Hitchens Was Not Kindness Itself

Just how bad was the famous curmudgeon?

Kind acts, but hard words socially

Luckily, as in public, the wit sweetened the poison

Can there be better evidence of just how sour an experience it was below the surface to deal with the enormous ego of Christopher Hitchens, the one in a generation political and literary critic and public wasp whose command of language and rapier of logic allowed him to debunk sacred cows from Bill Clinton and Mother Theresa to God Above without causing any offense, of manners, at any rate, and keep the admiration of connoisseurs of verbal skirmish across the whole spectrum of American politics and media?

We are referring to Remembering Hitchens, a sketchy reminiscence of the great modern Cham by one of his protegees in the New York Observer last week.

The last time I saw Christopher Hitchens was on a sunny summer day on Irving Place. I had just had lunch with a friend and was walking leisurely around Gramercy Park. Though we were near the offices of The Nation, where I had met Christopher while an intern, it had been years since he had occasion to visit the magazine. He was, he reported, just strolling to an event at the New School.

“Gallagher,” (he always addressed me by my surname) “You’re looking well for yourself.” I thanked him and made a facetious comment about taking up jogging. “I see you can’t say the same for me,” he observed. Embarrassed at the oversight, I apologized, said he did look quite well and asked how he was.

He replied in the way he always did when one asked after his well-being: “Too soon to tell.”

Brian Thomas Gallagher appears to have been somewhat hypnotized by Hitchens in person and can come up with only slightly cruel and ill mannered remarks which- if they are accurately reported – only confirm that Hitchens was to large extent a bore if you didn’t cherish his passive-aggressive evisceration of counterargument to his views. These verbal Exocets were always well enough articulated, even by British standards, to be hard to reply to at the time, though they no doubt generated a lot of Parthian shots too late from debating opponents too easily dazzled, in fact mentally stunned, at the time by his belligerent verbal prowess.

Lovely, I thought, it will be nice to have a quick, intimate drink. When I arrived at the Wyoming building, where he lived, Bono was in the elevator with me. Bill Keller was already inside, and not far from him was Alice Waters.

When I found Christopher, I asked why he hadn’t warned me. He replied that I was the second smartest Irishman he knew, and that he supposed I would have guessed. I asked who the first was, and he dodged the question. It later occurred to me that he likely said that to many Irishmen. Nevertheless, I’d never been so charmed by being called second-best.

Another time, at a magazine holiday party, shortly after he’d written his slightly controversial piece arguing that women cannot be funny, we were discussing the delivery of jokes. I told what I then considered my go-to yarn. I thought he would be amused, since it involved some confusion between Catholic nuns and Orthodox Jews. As I unspooled the narrative, embellishing for effect, and even (misguidedly, perhaps) attempting accents, he eyed me with anticipation. When I reached the punchline, the reaction among the partygoers in our particular conversation was decidedly underwhelming.

Christopher took a sip of his Johnny Walker, pursed his lips and said with velveteen deadpan, “What you should do, Gallagher, is make that joke twice as long.” This delighted the rest of the group, particularly the women. I’ve not told the joke since.

Remembering Christopher Hitchens is a sadly revealing half page, complete with a picture of Hitchens looking bleak, if not illtempered, but the reason is apparently not because he has been taking endless chemotherapy, the ineffective standard treatment peddled by subscribers to the status quo in medicine, because he still has all his hair.

What it reveals is how few harmlessly amusing bon mots Hitchens generated even in the experience of a junior colleague that he liked and helped. Also, how retentive his memory was for a good line:

Speaking of “Why Women Aren’t Funny” (the piece, not the notion), one of my favorite Hitchens moments was his response to a pedantic letter to the editor in Vanity Fair from a Stanford academic. The man, Allan Reiss, purported to have done a scientific analysis of humor the refutted Christopher’s claim. In response, Christopher conjured a handily deflating riposte—which turned out to say so much about his mind.

“Way to prove my point,” he wrote. “I tried reading Reiss’s letter in the open air and birds fell dead from the clear blue sky,” he wrote.

It was only last year that I found out, when reading his memoir, Hitch 22, that that line, or something very close to it, was how Clive James dismissed Leonid Breznhev’s memoir in the pages of The New Statesman, in the early1970s. It seemed to me, in retrospect, that when Christopher repurposed the orbiter dictum, there must have been, perhaps, four people in the world who got the joke: himself, Clive James, Martin Amis and James Fenton. It was the perfect encapsulation of his intellect: expansive, historically aware, confrontational, playful, esoteric and steeped in the Oxbridge Left of the late 1960s.

The line is striking but not particularly witty, in fact, rather schoolboyish in level, so what to make of this presented as the literary highpoint of a Hitchens Rememberance? It all seems to reflect the fact that Hitchens was so preoccupied with his public role as gadfly bombast that he left no room for quiet, direct connection and communion with other souls. The effect on admirers who knew him personally was to short change them on the truth, an irony when you consider that his public posture was truthseeking behind the stage curtain.

Be that as it may, there seems to be no doubt that Hitchens won an unfair amount of admiration for what were often superficial and inconsistent views by voicing them in language so sharp that the knife went in painlessly, and he was so ready with his opinions, and so well stocked with knowledge of fashionable thought in higher circles, that he really didn’t seem to seek any response from his listeners that might change his mind.

Here is the whole evidence of this miserable testimony to all this, the underside of Hitchens brilliant surface and its dazzle:

The last time I saw Christopher Hitchens was on a sunny summer day on Irving Place. I had just had lunch with a friend and was walking leisurely around Gramercy Park. Though we were near the offices of The Nation, where I had met Christopher while an intern, it had been years since he had occasion to visit the magazine. He was, he reported, just strolling to an event at the New School.

