In The Wake Of Christopher Hitchens

Posted on 2011/12/19

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Feature Image - In The Wake Of Christopher Hitchens

In my career, I have managed to undertake almost every task that the hack journalist can be asked to perform, from being an amateur foreign correspondent to acting as stand-in cinema critic, to knocking out pieces of polemical editorial against the clock. Yet perhaps I have misused the word “undertake” above, because two jobs only I could not manage: covering a sporting event and writing an obituary of a still-living person. The former failing is because I neither know nor care anything about sports, and the second is because – in spite of my firm conviction that I am not superstitious – I cannot, not even for ready money, write about the demise of a friend or colleague until Minerva’s owl has taken wing, and I know that the darkness has actually come. I dare say that somebody, somewhere, has already written my provisional death-notice. (Stephen Spender was taying with W.H. Auden when the latter received an invitation from the Times asking him to write Spender’s obituary. He told him as much at the breakfast table, asking roguishly, “Should you like anything said?” Spender judged that this would not be the moment to tell Auden that he had already written his obituary for the same editor at the same paper.)

Christopher Hitchens (2010) “Hitch 22” Alantic Books p 6

Those of us who encountered these words when they were first published in 2010 were forced to read them in the unexpected context of a Christopher Hitchens with terminal illness. Before reading the opening chapter of his autobiography, one might assume this discovery was the book’s motivation. However, Hitchens only became aware of carrying a cancer until after finishing (but before publishing) his memoirs.

The actual catalyst was far more esoteric: a postal invitation to a new gallery exhibition which contained, in the caption of a photograph, an erroneous reference to ‘the late Christopher Hitchens’. And so the introductory chapter declares his determination to to scribble down his life story before this mistake swiftly progressed to accidental truth.

I mention the above story to remark upon how this quotation had, for around a year, the ironic effect of compelling the reader to contemplate the very thing the author has avoided: writing an obituary before the protagonist has died.

Indeed, in the intervening months before Hitchens’ death, I occasionally caught myself considering what to write about his life. Despite not knowing him personally, I couldn’t help feel a little cheap for thinking this – or, as Hitchens was keen on saying in replacement, inexpensive.

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Additionally, there is the daunting prospect of attempting to write on any subject he has already visited. Try to cover some of the same ground as Hitchens and you will immediately notice the depth of his footprints. If you read enough of his writings, what next becomes astonishing is how someone could stomp so hard and yet, in one lifetime, cover so much terrain.

On Bertrand Russell, Hitchens writes:

“[he] could have been world famous in several departments, from adultery to radicalism, but whose most imposing work is probably Principia Mathematica…”
['Isaac Newton' an essay from (2011) 'Arguably' p 144 and Vanity Fair online, April 14, 2008]

Perhaps relpace ‘adultery to radicalism’ with ‘drinking to arguing’ for Hitchens. Most famous are the legendary Wildean tales of his ability to “drink enough every day to kill or stun the av­erage mule” while still functioning as a prolific writer. Salman Rushdie tells how he once awoke after a night of drink and talk to find Hitchens finishing up a three thousand word essay he only started when the party disbanded. Rushdie – not exactly a man you’d call a slacker – was left to journey home to sleep off his hangover, wondering whether to stop by at A&E.

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To attempt a new idea within the realm of Hitchens’ stomping grounds, one feels compelled to first read everything he has written on the subject, and then find and read everything referenced or quoted in those writings. Only after that, if there is any time remaining, or anything original left to say, can it be considered worthwhile to try and push some words together into sentences.

It was not just his fluency with the English language that was so formidable, but his fearless application of it. A propensity he seems to have developed at an early age:

However, there came a day when poor, dear Mrs. Watts overreached herself. Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.”

(…)

At the age of nine I had not even a conception of the argument from design, or of Darwinian evolution as its rival, or of the relationship between photosynthesis and chlorophyll. The secrets of the genome were as hidden from me as they were, at that time, to everyone else. I had not then visited scenes of nature where almost everything was hideously indifferent or hostile to human life, if not life itself. I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way about.

Christopher Hitchens (2007) ‘God Is Not Great

We are not told whether the young Hitchens verbalized these sentiments to (poor, dear) Mrs Watts, although we have ever reason to suppose he did. If so, it would make her the first documented recipient, albeit retrospectively, of what has come to be known as the “Hitchslap“. All else failing, this has secured Mrs. Watts’ place in history.

Urban Dictionary

The coining of this neologism is explained by the recent internet proliferation in recordings of Hitchens’ debates, turning his talents into a new spectators’ sport. Although not yet in the OED, I think it just a small matter of time before ‘Hitchslap’ appears as a new entry. Just as ‘Einstein’ is a synonym for the paragon of intellectual genius, Hitchens has his own word to represent the paragon of intellectual argument. And when we consider how Hitchens’ work is far more accessible than Einstein’s (whose genius is mostly believed on authority), I predict the ‘Hitchslap’ is here to stay.

