Permit me, as the English say, to declare an interest. I was first told the story of the death of Yvonne Hitchens by her oldest son on the weekend of April 8, 1989. Christopher and his wife, Eleni, put us up at their house in Washington on our way to an abortion rights march. Abortion was a touchy subject with the Hitchenses, and not just because Eleni was pregnant with their second child. There had been a party in the afternoon, but the atmosphere was hardly festive. Our hosts seemed to be attempting, with limited success, to suppress a long-running quarrel. (It can’t have been much more than a month later that Christopher left Eleni for Carol Blue, whom he eventually married.) As the house slowly emptied I found myself alone with Christopher, who, either because he noticed my distracted air or wanted to change the subject, soon elicited the fact that I’d spent an earlier part of the day visiting my mother in the hospital where she was undergoing treatment for cancer.
I was feeling both anxious and guilty. Christopher’s response was to sit me down, fill our glasses and tell me about being summoned to Athens too late to talk his mother out of taking her life. I wasn’t making notes—his apotheosis as a world-historical figure and scourge of the believers was many years in the future—so I can’t recall exactly how he introduced the topic. Nor can I recall all the sordid details, though I did come away knowing that his mother’s suicide in 1973 had marked him in ways he generally preferred not to consider. What I can recall was my sense of a man whose life seemed, on many levels, to be a kind of performance, allowing himself to be "off," and to offer the only consolation he could: not cheerfulness, not competitive misery, but an acknowledgment that sometimes life just sucks. If any more evidence on that question were needed, in recent weeks the Internet has buzzed with the news that Hitchens is undergoing treatment for cancer of the esophagus, a disease, as ABC announced with barely restrained glee, "associated with smoking and drinking, habits Hitchens extolled as virtues."
The pathetic circumstances of Yvonne Hitchens’s last days have been told many times, and to many journalists. After a long, passionless marriage to a midranking officer in the Royal Navy, himself forcibly retired and working as a bookkeeper in a boys’ boarding school, Yvonne fell in love with a former Anglican priest, only to have both their lives end in a suicide pact far from home. When I say that those last days have never been told so movingly, or with such filial tenderness, as in the pages of Hitch-22, you may think I am hardly an impartial witness. Fair enough. But where Hitchens is concerned, neutrality is liable to be in short supply.
Described as "a memoir," this book is a full-frontal self-portrait, not an apologia; as the author would doubtless want us to note, "Never Apologize, Never Explain" was the title of Edmund Wilson’s 1944 New Yorker tribute to Evelyn Waugh. By turns beguiling, annoying, fascinating and infuriating, Hitch-22 catches the tone, if not the totality, of the man. We learn that the object of his earliest amorous attentions was a classmate named Guy, "a sort of strawberry blond, very slightly bow-legged, with a wicked smile that seemed to promise both innocence and experience." Later on, after his tastes turned more conventional, Hitchens allowed himself a "mildly enjoyable relapse" with "two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government." Of his two wives, however, he says almost nothing. Readers expecting a full account of our hero’s life and loves—or even of how he went about earning his trench coat—will be disappointed. So too will anyone expecting the kind of tough-minded dissection Hitchens practiced with such panache on the self-serving delusions of Henry Kissinger, Isaiah Berlin, Norman Podhoretz and Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Yet the book is a reminder that even on his worst days, Hitchens still writes well enough to be entertaining. At his best he is an unrivaled polemicist: a "strong writer" whose style leaves a lasting furrow in the reader’s mind and whose arguments, no matter how seemingly wrongheaded, are almost always worth taking seriously. Hitch-22 also has a built-in advantage: all self-portraits are illuminating, though not always in the way the artist intended. You would hardly guess from the brief, warm allusion to O’Brien as "a man of considerable mind" that while alive the Irish writer had been on the receiving end of a comprehensive kicking by Hitchens. Nor would Hitchens’s past relish in repeatedly putting the rhetorical boot into Podhoretz seem credible to anyone encountering the rare, anodyne invocations of the father of neoconservatism here. Hitchens’s new friends on the right might be tempted to trace his earlier lèse-majesté to the malign influence of his former friend, co-conspirator and fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn—himself a conspicuous absence in these pages. But before we examine what Hitchens leaves out, we might consider what he leaves in.