“Gallagher,” (he always addressed me by my surname) “You’re looking well for yourself.” I thanked him and made a facetious comment about taking up jogging. “I see you can’t say the same for me,” he observed. Embarrassed at the oversight, I apologized, said he did look quite well and asked how he was.

He replied in the way he always did when one asked after his well-being: “Too soon to tell.” (Reportedly Zhou Enlai’s response when asked about the lasting effects of the French Revolution, though Christopher thought that story apocryphal). And indeed, it was too soon. Days later, he was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him last week.

It would be an exaggeration to say I was close with Christopher, but as I’m sure is the case for many others, he felt important to me. Not only did he help me get my first paying job in magazines, I also adored his writing, and more importantly greatly admired the way he reckoned with the world. (The past tense here seems so paltry.) As he was with many young writers, particularly interns, Christopher was far more generous with me than he needed to be.

For instance, on the occasion of Barack Obama’s inauguration. I, like the rest of New York City, it seemed, was heading to Washington for the festivities. I emailed Christopher and asked—though I knew he would likely be far too busy—if he would have time for a drink or two. He emailed back and said, “Why don’t you come by ours around 5 on Saturday for a cocktail.”

Lovely, I thought, it will be nice to have a quick, intimate drink. When I arrived at the Wyoming building, where he lived, Bono was in the elevator with me. Bill Keller was already inside, and not far from him was Alice Waters.

When I found Christopher, I asked why he hadn’t warned me. He replied that I was the second smartest Irishman he knew, and that he supposed I would have guessed. I asked who the first was, and he dodged the question. It later occurred to me that he likely said that to many Irishmen. Nevertheless, I’d never been so charmed by being called second-best.

Another time, at a magazine holiday party, shortly after he’d written his slightly controversial piece arguing that women cannot be funny, we were discussing the delivery of jokes. I told what I then considered my go-to yarn. I thought he would be amused, since it involved some confusion between Catholic nuns and Orthodox Jews. As I unspooled the narrative, embellishing for effect, and even (misguidedly, perhaps) attempting accents, he eyed me with anticipation. When I reached the punchline, the reaction among the partygoers in our particular conversation was decidedly underwhelming.

Christopher took a sip of his Johnny Walker, pursed his lips and said with velveteen deadpan, “What you should do, Gallagher, is make that joke twice as long.” This delighted the rest of the group, particularly the women. I’ve not told the joke since.

Speaking of “Why Women Aren’t Funny” (the piece, not the notion), one of my favorite Hitchens moments was his response to a pedantic letter to the editor in Vanity Fair from a Stanford academic. The man, Allan Reiss, purported to have done a scientific analysis of humor the refutted Christopher’s claim. In response, Christopher conjured a handily deflating riposte—which turned out to say so much about his mind.

“Way to prove my point,” he wrote. “I tried reading Reiss’s letter in the open air and birds fell dead from the clear blue sky,” he wrote.

It was only last year that I found out, when reading his memoir, Hitch 22, that that line, or something very close to it, was how Clive James dismissed Leonid Breznhev’s memoir in the pages of The New Statesman, in the early1970s. It seemed to me, in retrospect, that when Christopher repurposed the orbiter dictum, there must have been, perhaps, four people in the world who got the joke: himself, Clive James, Martin Amis and James Fenton. It was the perfect encapsulation of his intellect: expansive, historically aware, confrontational, playful, esoteric and steeped in the Oxbridge Left of the late 1960s.

Of his political evolution, much has been said—and continues to be said in comment threads under his various obituaries—particularly by those who used his support of the Iraq War to legitimize their own, and by those who were angered and hurt by what they saw as his apostasy.

That he was wrong on Iraq is probably academic by now, but it bears saying that he is surely the only person to have supported the invasion and yet never disavowed Trotskyism. And that is a paradox worth considering when taking stock of his moral motives.

Since Christopher’s death, I’ve heard and read quite a lot to the effect of “they don’t make them like Hitchens anymore.” But in truth, it’s not as if there were once droves of writers and speakers on hand with the genius for language and argument of Christopher Hitchens. They never “made them like Hitchens”; he was a once-in-a-generation writer.

It’s tempting to end on a sentimental note, but I would worry about nothing more than what Christopher himself would think. So, it seems safest to employ his own words, written on the occasion of Susan Sontag’s passing: “Anyway—Death be not proud.”

In other words, Hitchens was overbearing in a way that suggested that like so many comedians, his public persona was an entertaining way of deflecting examination of his own failings, ie his own evasion of scrutiny, just as his intellectual scrutiny was also a way of parrying it being turned on himself. Attack is the best for of defense, in other words.

So he could serve as an example of how much public figures give up to serve their audience and make their money. They sacrifice the possibility of real friendship with so many for the reward of adulation from the crowd.

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One Response to Hitchens Was Not Kindness Itself

  1. WilliamTullibardine says:

    Poor Hitchens, indeed, so busy hobnobbing with the elite pols and media that he forgot to inform himself from better sources. They might have alerted him to the fact that his friends at the NIH might not be the most reliable sources on his cancer and the best way to treat it. See http://www.scienceguardian.com/blog/christopher-hitchens-dies-at-62-at-hands-of-conventional-medicine.htm. Unusual site, good source on progressive science. If anyone literary ever wants to read about science, which they usually can’t handle.

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