Welcome to a new series in Partisan, "Last Night a Critic Changed My Life". Echoing a long-running feature in Mojo Magazine, which looks at life-changing records, this series will focus on moments when writers encountered the work of a critic and found themselves transformed. In our third instalment, David Biespiel has a drink with Christopher Hitchens.
ON NOVEMBER 13, 2001, four weeks after President George W. Bush launched Operation Enduring Freedom with the United Kingdom to overthrow the Taliban of Afghanistan—an excursion that, along with the cataclysmal invasion of Iraq two years later, should have been called, Operation Endless War—Christopher Hitchens took to his Fighting Words column in Slate to write about the poets of the Great War:
Even as [Rudyard] Kipling was repressing his doubts about the nature of the war and the death of his only son [John Kipling, who went missing in one of the earliest battles of World War I], there was a sort of revolution of poets at the other end of the country. In a mental hospital in Scotland were confined, because of their opposition to the war and their “battle fatigue,” men of the stature of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Just contrast what Kipling and Owen wrote. I’ll first cite Kipling:
Our statecraft, our learning,
Delivered them bound to the pit and alive to the burning
Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honor.
Not since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her!
… But who shall return us our children?
Wilfred Owen decided to rework the ancient Bible story of the binding and killing of Isaac by his father Abraham. If you recall, Abraham listened to his god’s instructions and carried them out until the last moment, whereupon an angel called him out of heaven, telling him to “offer the ram of pride instead” of Isaac. In Owen’s poem, the action follows this form until the angel makes an appearance. At this point, old man Abraham turns remorseless:
But the old man would not so, but slew his son.
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
Reading them today, it is surprising how closely the two poems converge. In both cases, fathers grieve in different ways over the slaughter of their sons. They also brood over the paternal responsibility for the bloodletting. This introduces elements of ambiguity into the reflection.
There is much to admire in this sharp, elegant passage. First, it represents an ideal kind of literary thinking and economical explication, but that’s the least of it. What’s radiant here is how Hitchens assumes that history, literature, and politics are distinct and also indivisible. He bridges his historical chronicle with literary experience, a comprehension that asserts—here, as he does elsewhere—that individuals who write literature are just that, individuals. They are people like each of us who live lives, have loves, bear and even perhaps bury children. They are people who write, in this case, poetry for other living human beings based on lived experiences. How often we forget this truth—or ignore it.
I remember reading this passage during the difficult autumn of 2001 and feeling grateful for it. I remember appreciating the ways Hitchens makes it evident that a critic not only must have knowledge and passion about literature and literary history, but also—more important—must possess insight and, if possible, empathy and wisdom about human experience. The experience may touch on war and peace, sure, but it must also attest to the fact that literature exists inside our complex human history. By that, I mean, literature is fashioned by a single, heroic, and flawed writer. And any assessment of that writer is fashioned by a single, heroic, and flawed critic.
That was certainly not the first time reading Christopher Hitchens had changed my life. I had been reading Hitchens for nearly twenty years by then. His Minority Report column in The Nation, which he wrote from 1985-2002, as well as his essays and reviews in the Atlantic, Slate, Vanity Fair, the Times, The Guardian, and elsewhere, changed—well, if not changed, then affirmed and ratified—my political and literary identity. Hitchens’ polished, prolific output impressed all of us who read him with regularity. As Richard Lingeman, his longtime editor at The Nation, puts it:
His columns seemed to arrive fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Actually, like most good writing, I suspect they did not come easily. I do know that when he first started working out of The Nation’s New York office, circa 1978, before moving to Washington, someone witnessed him in the throes of columnizing and was awed at the way he would start typing, rip out the page, ball it up, throw it on the floor and insert a new sheet, rip that out—and so on. By the time he had finished, the floor of his office was littered with balls of wadded paper…Yet let it be said: Christopher was the complete professional, never missing a deadline and nearly always spot-on for length, though he sporadically grumbled that this particular overlong column must not be cut because It Was Highly Important.
From this remembrance I take another lesson from Hitchens, namely, that a writer writes. Period. End stop. A writer writes.
For sure, every two weeks, especially in my twenties, when my issue of The Nation arrived folded up in the flat mailbox of my Adams Morgan apartment in Washington, DC, I was devouring lessons from Hitchens, for whom contrarian thinking was not so much style as lifestyle. First and foremost I was learning how to think as a liberal—not be a liberal, I was already that, but to think as one who values, above other political ideas, the notion of human dignity and human liberty crafted through the experiences of reason, judgment, and creative imagination. I learned from Hitchens the meaning of being a humanist in a global economy that struggled with geopolitical—and literary—implications. For in both style and substance Hitchens’ literary criticism is as sharp as his political criticism. Above all I admired him that. Here he is writing about the publication of Philip Larkin’s letters, all the while debating his own interpretation of what he’s reading and thinking with a winking allusion to W. H. Auden as well:
On an initial scrutiny, Letters to Monica struck me as rather thickening the squalid atmosphere of some of the preceding accounts. But so unalleviated—I almost wrote artless—is its tone that the material takes on a certain integrity and consistency. Not unlike Larkin’s paradoxical infatuation with jazz, it helps furnish a key to his muse. The key in both cases — which is why artless would be such a mistake—is that about suffering, he was seldom wrong. The dismal paltriness of the suffering doesn’t really qualify this verdict.