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England, on April 13, 1949. His father, Eric Hitchens, had come off a very good war, surviving the notoriously dangerous Murmansk run escorting convoys to Russia; his ship, the HMS Jamaica, fired the torpedoes that sank the German battleship Scharnhorst, one of the most celebrated Allied victories in the North Atlantic. The war had also brought Commander Hitchens together with Yvonne, a volunteer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. The Hitchenses were Baptists, which in British terms meant not officer material; the Lynns (Yvonne’s mother’s maiden name) had originally been Levins, from Poznan in Poland—not exactly officer material either. "The Commander," as Christopher and his brother, Peter, called their father, never knew of his wife’s exotic background; his sons found out only when Peter, engaged to a Jew, presented his prospective bride to his maternal grandmother. "On hearing the tidings," Christopher wrote in Grand Street in 1988, "I was pleased to find that I was pleased."
At the time of this discovery Hitchens was Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and a columnist for The Nation; he was also the co-editor, with Edward Said, of Blaming the Victims, a collection of essays devoted to the Palestinian question. It would thus be unfair and inaccurate to say that Hitchens’s coming out as "Jew-ish" (in Jonathan Miller’s cringe-inducing but in this case apt phrase) in any way licensed his criticisms of Israel, which long predated it. But it certainly didn’t hurt.
More pertinent is the light Yvonne’s secret sheds on her determination, as remembered by her older son, to ensure that "If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it." This was her response to the Commander’s observation that school fees were well beyond their means. Sacrifices were made, the requisite funds somehow found, and at the tender age of 8 Christopher was sent away to boarding school. Noblesse Oblige, Nancy Mitford’s guide to the folkways of the English aristocracy—and the book that, Hitchens writes, served as "my first introduction to the Mitford sisters, and their impossible glamour and charm"—declares "there is one method of effecting a change of voice" so that a non-upper-class speaker can convincingly adopt the accent of his betters: "send him first to a preparatory school, and then to a good public-school." What is meant by "public-school" is what we Americans would call a private high school or prep school. The Leys, in Cambridge, where Hitchens enjoyed his first triumphs in debate and took the essay prize several years running, was what boys who do go to a "good public-school" might patronizingly refer to as "MPS" (Minor Public School). Founded by nineteenth-century Methodists, The Leys isn’t even the most distinguished private school in Cambridge; it can, however, claim the distinction of having inspired Goodbye, Mr. Chips, whose author, James Hilton, was an Old Leysian, as was J.G. Ballard.
Such matters may seem trivial to us, but the gap between The Leys and a place like Eton is, to a certain kind of Englishman, nearly as precipitous as the chasm that separates MPS from the horrors of "MIF"—serving tea "Milk in First," which as Evelyn Waugh remarks in his contribution to Noblesse Oblige is "not normally done in the drawing room" and hence the mark of the servant class, not the swells. (Readers naïve enough to think that young Hitchens’s mastery of the Marxian dialectic would have armored his indifference should consult his 2008 Vanity Fair paean to "The Eton Empire," in which, having been taken for an Old Etonian by the writer Julian Barnes, he records a "flush of guilty pleasure.") George Orwell, who disagreed with Waugh on many topics, was unbendingly orthodox on the makings of "A Nice Cup of Tea," specifying "one should pour tea into the cup first." But then Orwell really was an Etonian.
And so Hitchens arrived at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1967 not with "the tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority" that Herbert Asquith said was the mark of a Balliol man but with chips on both shoulders. One was a burning sense of social inferiority. Yvonne had drummed into her son the importance of not sinking "one inch back down the social incline we had so arduously ascended. That way led to public or ‘council’ housing…to people who dropped the ‘H’ at the beginnings of words and used the word ‘toilet’ when they meant to go to the lavatory" (an index also much remarked on by Nancy Mitford). At the same time, and in what a more supple casuist might describe as "dialectical" counterpoise to this fierce, fear-driven social ambition, he adopted an equally ferocious commitment to radical politics, specifically Trotskyism, more specifically still the "International Socialist groupuscule."
