Christopher Hitchens: A Man of Moral Clarity
A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.
“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club. No dice. When the head-waiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”
Christopher was never a man to back away from a confrontation on behalf of what he considered basic decency. Yet it would be wrong to remember only the confrontational side. Christopher was also a man of exquisite sensitivity and courtesy, dispensed without regard to age or station.
On one of the last occasions I saw him, my wife and I came to drop some food — lamb tagine — to sustain a family with more on its mind than cooking.
Christopher, though weary and sick, insisted on painfully lifting himself from his chair to perform the rites of hospitality. He might have cancer, but we were still guests — and as guests, we must have Champagne.
I once had the honour of sharing a debating platform with Christopher, on the same side thank God. It was like going into battle alongside the U.S. Marine Corps. The audience was overwhelmingly hostile. The longer Christopher talked, the more subdued they became.
As the event broke up, a crowd of questioners formed around him. I created a diversion thinking it would help him escape for some needed rest. But Christopher declined the offer. He stood with them, as tired as I was, but ready to adjourn to a nearby bar and converse with total strangers ‘till the bars closed.
Hitchens was not one of those romantics who fetishized “dialogue.” Far from suffering fools gladly, he delighted in making fools suffer. When he heard that another friend, a professor, had a habit of seducing female students in his writing seminars, he shook his head pityingly. “It’s not worth it. Afterward, you have to read their short stories.”
He delighted in writing himself, of course, and in all that surrounded writing. I had the dazzling experience one night of listening to Christopher and Salman Rushdie replay a favourite game, wrecking book titles by changing a single word.
I wish I could remember them all, not only because they were so funny, but because I still wince at the scolding Christopher gave me when he overheard me relating the anecdote from memory and mangling his alternative to The Great Gatsby, as “The Good Gatsby,” rather than “The Big Gatsby.”
He especially liked gallows humour. When the nurses asked him, in that insinuatingly cheerful way they have, how he was feeling, he’d answer, “I seem to have a little touch of cancer.” If he was late to emerge from his living room to see you because of the exhaustion and nausea of chemotherapy, he’d excuse himself with, “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I was brushing my hair,” of which, of course, there were only a few wisps left.
I never expected to become friends with him. It was my wife Danielle who sparked the relationship. She and Christopher were booked as guest commentators on the same TV network — CBC, I think — on election night, 1996, shortly after we’d moved to Washington. The format had them talking for 10 minutes at the top of every hour, then adjourning for 50 minutes of newscast.
At the end of the first 10 minutes, my wife decided she did not want to spend most of the rest of the evening in the nasty green room provided. “I’m getting a drink,” Danielle announced. Christopher never had to hear that invitation twice, certainly not from a very beautiful woman. Over the next four hours, they moved back and forth between the studio and a nearby bar, talking for 10 minutes per hour and drinking for 50. When Danielle lurched home that evening, she raved about this brilliant and charming writer I just had to meet.
I vetoed the idea. I knew Christopher’s writing and had encountered him a few times in the 1980s. He was an impressive person, no question about that, but I objected to his ad hominem attacks on people I greatly admired. Then, a few weeks later, I had my own face-to-face encounter with him. We were guests together on C-SPAN’s morning program, which convened at 7 a.m. He rolled in looking absolutely like hell. Of the dead, nothing should be said but good, but — wow. Christopher’s eyes were bloodshot, his clothes were crumpled, his face was ghastly. And then he started to talk. And then he made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
The show ended at 8 a.m. Even for Christopher, that was not drinking time. We adjourned to the nearby Phoenix Park hotel for a coffee and two more hours of talk. When I did finally get home, I had to admit to my wife, “OK, you were right.”
Danielle mobilized Christopher to write for a magazine she then edited, the Women’s Quarterly. For the very uncharacteristic fee of $200, he and David Brooks divided a page to settle the question: Who were sexier — leftwing women or right-wing women? Christopher championed right-wing women, and told the story of the erotic thrill he had experienced when Margaret Thatcher had slapped him on the bottom with a rolled-up newspaper.
For such a pugilistic intellect, Christopher Hitchens could be surprisingly sensitive and deferential. I well remember my anxiety before the first time he joined a party with my in-laws. My father-in-law is perhaps the only person I know who has visited even more countries than Christopher, but politically — uh oh. Peter Worthington is not one to mince his words about anything, least of all his view that British colonialism did the people on the receiving end much more good than harm. But when Christopher heard that Peter had been with Hitchens’ beloved Indian Army on the eve of the 1962 Himalayan war with China, politics flew out the window, as the great journalist in him extracted every anecdotal detail.
Not every evening went so well. In the aftershock of 9/11 and Hitchens’ great political rotation, I made the mistake of organizing a dinner with him and Middle East expert Daniel Pipes. That time, Christopher arrived spoiling for a fight. The evening ended with Christopher storming out of the house.
Carol struggled to follow him, but he moved so fast that he had vanished around the corner of a neighbouring street before Carol reached the sidewalk.
She realized she couldn’t get home on her own because Christopher had departed with the keys to their car in his pocket. Nor could she re-enter the house, without offering an awkward explanation to all the other dumbfounded guests. Andrew Sullivan played Sir Galahad and returned Carol home. The Hitchens’ car remained parked on our curb till late the next morning.
At most parties, though, he was wit in a white suit. He’d enter the house and push past the offer of what he called the worst phrase in the English language: “White or red?” He’d walk into the kitchen, to the small pantry where we keep our own stock of liquor and help himself to a slug of Johnnie Walker Black, which I learned to think of as the whisky you drink when you’re drinking more than one. Soda, no ice. In recent years, and contrary to reports, the pours got smaller and the spacing between them grew wider.
Was his body rebelling? Or did the mind need less artificial impetus as it raced faster and faster down the current toward the waterfall at the end?
In recent years, as I’ve undergone a political rotation of my own, I’ve thought more and more about the example Christopher set. Interviewed in about 2003 by C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb, Christopher gave this answer to a question about his former belief in socialism: “I miss it the way an amputated man misses an arm.”
It’s a bewildering experience to move away from prior certitudes. The most usual response is to careen to exactly opposite certitudes — to clutch at some prosthetic substitute for the vanished limb. Christopher refused this ready aid.
Perhaps his formal moment of departure from the political left came when he was summoned to answer for his deviations before the editors of the left-wing Nation in 2002. He rode the train up from Washington, sat at the long conference room table to await the interrogation — and lit up a cigarette in defiance of all no-smoking ordinances. What was there to be said after that?
If Christopher quit the left, however, he never joined the right. Like his great hero George Orwell, he was a man whose most creative period of life was a period of constantly falling between two stools: His newfound hatred of British anti-war activist George Galloway never dimmed his old animosity toward Henry Kissinger. He was for the Iraq war without ever much trusting or liking the leaders who led that war.
The stock phrase of the 2000s on the right was “moral clarity.” If moral clarity means hating cruelty and oppression, then Christopher Hitchens was above all things a man of moral clarity. But he was also a man of moral complexity, who would not submit to Lenin’s demand that who says A must say B. Christopher was never more himself than when, after saying A, he adamantly refused to say B.
By the end, the one-time Trotskyist doctrinaire allowed no furnishings inside his mind except those that he had deliberately chosen and then shaped to his own use.
One sometimes hears of people who try to model their writing or their persona on Christopher Hitchens’ example. The results are usually absurd and sometimes perverse. Christopher did not offer a model of what to think. He offered a model of how to think — and how to live. Fully. Fearlessly. Joyously. And then, alas too soon, of how to die: without bluster but without flinching, boldly writing until the fingers moved no more.