Goodbye, Mr. Hitchens

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

I used to talk with Christopher Hitchens from time to time between 2003 and 2010. But as in the case of most who knew him, I was an acquaintance of someone with far more acquaintances than I had. So while his company stood out to me, I am sure that mine did not to him to the same degree. With that now-customary Hitchens prooimion out of the way, I continue with what I recall of him.

I was once in extremis with a ruptured appendix and peritonitis in Libya. I could make only one call before the ad hoc operation, and I left a brief message for my wife and son to give them the grim prognosis. For reasons I never quite fathomed, in desperation late at night they called one number of the many written on my desk: Christopher Hitchens. When I awoke after the operation in a dingy Tripoli Red Crescent clinic, there soon arrived a Libyan-American neurosurgeon (by happenstance there on vacation) to insist on proper antibiotics (hard to find then in Qaddafi’s Libya); later I was visited by the newly arrived American chargé d’affaires. Back home, I gathered that their presence somehow was the result of various phone calls Christopher made, though to whom and when he never quite disclosed. Later he told me only — in connection with the struggle in Iraq — “Anyone stupid enough to keep supporting these incompetent bastards in Washington deserves a second chance to be stupid enough to keep supporting these incompetent bastards in Washington.” Note here that Hitchens felt by 2006 that the Bush administration had botched the occupation, but that fact was no reason for him to abandon them or it — given what was at stake.

There were a few other odd things that we shared.

I had lived for a time in Athens, on Deinokrates Street, on the slopes of Mt. Lykabettos. In the autumn of 1973, as I walked to and from classes at the Hellenic Center each day, I passed by a prominent luxury hotel (whose best terraced rooms looked out on the Acropolis). One November afternoon on the way home I was redirected by legions of Greek police, who had cordoned off the hotel’s driveways. For the next few days, the police milled around the hotel as the investigation of the suicide of a Mrs. Hitchens and a retired Anglican priest were played out in predictable detail in the tabloid press.

Like many in Greece that fall (sex, religion, and suicide were instant distractions under a repressive regime), I followed the strange and tragic case. The remains in the adjoining rooms were not immediately discovered; lurid speculation soon ranged over the assumed chronology of the double suicide (was the priest, the media gossip went, really a partner in suicide, or perhaps a jilted lover, a murderer, and then a suicide?). I remembered the papers writing about a twenty-something Christopher Hitchens arriving in Athens as the loyal son come to claim his mother’s body — all of this soon to be eclipsed by the unrest and the fall of the Papadopoulos regime, and thus by December entirely forgotten. I made the connection between all this and the adult Hitchens in 1989, when he reviewed favorably a book I wrote, The Western Way of War, and I later mentioned my memories to Christopher. He was interested at the knowledge that I had lived a few hundred yards from the scene of the tragedy; and perhaps surprised that I did not try to offer some contorted psychoanalysis about the origins of his own antipathy for organized religion. I can be stupid, but not that stupid.

Most who write of Hitchens (I knew him as Christopher, never Hitch) cite his prodigious consumption of booze and cigarettes, either in awe at his iron constitution or shocked at his self-destructive impulses, or both. I never had any strong reaction to these appetites other than a sort of sadness at the monotony of it all. When one maintains such a level of consumption after 55, it ensures that one will not be around much longer. No one is exempt from the toxicity of the combined excess of cigarettes and hard liquor. I say that in memory of my wonderful father — who had been a star athlete, a war hero, a football coach, a farmer, a gifted college administrator, a yoga instructor, a weight lifter, and a health nut — who inexplicably started drinking heavily and smoking (three packs a day) in his mid-fifties. I think his quart of nightly bourbon, bookended by red wine and scotch, and 60 cigarettes a day almost matched those of Hitchens (who also likewise felt that his own genes and constitution — and his alone! — would ensure longevity).

As with my father, so too with Christopher, I felt that the tab that had to be paid was not far off, and yet did not necessarily have to be paid even at the eleventh hour. I recognized in both cases that the drinking and smoking in some way could not be entirely divorced from productivity (my father similarly never missed a day of work) and indeed might be the essential fuel that kept them going. But equally I knew that continuing those habits was akin to putting leaded gas in a contemporary automobile — the car runs wonderfully until the oxygen sensors eventually clog and with them the engine. In response to such a dour observation, Christopher reminded me that his father had died of cancer after quite a bit of drinking and, I think, smoking — but not until his late seventies. And sometime around 2007 Christopher, while out west, had checked on his own medical deterioration, only to discover that, mirabile dictu, there was no deterioration: His 58-year-old lungs, heart, and circulation were supposedly those of a 50-year-old ascetic — and, as he reminded me, he was enjoying his most productive and richly rewarded years. A prayerless, secular miracle.

