I’m going to continue my sequence of quick exposés on the lives of influential thinkers with Christopher Hitchens. Hitch, as he liked to be called, was a hugely famous journalist, author, and public intellectual. He tragically died at age 62 in December 2011. I draw my information from his excellent memoirs, entitled Hitch 22, which I strongly recommend to anyone for its great storytelling value and charming, erudite wittiness. As with the previous article, I’ll begin with a quick primer for the unacquainted.
Christopher Hitchens started his journalism career in the 1960s by writing for New Statesman, a socialist political and cultural magazine in England. He seized every opportunity to travel the world to aid struggling revolutionaries, most notably in Cuba, South America, Ireland, the Middle East, and the Soviet Union. Over the decades he became very close with the leading English writers and poets of his era, especially Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, and Martin Amis. Infatuated with the American spirit of revolution and counterculture, he became a U.S. citizen in 1981 and relocated his literary talents to the prominent leftist magazine The Nation. In the U.S. he aimed his pen at Reagan, H.W. Bush, and the political blunders and myopia in South America. He achieved perhaps his most weighty political impact with his push towards the Iraq War and the military removal of Saddam Hussein. In the last decade of his life he pioneered the “New Atheists”, also known as the “The Four Horseman”, with Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins. He debated opponents of skepticism and liberalism continuously throughout his life, never going more than a few weeks without a public appearance. In his memoirs he wrote that he abhorred two things in life: religion and despotism. And he made it his life’s purpose to extinguish the two as best he could, viciously (and cleverly) attacking and discrediting its proponents. His early death was a tragic, but predictable, consequence of his lifelong alcohol and cigarette habits.
Having also recently read a biography of Ludwig Wittgenstein, it’s hard not to compare the two. But beyond the fact that they both died at age 62, the similarities end. Wittgenstein was singularly devoted; Hitch was a polymath. Wittgenstein was curt and abrasive; Hitch was charming and gregarious. Wittgenstein valued rigid self-control; Hitch filled his glass to the brim twice daily. Perhaps they overlap in the acidity of their attacks on their opponents. Wittgenstein was unbelievably dismissive of his well-respected Cambridge colleagues when he believed they didn’t understand his work. Hitch withheld neither prose nor poetry to pour molten words over the heads of the dogmatists of the world.
One strong thread through Hitch’s early life was dealing with oppression. He refers to his father, a naval officer in World War II, as “the commander”, and he acted as such. Hitch went to boarding schools in England before they were reformed, which meant the jolly tyranny and corporal punishment “for your own good” that only religious fundamentalists can muster. Combined with the fact that he turned 20 in 1969, and it is no surprise that he ended up in Havana supporting the communists. It is hard to be surprised by the causes that Hitch undertook. His incredible success and his infiltration of leading intellectual circles are what fascinate.
In his memoirs, Hitch writes fondly of the weekly dinners he had with young English intellectuals in his twenties. He and other budding writers and poets would meet once a week over copious amounts of wine to joke, pun, gossip, vulgarize, and otherwise celebrate the pinnacle of the young culture that they helped to usher into the rapidly modernizing world. He was graced with company that far outshone him. Writers such as Ian McEwan were much more widely read than Hitch up until around 2005, when his books exposing the villainy of Mother Theresa and Henry Kissinger, as well as his wonderfully titled manifesto “god is Not Great” and his weekly Vanity Fair articles, made Christopher Hitchens a household name. (But to hear him tell it, at these gatherings Hitch was the pièce de résistance.) Their shared appreciation of literature drew them together, and their shared political activism propelled them forward. His friends were allies, his allies friends, and he had plenty of both. Hitch’s appreciation of, and dexterity with, the English language naturally drew him to comrades that helped him further his material aims. It is inspiring to see how Hitch drew on his talents to propel his values. He had no need to sacrifice his ambitions for his passions, or his passions for his ambition. They were two sides of the same coin.
Perhaps the most striking element of Hitch’s life was his unwavering acceptance of psychological realism. While his comrades fought against the idea of dictators, he fought against real dictators. That meant alienating his fans on the left by supporting the Iraq War – most leftists favored diplomacy, but Hitch refused to believe that Saddam would act in his own self interests, or in any way resembling rational action. Understanding that the fight was against a madman, he advocated a war that the left was overwhelmingly against. It also meant that, where his colleagues saw Islamic fundamentalists as simply an extreme, and possibly perverse, instance of freedom of belief, Hitch saw mentally deranged people brainwashing their children into sacrificial violence (notably the Iranian Ayatollah and the others behind the fatwa against Salman Rushdie). And lastly, it meant his complete acceptance of the alcoholism that ended up killing him. Even on his deathbed he had no remorse for his drinking. By making people more interesting, it staved off boredom, which he described as the most powerful destructive force in his life. Hitch maintained that, given his psychological makeup, a steady infusion of wine and spirits was a necessary part of his creative expression, and thereby his arsenal against dogmatism.
So the casual admirer can draw two immediate lessons from the great Christopher Hitchens. Aline one’s ambitions with one’s creative outlets. And be quick to side with, or make a hasty escape from, groups and factions – choose one’s allies carefully and often.