Hitchens went to Oxford already a member of IS—a tiny sect that differed from other Trotskyist sects chiefly in its belief that the Soviet Union was a "state capitalist" society rather than, as Trotsky maintained in The Revolution Betrayed, a "degenerated workers’ state." From the outside it’s hard to see this dispute as anything more than the narcissism of small differences, but in an essay a few years ago devoted to the campaigning journalist and former IS comrade Paul Foot, Hitchens summed up the IS catechism:
That the capitalist system had only temporarily stabilised itself, and that the stabilisation was not by means of Keynesian welfarism but by reliance on a permanent war economy which proved the continuing irrationality of this mode of production. That the Soviet Union and its satellites were not the affirmation but the negation of socialism, resting on a system of ‘state capitalism’. That while the globe was ruled in this way, it was idle and romantic to expect anything of peasant and Third World revolutions.
This last reservation is crucial, since it allowed IS-ers to dismiss with contempt the romantic third-worldism of their comrades in the various solidarity campaigns of the time. IS’s goal was not so much to make the revolution as to be thoroughly wised-up about the conditions that made revolutionary change unlikely. "In the case of Vietnam," Hitchens recalled, "one should openly declare for the Vietcong while regretfully bearing in mind that their revolution could only produce an emaciated and regimented mutation of Stalinist autarchy. I found that I rather liked the pessoptimism of this, with its implication that one could with perfect honesty keep two sets of books." Might it be precisely this pre-emptive cynicism, a thickening of the skin to protect the political animal from the sting of anticipated defeat, that so formidably equips former Trotskyists for their eventual shuffle to the right?
But two sets of books? "I use the words ‘double life’ without any shame," Hitchens explains. "To be sure, I had hoped to re-make myself into a serious person and an ally of the working class and was educating myself with that in view. But I also wanted to see a bit of life and the world and to shed the carapace of a sexually inhibited schoolboy…. In any case, I was determined as far as I could to have it both ways."
At Oxford Hitchens proceeded to have it both ways with a vengeance, racing from a hard day’s picketing at "French and Collet’s non-union auto-parts factory" back to his room, "scrambling into a dinner jacket and addressing the Oxford Union."
It was through the Union, in fact, that I found myself becoming socially involved with an altogether different "set"…. I found myself…invited to dine in restaurants which featured tasseled menus and wine lists. This was wholly new to me and potentially very embarrassing, too, since I had virtually no money…. However without a word being actually spoken, it was subtly conveyed to me by my new friends that I wasn’t expected to reciprocate. I was, instead, expected to sing for my supper. This could have been corrupting, but I justified it to myself by saying that I was learning from, and perhaps even teaching, the enemy camp.
In the course of his pedagogical round Hitchens often crossed paths with another young man on the make: "I didn’t much like what little I knew of [Bill] Clinton, and this may have had something to do with my suspicion that he, too, was trying to have things both ways." Oxford also introduced Hitchens to his great friend James Fenton. The two men shared lodgings and a fondness for word games, and Hitchens later recruited the poet to contribute film reviews to the Socialist Worker. Fenton, in turn, introduced Hitchens to Fleet Street, the New Statesman and Martin Amis, who in all senses but the carnal serves as the love interest of these pages.
Hitchens was still foreign editor at the Statesman when he and I first met in 1979 at the suggestion of Amy Wilentz, then The Nation‘s assistant literary editor. The "fragrant and tempestuous" Amy, as Christopher invariably described her, isn’t in Hitch-22, but devoted readers may recognize her tag as a sign of the "Hitch-O-Matic" on cruise control, furnishing the deadline-harried hack with a fund of ready-made yet distinct verbiage: "louche," "farouche," "factor" (as in "The Fenton Factor"), "effusions," "cheap effusions," "I now find," "I should perhaps confess," "mark the sequel." Sometimes, as in "I choose to think," with its emphasis on the agency involved in cognition, Hitchensisms can even be said to serve a serious purpose. But there is something dispiriting about the way any woman who enters the narrative is assigned a diminishing epithet: "the beguiling Raimonda Tawil," "the lovely Barbara Kopec," "the fragrant and lofty" Antonia Phillips, even "the nasty but pulchritudinous" Angela Davis.
Susan Sontag is a significant exception, figuring in several episodes without benefit of dis-qualifying adjective, so I don’t think the issue here is simply misogyny. Privilege also influences the calculations. "An aristocracy," Henry James once observed, "is bad manners organized," and the organizing principle here seems to be one set of rules for Hitchens and his mates and another for the rest of us. Sontag is gently scolded for her failure to take a properly patriotic line after 9/11; her "co-thinkers" (to use the proper Hitchensism) on the "gutless Left" are damned for their "moral imbecility." The divide between those to whom anything is permitted and those of whom nothing much is expected reveals itself most starkly when Hitchens describes a visit to a Polynesian-themed massage parlor with Amis, gathering material for "what was to become his breakout novel Money." Hitchens compares the task of having to pretend sexual "interest in someone who was being paid…to feign a contemptuous interest in me" to the experience of being waterboarded, and then goes on to complain that the "avaricious bitch" named a price higher than his liking. Of course, "the cynical little witches at the ‘Tahitia’ were not to know that they were being conscripted into the service of literature."