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To offer a more erudite attempt at the same compliment, Stephen Fry recently ventured that Christopher Hitchens was “the greatest orator since Demosthenes.”

With 2300 years separating Hitchens from his nearest supposed rival, we have only the transcripts of Demosthenes’ orations to imagine how he sounded to the Athenian courtrooms. Similarly, we can only speculate on the written reports of Bach or Chopin’s improvisational skills, while being thankful for the endurance of their written compositions.

Considering this, we should be doubly pleased that recording technology was ready for the likes of Art Tatum and Louis Armstrong, providing a new media that not only captured their art, but also encouraged it.

So too will future generations be grateful we were able to record Hitchens in debate, and that he existed in the time of televisual interviews. Indeed, although I know of no audit, I speculate his discography and videography could rival his written works, and will likely rival them in future influence.

Having to settle for only written accounts of Demosthenes, it is interesting to find just how similar the two men seem to have been. For instance, consider how much of Hitchens can be found in this brief review:

The question has often been raised as to the secret of the success of Demosthenes. The universal approbation will appear the more extraordinary to a reader who for the first time peruses the orations. They do not exhibit any of that declamation on which loosely hangs the fame of so many aspirants to eloquence. There appears no deep reflection to indicate a more than ordinary penetration, or any philosophical remarks to prove the extent of his acquaintance with the great moral writers of his country. He affects no learning; he aims at no elegance; he seeks no glaring ornaments; he rarely touches the heart with a soft or melting appeal, and when he does, it is only with an effect in which a third-rate speaker would have surpassed him. He had no wit, no humour, no vivacity, in our acceptance of these terms. The secret of his power is simple, for it lies essentially in this, that his political principles were interwoven with his very spirit; they were not assumed to serve an interested purpose, to be laid aside when he descended from the bema and resumed when he sought to accomplish an object, but were deeply seated in his heart and emanated from its profoundest depths. The more his country was environed by dangers, the more steady was his resolution. Nothing ever impaired the truth and integrity of his feelings or weakened his generous conviction. It was his undeviating firmness, his disdain of all compromise, that made him the first of statesmen and orators; in this lay the substance of his power, the primary foundation of his superiority; the rest was merely secondary. The mystery of his influence, then, lay in his honesty; and it is this that gave warmth and tone to his feelings, energy to his language, and an impression to his manner before which every imputation of insincerity must have immediately vanished. We may thus perceive the meaning of Demosthenes himself, when, to one who asked him what was the first requisite in an orator, he merely replied, Delivery (ὑπόκρισις); and when asked what were the second and third requisites, gave the same answer as at first ( Vit. X. Orat.). His meaning was this: a lifeless manner on the part of a public speaker shows that his own feelings are not enlisted in the cause which he is advocating, and it is idle for him, therefore, to seek to make converts of others when he has failed in making one of himself. On the other hand, when the tone of voice, the gesture, the look, the whole manner of the orator, display the powerful feelings that agitate him, his emotion is communicated to his hearers, and success is inevitable.

Harry Thurston Peck (1898) Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities New York Harper and Brothers

Like Demosthenes, Hitchens’ many rebukes were by no means mere exercises in intellectual intimidation. However, to say Hitchens ‘affects no learning’ would be a false assessment. It would be fairer to say that despite the wealth of poetry and literature Hitchens seemed to have at the tip of his memory, he did not require it to state his case with honest clarity.

‘He had no wit, no humour’ is another respect in which the comparison does not hold. Anyone who has read Hitchens’ Slate or Vanity Fair articles will know he had a fondness for puns. It was a weakness his friend Martin Amis found fascinating:

“The great grammarian and usage-watcher Henry Fowler attacked the ‘assumption that puns are per se contemptible … Puns are good, bad, or indifferent …’ Actually, Fowler was wrong. ‘Puns are the lowest form of verbal facility,’ Christopher elsewhere concedes. But puns are the result of an anti-facility: they offer disrespect to language, and all they manage to do is make words look stupid.”