If Hitchens was a gentleman and a scholar as many of his friends who loved him attest, well, then he was a fabulously bawdy gentleman and scholar. He continues…
I now wish I had understood enough to push my earlier comparison a little further. For there is another aspect of 'Englishness,' netted in discrepant ways by Harold Pinter and Monty Python, in which both men had a share. This is the world of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene, and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism. In Orwell’s early fiction, all this is most graphically distilled in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but it is an essential element of the texture of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and was quarried from the “down and out” journalism of which he produced so much. A neglected aspect of the general misery, but very central once you come to notice it, is this: we are in a mean and chilly and cheerless place, where it is extraordinarily difficult to have sex, let alone to feel yourself in love. Orwell’s best shorthand for it was “the W.C. and dirty-handkerchief side of life.”… Larkin’s own summary was, if anything, even more dank: he once described the sexual act as a futile attempt to get 'someone else to blow your own nose for you.'
Hitchens seemed not only to have read but also to have memorized most of everything too. His capacity to invest literary knowledge into his political invectives is unparalleled. And vice versa. I adore that his political and literary imaginations are both radical and transatlantic.
Like his hero George Orwell, Hitchens was an anti-fascist, and this was another lesson, namely, that a critic must value the imagination as it relates to life. In the defense of personal freedom, Hitchen clashed with individuals as much as he did ideas. Sometimes the individual he clashed with was himself—or the ideas under scrutiny were his. With his pen he could assassinate and extol. This, too, has been a touchstone lesson for me. Hitchens always reminds you that a critic, as Iago says, is nothing if not critical. Near the end of his life—he died in 2011, more on that below—he was best known, I think, for his promotion of anti-theism. His cable TV appearances and amphitheater debates against religion and God, whom he frequently characterized as a kind of celestial North Korean dictator, are as ubiquitous now on YouTube as cat videos. I have sympathies with his point of view, but it’s not what draws me to his writing. As of yet, his taking a Swiffer to centuries of religious perfidy has not changed my life.
I was drawn first to Hitchens' polemics against fascism and those who subvert the democratic process or commit atrocities—like Henry Kissinger, whom he fingered for war crimes during the Vietnam War, and the hypocritical Mother Theresa. When he wrote in The Guardian on September 21, 2001, that the “bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face [and that what] they abominate about ‘the West,' to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state,” I agreed completely.
But Hitchens lost his way when he threw his support behind the Iraq War and the Bush administration’s lies. So for a time, to maintain some allegiance to him, I focused on his literary reviews. And yet I didn’t think he’d lost his way over the war in Iraq in the ways you might think. I thought he was mistaken about the Iraq invasion, but correct about an aversion to totalitarian rule, which Saddam's regime represented. Throughout the Iraq War period, and then after he dissolved his marriage to The Nation and took up with Slate, Hitchens sustained a shrewd constancy. And here is something about his critical values I hold dear. Principle mattered. He was always an “Orwellian”, in the sense of someone who opposes despotic systems that control thoughts and behaviour. (Though doesn’t it gall you, as it does me, that George Orwell’s name is attached to the very totalitarianism he despised?)
Like his political writing, Hitchens’ book reviews are a form of confrontation. Here he is sizing up Charles Dickens:
Genuine radicals and reformers in mid-19th-century England were to be defined above all as sympathizers with the American Revolution and with the cause of the Union in the Civil War. Dickens was scornful of the first and hostile to the second. His exiguous chapter on slavery in American Notes was lazily annexed word-for-word from a famous abolitionist pamphlet of the day, and employed chiefly to discredit the whole American idea. But when it came to a fight on the question, he was on balance sympathetic to the Confederate states, which he had never visited, and made remarks about Negroes that might have shocked even the pathologically racist Carlyle. I had not understood, before Slater’s explanation, that the full title, American Notes for General Circulation, was a laborious pun on the supposed bankruptcy of the whole “currency” of the United States...
Even when Hitchens contradicts himself, which he did often, he owns up to the fact and tries to make something of it. That, to my mind, is the apex of honest criticism, literary or otherwise.
The last time I wept—truly wept, wept and lamented, and then languished and dissolved into a blue funk—was December 15, 2011, after news arrived from my hometown of Houston that Christopher Hitchens had died of esophageal cancer at the age of 62. I was living here in Portland, but I remember reflecting on the coincidence that my childhood home in Houston’s Meyerland neighborhood was but five miles from Hitchens’ deathbed. Truth is, from about the end of the Reagan administration until the beginning of the Clinton administration, Hitchens and I lived around the corner from each other in Washington, DC. I recognized him from time to time in our Adams Morgan neighborhood, but we never met. I do have one memory of spotting Hitchens in a little Jamaican joint near 18th and Columbia. I was sitting at one end of the bar in a late winter afternoon dusk when—donning a leather jacket, wearing unkempt slacks and dress shirt, untucked as you’d expect, hair askew, smoking a cigarette—the man himself wandered in alone. He took a stool at the opposite end of the bar. I want to claim we were equally nonchalant. By that I mean I tried not to let him notice that I knew who he was. My nonchalantness, I’m sure, was entirely too chalant, if you know what I mean. If the encounter happened now, I would surely buy him a drink. Back then—I was 25, maybe 26, well…what would I have said anyway? “Hitch”—how I would have loved to have called him Hitch, as his friends did—“Hitch, you've taught me how to think and I’m trying not to fuck it up.” It would have been the truth. I said nothing however. We both put our heads into our Washington Posts and drank our beers in peace. For the record, this is the one and only time I had a drink with Christopher Hitchens.
DAVID BIESPIEL's latest book is A Long High Whistle: Selected Columns on Poetry (2015). He writes about poetry for The Rumpus.
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