Our shared support for the Iraq War made us pariahs of sorts by 2006, especially in the eyes of those who once advocated the removal of Saddam Hussein and soon either argued that they had never really taken that position, or claimed parentage only of the brilliant three-week war, outsourcing responsibility for the flawed and orphaned six-year occupation to denser others. In his comparison of things small to large (and he all but said just that), Christopher once asked me whether the classics community, my readers, and my Democratic family had become disgusted with me in the same way that the far greater global literary and left-wing world had with him over Iraq. I could only answer, “Well, yes, of course, but it is a matter of degree, since I am not sure how much they knew or cared.” He smiled, “Well, if they did, at least, that’s good news, Victor. We are judged better by our enemies than our friends.” I disagreed about that.

Like many Englishmen, Christopher had a great reverence for classics; he made it a point once to have me over to dine with the great Sophoclean scholar Bernard Knox, and on another occasion a Latin-quoting Jerry Brown (who remembered that I had written him a note in classical Greek in 1976). Christopher’s daughter was a gifted Latin student, and he often peppered me with academic questions about Thucydides and Aristophanes. He oddly seemed interested in the scholarly minutiae that others considered the equivalent, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, of a dog walking on two legs (impressive, but for what purpose?): Could the average Greek have followed Pericles’ Funeral Oration as it is “transcribed” by Thucydides? How did theparabases actually work on stage in Aristophanes’ plays? For a radical, Mr. Hitchens had great reverence for traditional education, especially its emphasis on rote, grammar, and syntax.

I was more surprised about Christopher’s interest in agriculture, but then, in my experience, the English — and Christopher seemed to me as English as anyone born in Britain — seem to treat farming with the same special reverence they extend to dogs and Greek. He once asked to visit me for a weekend on our farm, and was fascinated about raisin production, tree fruit, tractors, and the economy of rural central California. I kidded him that out here driving a Massey Ferguson with a tandem disk was seen as far more impressive than reciting a stanza of Kipling, and he flared up and answered, “But why, man, one at the expense of the other?” But often of course they are.

When he arrived in rural Selma, out of drink and angry that he had exhausted his usual favorites, I warned him there was no way I could buy all his accouterments out here, and I was not going to drive all the way up to Fresno to find them. He rattled off a number of carbonated-mineral-water brands that he apparently knew well from Mexico, and announced, “Victor, there is a global brotherhood of quality drinkers that reaches even here that you are apparently not aware of.” He then insisted that we drive into the local barrio and find a “good” liquor store. Finally at one of the most run-down places imaginable we found two dusty bottles of exactly what he was looking for. “Why the surprise?” he scoffed.

As we walked around town, I noticed that, aside from the fact that he seemed to the eye and ear to be in atrocious physical shape, he had a confidence in his own presence that meant that even though he knew nothing about the American poor in the sense of ever having lived among or worked beside them, that fact could be easily trumped by his immediate aura of friendliness and mannered politeness. In the best tradition of Horace, he believed that his character was fully formed and need not change despite his constantly changing surroundings; if, when out of his milieu — and he surely was that day in Selma — he seemed ridiculous to others, he never seemed so to himself. And he was not oblivious.

Dining with Christopher, as some who knew him far better have attested, was like eating beside a coiled cobra who might turn and bite at any moment, given his venom as the contrarian and a certain sense that he should be the great leveler of those too taken with their own table talk. His dinners reminded me a lot of what one reads in Athenaeus, silly sophisticated chat on almost any conceivable topic mingled with polite putdowns and outrageous, often lurid commentary. He was not a historian who had advanced some novel thesis about the ancient or modern world. Nor was he a literary doyen of the classical sort who had established a particular school of criticism, or authored masterful reviews of contemporary classics. Rather, he was a relentless polymath who reminded his associates that he knew at least something about almost everything. Drinking, talking, dining — these were his creative genres, inseparable from his writing. And from hundreds of his admirers no doubt another Boswell would emerge to confirm his wit and learning for the ages with a Life of Christopher Hitchens.

Introspection and remorse Mr. Hitchens was not much interested in. Once he took a position, whether in print or in conversation, he rarely regretted it, even as new information came to light. But I don’t think that he was thereby not self-critical, but rather more worried about charges of fickleness and hypocrisy than of appearing dogmatic. The trimmers and flip-floppers were his banes, especially in the dark years of Iraq. In some sense, he was harder on left-wing campus charlatans than on right-wing zealots, seeing in the former a sort of lazy and pretentious groupthink, in the latter the sort of blinkered minds who at least sincerely believed in their dogmas.

Though he had a regrettable mean streak that I think led him into time-consuming and dead-end invectives, I never found him cruel to others present, as he so often was in print; and even as he said quite unkind things about third parties that could logically be applicable to myself, most of those at the table — and Christopher Hitchens himself. He got very angry at me only once, when I suggested that his appetites and the title of his proposed book, God Is Not Great (I thought from his description over dinner that it would be focused more on radical Islam than on Christianity), might make things difficult for his daughter, whether through his own unforeseen illness or a needless provocation to terrorists. “You too — Brutus!” he snapped, a line that I think he had used similarly on others.

Most of the time we discussed Iraq, Greece, the European Union, Churchill, Tolkien (I thought him a scholarly and fictive genius, Hitchens thought him a mediocrity), and 19th-century Britain. His prejudices were often my own — whether on Pakistan or Hillary Clinton. Some of his conclusions, if not original, at least were unusual — e.g., that we should have let the Russians in 1979 do away with the pre-Taliban, since their unworkable fix for Afghanistan would have evaporated more quickly than Islam’s and in the process would have been kinder to women, homosexuals, and those in the professions. His fierce loyalty to persecuted small nations — Armenia, Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus — that for centuries had suffered terribly from Islamic aggression and Western indifference did not in the least extend to cotemporary Israel. He felt that ultraorthodox Jewry was comparable to radical Islam, mutatis mutandis — which I felt was as unsound as saying Timothy McVeigh was comparable to Osama bin Laden and his epigones.

I bothered him on another occasion by noting that Henry Kissinger’s memoirs at least were well written, informative, and witty in ironic fashion, and in short comparable to Acheson’s. He countered with (precise) examples of all sorts of monsters who left behind lively accounts. In regard to Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger, I do not think it was so much their supposedly dastardly acts that had enraged him, or even that they had become wrongly esteemed because of them; rather he assumed that the general regard in which they were held had fooled us all into thinking they were near flawless — without any concession that most of us simply had added up their pluses and minuses and found both mostly better than the alternatives.

With the ascendancy of Barack Obama, and Christopher’s much busier and more public schedule, we saw less of each other. I found Obama a sort of Greek cathartic figure — the sum total of a half-century of flawed assumptions that now had inevitably arrived as our collective Greek nemesis. Hitchens came to welcome Obama (although he was masterly in his dissection of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) as the modern scientific mind’s proper antidote to the supposedly superstitious and pre-modern Palin (an “ignoramus” and “idiot,” he thundered, who did not believe in subsidizing Drosophila research) or the surely “senile” McCain. He was savage in the 2008 race in insisting McCain/Palin were medieval, with Obama/Biden avatars of the Enlightenment — a contrast he had never made in the case of the supposedly erudite Kerry and the evangelical Bush, whom he voted for. When I later pointed out all sorts of instances where Obama simply had made up historical facts and based policy on pseudo-science, it was a futile rear-guard action from someone who already sullied himself by once defending Palin — as if I were a pathetic sort of William Jennings Bryan pitted against Clarence Darrow.

I once ambiguously remarked to him that he would soon learn — with his support for Obama (yet I think this support was genuine rather than contrived), along with the publication of God Is Not Great — that his former critics now were more likely to welcome him home where he belonged. In one of my final arguments with him, I remember hearing in near disbelief his championing of John Edwards (in the days well before the sex “disclosures”). I pressed him to tell me just one good thing about such an unimpressive figure. He tried, but even his gifts were not up to it, and finally he resorted to the fact that he knew Edwards and especially his impressive wife. I suggested that his support for Edwards was far more logically suspect than was my admiration for Sarah Palin’s odyssey from Wasilla to the governorship. (Attention, John Edwards: If you are reading this, be assured that Christopher Hitchens supported your sorry cause to the bitter end.)

In this regard, I never quite understood why conservatives thought Hitchens a conservative. He was most certainly not. Did they expect that his brilliant polemics on behalf of finishing the job in Iraq would lead to metamorphoses on other issues? Did they not see that for Hitchens the issue was not supporting George Bush — or conservatives or Republicans or a US war, right or wrong — but helping to rectify the betrayal of the Shiites of 1991, showing solidarity with the long-persecuted (and at times Trotskyite) Kurds, opposing a murderously illiberal radical Islam that sought to hijack our own liberation from a genocidal Saddam, fulfilling both the UN and congressional authorizations, and in the process tweaking a number of liberal hypocrisies that long had needed to be tweaked? I note too that he had an enormous respect for US soldiers on the ground in Iraq that made the thought of opposing what they were in the middle of fighting for impossible.

So we met less frequently after 2009, with the ascendancy of Obama, the quiet in Iraq, and the new rounds of fresh Hitchens invective that earned headlines rather than reflected logic and good sense. Even for the late Jerry Falwell (yes, Jerry Falwell) was there not to be any sense of de mortuis nihil nisi bonum? Of course not! Why the low blows to Paul Johnson? Hitchens laughed all that off as not rising to the level of needing rebuttal — given my bumpkin ignorance of long-ago London literary hypocrisies — but on one occasion at his home in California he walked over, went into his files, and handed me a Xerox of an old review of Johnson’s Intellectuals with the quip, “I hope it is as bad as you remember it.” I once suggested to him that whether Mitt Romney wore holy underwear or not was none of our business, but whether Barack Obama smoked was; he answered with a brief three-minute exegesis about why underwear most certainly trumped cigarettes.

I had read Peter Hitchens’s The Abolition of Britain and some of his columns, and liked what he wrote, even as I accepted that he was as hostile to Americans who supported the Bush foreign policy as he was to leftists. Here I was sincere in praising Christopher’s brother, not seeking a barb from Christopher; but he exceeded my praise with compliments of his own. That too was a trait of Mr. Hitchens. Whatever he may have written, in informal conversation he had only reverence for his father, his mother, his children, and especially his wife Carol — and apparently his rival brother as well. As a general rule with the me-generation over fifty, what they say now about their parents is often a valuable window into their souls.

Although we communicated even less after his illness, I remember writing something to him to the effect that it did not matter what he believed in, since he had tried to live his life according to truth and candor, courage being the classical virtue without which others cannot exist.

And of course, those were historically Christian values as well, and would be so acknowledged in the Socratic sense of nothing bad ever happening to the good person. I meant that, and prayed to the Christian God both for his cure and for his soul, at least as well as any doomed sinner could who neither had been baptized nor currently attends church.

I remember one of our last meetings, which I think was in the spring before his illness was diagnosed. It was on the Stanford campus. He was limping, with a foot in a bandage, from what he said was a “spider bite” he had gotten on his lawn in Atherton. I told him the chances that a black widow or brown recluse had crawled up his leg on a California lawn were almost nil (as someone who does his own plumbing under a 140-year-old rural farmhouse could attest), and that the boil-like welt, and accompanying stiffness, were more likely from a bacterial infection misdiagnosed as a black-widow bite. (The same thing would later happen to my son.)

He looked too white and a little ill, but he mentioned that a doctor had prescribed him medicine. I assumed that it was an antibiotic and would do the trick, whether the problem was an infected spider bite or a more organic staph infection. But I regret to this day that I did not force the issue with him, and so worried later that his “bite” might in fact have been an early indication of an immune system taxed with undiagnosed cancer.

My dinners and meetings with Mr. Christopher Hitchens were oddly formal, though in spurts frequent. There were plenty of reasons he gave for not liking him, all of which I’ll pass on, but I did like him a lot. I admired his photographic recall, his mastery of recitation, his quick barbs and Johnson-like wit, the zeal with which he tried to take down bullies and pretension, and his deliberate and at times too studied emulation of Orwell’s courage. I often suggested, as I have mentioned here, that he was wrong about much and unfair to too many, and yet was met with kindness and courtesy in all those rebukes. I learned that expressing such stereotyped reservations to Hitchens was all part of the game; and without a need for such reservations there could be no game.

I suggested that while pounding so-called national treasures in theory at least prompted needed revisionist examination that few were willing to undertake, the meanness of the attack often nullified any good that could come of it. He smiled with a “Well, now . . .” as if he thought I was from Mars — or Selma.

Since he has passed away, for all the supposed Hitchens adulation, I have met a surprising number of people who have scoffed with something like “Good riddance!” or “What a clever opportunistic con artist!” or “What did the alcoholic expect?”

Expect? Why, I think he expected to live far, far longer than he did, and to be remembered as someone who told the truth as he saw it, and did so with style and erudition as few others could, all with an acknowledgment of our own biases and vanities. For a supposedly mean person, he could be awfully kind.

I miss talking to Mr. Hitchens and reading him, in a way I don’t miss most others. And I think I’ll feel the same in five or, God willing, ten or fifteen years as I do today about one of the most unusual and disconcerting people I have ever met.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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