Martin Amis’ foreword from (2011) ‘A Quotable Hitchens’ p xii

Whatever you think of them, is difficult not to laugh at some of Hitchens’ best puns. Here are some of my favourite, although I am sure each has his own list:

  • ‘From Abbottabad to Worse’ [On finding Osama Bin Laden in the Pakistani city. Vanity Fair, July 2011]
  • ‘Jumbo Mumbo’ [a description of Fred Hoyle's absurd remark that chemical evolution is "as likely as a tornado sweeping through a junkyard and spontaneously assembling a Boeing 747 airplane". God is Not Great]
  • ‘The Missionary Position’ [Book title on Mother Teresa's devotion to Christianity and neglect for the suffering of others]
  • ‘Flaws of Gravity’ [an essay on Isaac Newton's intellectual and personal faults, Vanity Fair, April 14, 2008]

At the very least, they act as a valuable aide-mémoire for obscure ideas. For example, how can you now possibly forget the name of the city where Osama Bin Landen was found, or how it is pronounced?

What stands out most in the review of Demosthenes when comparing to Hitchens was how “his political principles were interwoven with his very spirit”. As as well Hitchens, this also describes the historical figures he most admired. Read his books on George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson, and you can learn a lot about Hitchens as well.

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Inspired from the work of Orwell, Hitchens fought the dangers of totalitarian thinking most of his life. A large part of his last few years were spent arguing that Abrahamic religion is not just a totalitarian construction, but the perfected source of modern totalitarian policy. This analysis rendered any attempt to draw attention to the ‘evils performed in the name of atheism’ as redundant. As Sam Harris has points out, the problem with Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia was not their abundance of free inquiry. It was that the people had let a charismatic demagogue exploit the space in their minds that wished to be controlled. To this end, Hitchens often utilized the master/slave vocabulary found in Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morality.

For his favorite President, Thomas Jefferson, Hitchens notes:

Jefferson is one of the few figures in our history whose absence simply cannot be imagined: his role in the expansion and definition of the United States is too considerable, even at this distance, to be reduced by the passage of time.

Christopher Hitchens (2005) Thomas Jefferson: Author of America p 185

It was his admiration of the US constitution, and the exceptionalism it stood for, that led him to move there in 1987 and gain citizenship in 2007.

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Then we must come to the errors.

I once heard him erroneously claim the US ‘World Series’ was so-called because of sponsorship from the “New York World” newspaper – an urban myth I knew to be false. A very uncharacteristic piece of sloppy research. Then, we hear from Martin Amis, that Hitchens was surprisingly terrible at chess. And that may be about it!

As anyone trained in the sciences, I found Hitchens’ memory for literature quite extraordinary. He also had a knack of generously embellishing his prose with a treasure chest of recommended reading. Irresistible reading, for uncultured scientists such as myself!

What I also found extraordinary was his ability to remark upon the latest scientific research and stay true to the idea. For instance, after he attended Lawrence Krauss’ 2007 talk ‘A Universe From Nothing‘, Hitchens added the concept of the accelerating universe to his repertoire for rebuking ‘intelligent design’. Dubious of how much Hitchens could possibly understand about the assumptions behind this idea, I was still impressed by the fidelity with which he reported them.

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Many people also saw error in Hitchens’ view of the 2003 intervention in Iraq. Nevertheless, he was the only public voice that spoke for those who might call themselves ‘liberal internationalist’. While critiquing the ‘moral eclipse of the secular left‘, he exemplified how one could support the war without identifying as religious or conservative. During those years, I often wondered if Tony Blair’s premiership might have been viewed more justly had Hitchens been on the other side of the Atlantic.

Aside from his particular view, what was perhaps even more annoying to the political left was that Hitchens seemed to remain true to his previous political ideals. So, while one half of the argument was about Hitchens’ conclusion, the other half became concerned with if he had reached them consistently. Had he ‘moved to the right’, or conclusively shown the left/right political analysis is an inadequate distinction? Richard Dawkins put it like this:

It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But [Hitchens] clearly break[s] that rule.

Richard Dawkins interviewing Christopher Hitchens (2011 December) New Statesman

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Hitchens led a life fighting the false prisons of uncritically accepted ideas. He saw that the greatest battle was between, as Karl Popper thought, ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ and was in uncompromising opposition to any attempt at utopian social engineering.

Even before Hitchens died, many were comparing his legacy to George Orwell. Aware of this growing comparison when writing his own biography of Orwell, he made sure to include these lines from Trilling:

If we ask what it is [Orwell] stands for, what he is the figure of, the answer is: the virtue of not being a genius, of confronting the world with nothing more than one’s simple, direct, undeceived intelligence, and a respect for the powers one does have and the work one undertakes to do. We admire geniuses, we love them, but they discourage us.… He is not a genius–what a relief! What an encouragement. For he communicates to us the sense that what he has done any one of us could do.

Lionel Trilling (1952) ‘George Orwell and the Politics of Truth

Genius or not, Hitchens leaves us with a brilliant example of a relentlessly inquiring mind. He was an inspirational champion for democracy, and model citizen within it.

Posted in: Obituary