Christopher Hitchens: A Young Contrarian Salutes Him
A young contrarian, Max McGuinness, salutes a brilliant conversationalist, prodigious smoker, with surprisingly bourgeois virtues.
Christopher Hitchens was, among other things, a very nice man. Courtesy, kindness, and punctuality: the old Trot was adept at all the old bourgeois virtues. Though, as a gentleman, he naturally reserved the right to be rude when he intended to be so.
The “young contrarians,” a member-less club to which I no doubt owe some dues, were treated with unusual deference. If one could summon a bon mot or two and withstand the ferocious disputes about Iraq, then Hitchens’s table lay more or less open. There, he cultivated a school of disputation and irony; as long as one could talk and write well (mostly talk, it must be said, since Christopher believed that all writing flows from speech), then one was welcome. All of his friends seemed to disagree with him about most things, and, I dare say, he would not have had it any other way. For the Sake of Argument. So he entitled one of his earlier books, thus already authoring his own epitaph.
I first discovered Hitchens from the other side of the rampart. During the lead-up to the Iraq War, as a card-carrying, fiercely antiwar member of one of the socialist factions of which Christopher always retained a quasi-affectionate and anorak-like knowledge, I came across his equally ardent philippics in favor of the invasion. And though I have always thought he was wrong, I could not entirely deny that he sometimes seemed to have a point (a sentiment which naturally remained unexpressed devant les camarades, as he would have put it).
His evisceration of the hypocrisy and cynicism of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder was irresistible. His stout defense of the beleaguered Kurds (“members of the Socialist International in good standing,” I remember him declaiming) was admirable.
So did I discover the dubious joys of “keeping two sets of books," the immortal phrase that constitutes the central theme of his aptly titled memoir, Hitch-22. Most of all, I, like so many others, secretly regretted the fact that he was no longer on our side. A replacement was, and remains, unobtainable.
One could almost forget the illegality, the profiteering, the recklessness, and the endless casualties.
What one should never forget is that The Trial of Henry Kissinger had been published only two years beforehand. This was where Christopher truly assumed the mantle of Orwell and Koestler, coolly assembling a devastating rap sheet against that deceitful, malevolent toad for crimes against humanity. Clearly panicked, the old scoundrel was reduced to trying to smear Christopher as a Holocaust denier. Hitchens’s book has effectively defined the historical record on Kissinger. Alas, the latter’s obituary will now never bear the former’s signature.
Eventually, I got to know Christopher and obtained a lengthy interview in Dublin towards the tail end of his book tour for God Is Not Great. He was a sight. As I surveyed him over lunch, chain-smoking cigarettes literally in between mouthfuls, I knew that only a miracle would preserve him for old age. And miracles, as Christopher would tell you, do not exist.
The repartee has stayed with me. “I travel so much that I’m in danger of turning into one of those dreadful people who tell you they’re ‘based’ somewhere,” said Hitchens, friend of the U.S. Army though he was. “She can come 'round to my house and give me a blowjob, I still wouldn’t vote for her!” he then roared à propos the doomed French presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal. “I don’t want you to pour my wine; and I don’t want you to cut my food for me either!” was the rejoinder to an overly eager waiter. The Hitch provided the best copy you could get, and he knew it.
When writing up the piece, I included a glib reference to Christopher taking the occasional “oxygen break” as he tore open a fresh packet of fags. The phrase caught his eye and he later claimed it had jolted him into contemplating personal reform. There ensued a series of articles for Vanity Fair on “On the Limits of Self-Improvement,” initiated by Graydon Carter who clearly wanted to hold onto a friend and star writer. But it was too little, too late.
Then again, we all die in the end, as his most recent pieces about the horrors of cancer repeatedly stressed. It’s just a shame he is not going to be around to amuse and interpret amid the various political, economic, and climactic nightmares which the near future seems to portend. And then there was that book on Proust he never got around to writing. We shall not see his like again.