While Hitchens and Amis share "a love whose month is ever May," mutual admiration apparently has its limits. I would have been perfectly happy not to know what Hitchens feels compelled to tell us about Gore Vidal’s favored mode of sexual gratification—an anecdote that also involves the British journalist and politician Tom Driberg, a man described both as a "legend on the journalistic and cultural left" and "the old cocksucker," whose sin, apart from developing "a fondness for me which I don’t think was especially sexual," was to have introduced Hitchens to Vidal. But by what possible standard of sexual candor or delicacy does Hitchens write that Fenton, for decades a happily out gay man, "was the only one of us who didn’t at the time have a female companion," remarking that Fenton later had "a walk-out with a Valkyrie look-alike"? Though we are assured that the regard of Hitchens for Amis "was the most heterosexual relationship that one young man could conceivably have with another," their friend Fenton’s actual affectional life is never acknowledged.
Until I read this memoir I had always registered Hitchens’s doubleness as evidence of the fine balance of his mind, the scrupulousness of his politics, which in those days and for years afterward could best be summed up as anti-imperialist. In a 1976 essay ostensibly about Guernica, he begins with a paradox: "There is the atrocity of war, and the atrocity in war." Then he dismantles it: "For the purpose of analyzing a fascist attack on democracy, the distinction is a phony one. The tactics derived from the strategy; the strategy was neither just a military operation nor simply a war crime. Like My Lai, it was both; and like My Lai, inevitably so." I can still remember the first time I noticed the Hitchens byline—on a dispatch from Northern Ireland in the New Statesman as remarkable for the absence of cant about either the IRA or the British government as for its style. Here was a reporter who refused to pander to his readers’ prejudices at the same time his indiscreet and densely (historically and literarily) allusive prose seemed to put a pleasingly high estimate on one’s intelligence. Here, crucially, was an avowedly left-wing writer who regarded it as no part of his job to accept or purvey bullshit from "our side," heeding instead Trotsky’s view that the "professional ethics of a correspondent" are best summed up in two words: "Don’t lie!"
This is harder than it looks, particularly when the people and causes to which you are committed are not only outgunned but routinely slandered and distorted by "responsible" journalism. Hitchens, however, made it look easy. Scathing about the Soviet Union—a habit that persisted long after he’d left the IS—and skeptical about Cuba, he was sympathetic to Czech and Polish dissidents (Jacek Kurón and Adam Michnik were favored sources years before Solidarnosc), outspoken about Israel and rude about the Contra frontman Arturo Cruz and a whole herd of sacred cows, from Mother Teresa to Elie Wiesel.
The rudeness mattered, too. When you’re surrounded by men and women whose career goal is to become stenographers to power, there is something not just subversive but downright liberating about refusing to bend the knee or play the toad. Like I.F. Stone, Hitchens in his prime was a master of the awkward question—though unlike Stone he seemed to relish the confrontation as much as, or more than, any information elicited thereby. Some portion of Hitchens’s celebrity probably stems from this evident willingness to "mix it up"—to give better than he got, even to be a bit thuggish at times. Why, as he often posed the question, should the devil get all the best tunes?
In recent years, however, his confrontational manner, once best described as an abrupt withdrawal of charm, has at times seemed positively crude. In May 2002 I attended a debate in London on the "war on terror." Though the audience was largely hostile, Hitchens, who appeared somewhat the worse for wear, more than held his own—until the Q&A period, when he repeatedly baited a dark-skinned questioner, referring to him as "the subcontinental gentleman" even after the man made it clear he’d been born in Britain.
Hitchens loved to tell the story of how Claud Cockburn challenged his colleagues at the British satirical weekly Private Eye to name "the most admired figure in the world." After some debate, the group settled on Albert Schweitzer. "Then that’s who we go after!" Cockburn replied. Yet when contrarianism becomes not just a habit but a method, the line between having no illusions and having no ideals can be tricky to discern. Hitchens’s brief, unhappy flirtation with David Irving—which waxed with the assurance in June 1996 that Irving was "not just a Fascist historian. He is also a great historian of Fascism" and waned five years later with the revelation that Irving had fabricated evidence, fiddled figures and favored Hitchens’s younger daughter with a recital of racist doggerel—is as good an object lesson as any in the perils of parlor iconoclasm. I don’t think Hitchens doubted the reality of Auschwitz even for a second. Rather, his eagerness to épater the literal-minded, spurred by an awareness of the ways the Holocaust has been exploited as a shield for Israeli intransigence, led him to neglect the signs that should have warned him off Irving.
Early in Hitch-22 the author describes his attachment to the "Labour movement"—not the British Labour Party, which he rightly saw as "boring and compromised" (and which hasn’t improved with age), but a mass movement that "contains within itself the germinal hopes of a better future…all the while uniting with similar movements in other countries to repudiate the narrow nationalisms and chauvinisms that lead to wars and partitions. To be enrolled in its ranks is to be a part of an alternative history as well as an alternative present and future." He goes on to say, in a voice notably devoid of irony, "for me, this ‘movement’ is everything."
And then it wasn’t. Hitchens cites the destruction of Sarajevo as the occasion of his first real break with the left, this movement that had meant "everything" to him. However self-flattering, the claim has merit. Certainly many here at The Nation were dubious about the prospects of an American intervention in Bosnia. But others took a different view—not least Hitchens, though he recognized that "troops are always sent with a ‘humanitarian’ and peace-keeping purpose. That was how the US Marines had gotten to the Philippines and Cuba, and it was also the pretext for western intervention in the Congo. As an excuse, it ranks only slightly higher than the degrading idea that intervention is necessary ‘to protect our nationals.’" Hitch-22 also offers support for those who point to the 1989 Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie as the moment when Hitchens began to re-examine his commitments. The fatwa threw one of his closest friends upon the tender mercies of the British security services and into the rhetorical embrace of Susan Sontag, while some old comrades signally failed to rally round.
The Rushdie Affair may have been Hitchens’s finest hour; certainly he responded with alacrity and courage, though he mars the effect slightly in Hitch-22 by falsely including former New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal among those who "turned their ire on Salman and not on Khomeini." I was at the fraught February 1989 PEN meeting in New York at which Hitchens’s defense of his friend drew tumultuous applause, and was slightly surprised to be standing next to Rosenthal, a favorite left-wing punching bag. Rosenthal did attack Hitchens, though not Rushdie, in his infamous "On My Mind" column the next day; at the time I was more struck by the handsome way Rosenthal, no friend of the Palestinian cause, paid tribute to "the particular bravery of Prof. Edward W. Said…a learned and eloquent spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization" for his remarks at the Rushdie meeting. Rereading the column today, I wondered what Hitchens would make of Rosenthal’s suggestion that "the West, for the sake of its moral health, should declare an economic blockade of Iran, enforced by air and sea. The West hesitates because it might cost industries like arms and oil some money." Or of a certain Washington editor of Harper’s who in 1986 wrote (and this is what so provoked Rosenthal), "The word "terrorist" is not—like "communist" or "fascist"—being abused. It is itself an abuse. It disguises reality and impoverishes language and makes a banality out of the discussion of war and revolution and politics. It’s the perfect instrument for the cheapening of public opinion and for the intimidation of dissent."
But quoting Hitchens against himself is too easy to offer much sport. From his 1976 New Statesman valentine to Saddam Hussein ("the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser"); to his denunciation of Labour leader Michael Foot ("Some say that his present attachment to the most flagrant conservatism is the result of a ‘mellowing’ process. Others talk darkly of a ‘sell-out’"); to his view that "intellectually contemptible" though neoconservatives may be, "fluent twisters like [Jeane] Kirkpatrick" have their uses ("a certain vital patina has thus been provided to this government of Christian bigots and thwarted militarists by an ostensibly secular, internationalist political tendency"), Hitchens is almost invariably the most eloquent witness against his present self.
Except when he isn’t. Hitchens cites his early enthusiasm for the Iraqi Baathists in a long chapter purporting to explain how he’d "almost completely reversed" his opinion. Since "the attempt to change political Washington’s mind about Saddam Hussein has been the subject of so much lurid invention…I really think it is time that I named myself, along with the other conspirators involved." And so we are introduced to Kanan Makiya, author of Republic of Fear, a superb résumé of Saddam’s manifold cruelties; the diplomat Peter Galbraith, who exposed Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds in Halabja; the left-wing Labour MP Ann Clwyd, who fought to get Saddam indicted for war crimes; and Rolf Ekeus, a UN arms inspector who’d been "politically dedicated to every conceivable good cause from multilateral disarmament to the abolition of apartheid." In other words, an entirely and impeccably "progressive" bunch. If he can’t quite make the same claim for Ahmad Chalabi, he nonetheless assures us, "If I mentioned or inquired about any Arab or Kurdish or Iranian intellectual, [Chalabi] seemed to have read their most recent book the day before. When it came to Marxism, he knew all the Iraqi Communists I had ever met, and even when it came to Trotskyism, he actually knew the meaning of the phrase ‘permanent revolution’—this is an acid test, by the way." Nice to know, just as it’s nice to know that on their second meeting Hitchens and Chalabi "spent a good deal of time discussing the Bloomsbury Group and the shadings of difference between Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes," thus providing conclusive proof that you can, indeed, bullshit a bullshitter.
But where this touching tale turns false is with Hitchens’s claim that it was this happy band, rather than any "neoconservative cabal," who turned the trick. One day Hitchens receives a call from the Pentagon inviting him to meet with Paul Wolfowitz, who confides his dream of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. That very night, Hitchens and Makiya attend a private dinner in Cleveland Park to launch the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, and Wolfowitz—small world!—is the after-dinner speaker. "He made a very forceful and lucid presentation, without notes…. We had heard the news that Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa would adorn the letterhead of the Committee."
It might have spoiled the effect if Hitchens had mentioned that the committee, and quite likely the dinner, had actually been organized by Randy Scheunemann, a former aide to Trent Lott who later signed on as a foreign policy adviser to John McCain. Or that the committee’s chair was Bruce Jackson, former VP of strategy for Lockheed Martin, who’d drafted the foreign policy plank for the Republican platform in 2000, while other luminaries included Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle and Gary Schmitt, chair of the neo-imperialist Project for the New American Century. Jeane Kirkpatrick also "adorned the letterhead," but this time the "intellectual patina" was supplied by Bernard Lewis (who’d once been demolished by Hitchens and Edward Said in a debate on the causes of terrorism) and Leon Wieseltier (who’d served as Lewis’s second in that debate). Yet none of these people are mentioned in Hitchens’s forty-nine-page account of his misadventures in Mesopotamia.
Hitchens’s description of his rupture with Said is equally self-serving and, to adopt Hitchens’s locution, "exceptionally mendacious." Hitchens accuses Said of writing that "the looting and destruction of the exhibits in the Iraq National Museum had…been a deliberate piece of United States vandalism, perpetrated in order to shear the Iraqi people of their cultural patrimony and demonstrate to them their new servitude." Here’s what Said wrote, in April 2003: "To the dreadful scenes of looting and burning which in the end are the occupying power’s responsibility, Rumsfeld managed to put himself in a class beyond even Hulagu [the thirteenth-century conqueror of Baghdad]. ‘Freedom is untidy,’ he said on one occasion, and ‘stuff happens’ on another. Remorse or sorrow were nowhere in evidence." In September of that year, with his old friend on his deathbed, Hitchens described Said’s introduction to a new edition of Orientalism as "rescued from sheer vulgarity only by its incoherence." As Ben Sonnenberg, who knew both of them well, told me, "Edward kept forgiving Christopher everything, right to the end."
Which brings us back, I think, to bookkeeping. Hitchens may have started two sets of books as a way of squaring his social ambition with his revolutionary ideals, but the risk of doubleness is that it can become an end in itself, a stratagem divorced from any pressing expedient. Maintaining the pretense over a lifetime must be exhausting as well as exhilarating. As he wrote about his idol George Orwell, "There’s something self-destructive as well as self-fulfilling in helping to create an atmosphere which you deplore."
