.


chamblee54 said...

When did Mr. Hitchens come out against the war in Babylon? While I do not claim to read everything that he writes, I have somehow missed this.

Shaun Mullen said...

You are correct insofar that Hitch has never come out and said "I was for the war and now I'm against it." But he has opposed aspects of it, and I have modified my lede paragraph to more accurately reflect his position.

chamblee54 said...

Do you think Mr. Hitchens was paid to support the war?

Shaun Mullen said...

It would be utterly out of character.

Shaun Mullen said...

And now this from Hitch: