Hitch Reconsidered

by Richard Kostelanetz (March 2012)

Saddened to read of the passing of Christopher Hitchens, I think of him as less of a truth-teller in the tradition of George Orwell, a hero we share, than a controversialist who espoused audacious opinions in a fluent style. Since he didn’t seek to persuade as much as show off his highly literate, moderately contrarian sensibility, the magazines publishing him exploited this flair. As a result, readers liked him when they found his strong opinions agreeable; disliked him when disagreeable. To put it differently, different people were enthusiastic about him, as well as disappointed in him, at different times.

Just as he didn’t instruct or reveal, so he didn’t persuade, instead preaching to those already predisposed, although his admiring audiences changed over time. He wasn’t really a threat to anyone except Henry Kissinger when his back was turned. Indicatively perhaps, it took Hitch at least a decade of controversial opinions, perhaps two, to get noticed outside the universe of opinion magazines.

Recalling Kenneth Burke telling me that alcohol fueled William Faulkner’s less coherent style, as well as Thomas Wolfe’s excesses, may I suggest that some of Hitch’s capricious audacity seemed to depend upon his unashamed taste for liquid stimulants? Indicatively, he preferred to write late at night, which is to say not before drinking but after. (My hunch is that journalist colleagues similarly imbibing didn’t want to mention this.) Though I saw him lecture with a glass of colored liquid in his hand, I don’t recall seeing him with the cigarette that he declared likewise essential to his writing, probably contributing to the esophageal cancer that killed him at 62, only a few weeks after Steve Jobs, who was likewise deleteriously careless about his cancer.

Admiring a certain Hitch essay on George Orwell, perhaps in the literary magazine Grand Street, I later read Hitch’s Why Orwell Matters (2003) and, surprisingly, found it inferior to the essay. Indeed, what was missing from Hitch’s book was my favorite passage accounting for how Orwell’s personal experience informed his understanding of Soviet totalitarianism that he didn’t know first hand. This default made me wonder if Hitch, perhaps writing hastily, hadn’t bothered to read himself, incredible though that seems. Though I’d later read other Hitch’s essays here and there, I could never purchase another Hitch book.

If only because I think religious issues are open questions that will never be resolved short of the Apocalypse, I couldn’t read his advocacy of atheism, which was typically admired by those already converted, perhaps as another Hitch exercise in showing off. Once most of us get to a certain age, we learn there are no sure answers to the God question and so doubt anyone who claims them. I found his turns on Judaism and Israel less objectionable or persuasive than peculiar, perhaps flamboyantly peculiar.

While for his generosity in contributing to venues both large and small he deserved the celebrity rewarded to him, I can’t think of any valuable new truth or revelation connected to his name and, since nothing new will come from him, so doubt if he’ll be remembered a decade from now. (If anyone thinks otherwise, may I ask for what?) His predecessor in this respect, if not perhaps his model, was the British gadfly Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), who was likewise beloved at various times by both left and right. It was incidentally Muggeridge, no one else, who popularized in Britain the myth of Mother Teresa, whom Hitch deflated.

What is not yet fully understood is how and why several Oxbridge-educated British political commentators roughly of his generation, Andrew Sullivan and Alexander Cockburn being two others, found in America opportunities for careers apparently unavailable in their home country. Indicatively, publishers here didn’t blacklist Hitch to the degree that George Orwell was in England or other native-born radical American writers have been here.

I assume that Hitch has interpersonal skills that permitted him to appear in East Coast publications both left and right, libertarian and conservative, as well as those devoid of explicit politics. Perhaps his professional generosity along with his growing charisma accounted for why most of the initial admiring obituaries came from colleagues who had actually worked with him; I did not. Indeed, I doubt if I was ever in the same room with him. My voice isn’t loud enough for what the British quaintly call “pubs.”

Richard Kostelanetz survives in New York, where he was born, unemployed and thus overworked.

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