It’s the strain of keeping his double entries in balance (rather than, as Sonnenberg thought, "an uncritical admiration for George Orwell") that I suspect accounts for the apparent suddenness and evident ferocity of Hitchens’s transformation. How else are we to understand his eagerness to treat old collaborators with contempt at the same time as he depicts new comrades, some of them with operational responsibility for thousands of civilian deaths, as splendid fellows, connoisseurs of art and irony? Hitchens’s evident disdain toward his former attachments brings to mind Isaac Deutscher’s description—once quoted by Hitchens—of an ex-Communist who, having disembarked from the locomotive of history, is "haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society," and who "tries to suppress his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of extraordinary certitude and frank aggressiveness."
Unlike, for example, Edward Said, who couldn’t decide to stop being Palestinian, Hitchens chose his commitments—which is true for many of us. Such freedom, however, imposes an obligation toward those who lack the luxury of choice. Hitchens, naturally, puts it very well, writing about Nadine Gordimer’s novel A Guest of Honor, whose central character "sees his beloved revolution besmirched and yet does not feel tempted—entitled might be a better word—to ditch his principles….There is no sparing of ‘progressive’ illusions," yet "you end by feeling that the attachment to principle was right the first time and cannot be, as it were, retrospectively abolished by the calamitous cynicism that only idealists have the power to unleash." No matter what he wrote when he resigned from The Nation in October 2002, Hitchens must know that exasperation with your readers isn’t a badge of oppression. But then, I don’t believe he left the left, or The Nation, for political reasons. I think he just outgrew them.
Not over Iraq, 9/11, Sarajevo or Salman Rushdie. Because even when the movement was "everything," that was never more than half the story. There was always—always—another column of figures, charting the rise of Christopher Hitchens. At Oxford he was once asked to "arrange a gentle punting trip for Sir Max Mallowan and Lady Mallowan" (known to posterity as Agatha Christie). Invited to their home afterward, he suddenly felt himself "congeal with unease" owing to "the anti-Jewish flavor of the talk." He tells us "one must never just sit there," and opposition to anti-Semitism was central to his politics decades before he discovered any personal stake in the fate of the Jews, yet Hitchens doesn’t claim to have interrupted the Mallowans. He does, however, boast elsewhere in the book, "I was one of the very few socialists to support Mrs. Thatcher" during the Falklands War—though that, too, must have been very discreet, since he didn’t express his support in either The Nation or New Statesman. He tells us "my old Oxford comrade Andrew Cockburn" witnessed his taking the oath of American citizenship in a ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial arranged by Michael Chertoff, architect of the Patriot Act, in April 2007; but he doesn’t mention Cockburn’s report, published that same month, saying that Hitchens’s friend Rolf Ekeus had been just as convinced as Hans Blix that Saddam had destroyed all of his WMDs. The best thing about keeping two set of books—personal and political—is that when the columns are added together the balance is always in your favor. Which makes changing sides as easy as changing trains.
But there is also a price to pay, and Hitchens has paid it. In The Balkan Wars Trotsky writes, "I was not prepared to play the role of ‘singer in the camp’ of the…warriors." Hitchens’s disgust with Saddam was honorable, but posterity is unlikely to deal kindly with his willingness to be a singer in the camp of George W. Bush. Most of all, Hitchens has to live with the knowledge that young men went into battle with his words on their lips—and not all of them came back.
If Hitchens has lately seemed to waste his great gifts on projects like getting his "back, sack and crack" waxed for the entertainment of Vanity Fair, that has been our loss as well as his. In 1995 he wrote, "I had the privilege of meeting Justice Richard Goldstone, the man who has done more than perhaps any other to save the remnants of South Africa’s legal system from degradation." Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza in 2008–09, provoked from Hitchens only a single, feeble "plague on both your houses" column in Slate. In 2010, when Goldstone was vilified for his damning report on Israel’s conduct in Gaza, Hitchens had nothing to say.
To measure his loss, and ours, look at Prepared for the Worst, a collection of his early work published in 1988, or his superb, and sadly still pertinent, book on Cyprus from 1984. Or read his Nation column from May 2001 on Bob Kerrey’s lasting culpability for a massacre in Vietnam. Hitchens was teaching at the New School at the time, making Kerrey, he wrote, "my president"; yet the piece, incandescent with moral outrage, is never callous or crude. "If you look back on the essays that made his name," Hitchens writes about Noam Chomsky, "you will find a polemical talent well worth mourning, and a feeling for justice that ought not to have gone rancid and resentful." I wish Hitchens a speedy recovery, a long life and as much celebrity as he wants. But it’s the Christopher with a feeling for justice I mourn. I miss him very much.