The One and Only Hitch
Christopher Hitchens died ten years ago today. John Rodden recalls his friend’s rhetorical and literary gifts.
Still impossible for me—and for tens or even hundreds of thousands of others who loved and/or lacerated “the Hitch”—to believe that he is gone. Ten years ago today. Even those who disagreed with him, even those who derided him, even those who damned him: allies and adversaries alike valued having him around. He always had something provocative—and usually something worthwhile, even valuable, even mind-blowing—to say on just about anything.
Yes, “the time is out of joint.” Can a decade have already disappeared without his books and essays and columns captivating the commentariat, without his interviews and speeches and sound bites resounding through the airwaves? Inconceivable. Just watching his standout performances on YouTube, I shake my head, unable to give up the ghost: O cursed spite, that I was never born to set it right.
Stricken by esophageal cancer—“nothing less than a divine retribution against that blasphemous throat,” one detractor tweeted/greeted the news with schadenfreude—Hitchens died in his polemical prime. It gives pause to think that if he had lived, he would today be no more than seventy-one years old.
How much we have missed in this last, lost decade! Imagine “the Hitch” skewering the Donald for yet another Trumpertantrum, imagine him lambasting Jeff Bezos and Big Tech, imagine him mocking the craven American exit from Afghanistan, imagine him dissecting the politically correct shibboleths of the professoriate, imagine him daring and defying “cancel culture” to silence him…. Yes, imagine his delicious dismissals and superb send-ups of the ideologues and hypocrites on all sides. January 6? The 1619 Project? The anti-vaxxers? “Follow the science”? What verdicts he would have pronounced or published, I do not know. I only know that they would have been worth reading and worth listening to—and worth pondering. I only know that he would not have spared the Left, and he would not have excused the Right.
Yes, the loss seems enormous …
I met Hitchens twenty years ago this upcoming spring. In late April 2002, we lunched together in Washington before appearing as the featured guests in an hour-long PBS documentary on George Orwell, just as attention to Orwell’s life and legacy was building in the American media with the approach of the centennial of his birth the following year. Mantle-snatching and grave-robbing were well under way as rival camps vied to present the author of 1984—and of “doublethink," “thoughtcrime,” Thought Police, and Newspeak—as a critic (or champion) of George W. Bush’s foreign policy: “If Orwell were alive today, what would he say about the war in Afghanistan?” Soon the question would shift to Iraq; but the likelihood of a second invasion and occupation was not yet on the horizon.
Like me, Hitchens was finishing a book devoted to Orwell (Why Orwell Matters, 2002). He had just published books on two of his bêtes noires, “William Jefferson Clinton” (No One Left to Lie To, 1999) and Henry Kissinger (The Trial of Henry Kissinger, 2001). At lunch he spoke scornfully about them both—and with immense esteem and surprising warmth for Evelyn Waugh, who had no large following among atheists and leftists, let alone erstwhile Trotskyists still fond of the Old Man, to put it mildly.
As we entered the studio for the taping, Hitchens was welcomed by the producer, who had been worrying that he might be late. I quickly began to doubt my value to the programmers when, as Hitchens removed his jacket, an assistant producer instructed me to take it to the hallway cloakroom. A tad sheepishly, I started to comply, whereupon Hitchens cast a backward glance and quizzical look at the producer as a couple of assistant producers escorted him to the makeup room. Over his shoulder, he gestured in my direction and remarked, “I just lunched with him. Isn’t he supposed to be on the show with us?”
“Oh,” said the producer. It dawned on him that I might not be Hitchens’ valet. Picking up a piece of paper, he asked, “Oh, are you Rodden?”
“Oh, okay. Hey, great, we were hoping you would come.” Whereupon an intern suddenly appeared, newly deputized to transport Hitchens’ jacket to the cloakroom.
That was just my first of several lessons that Hitchens was the star attraction. After twenty years as a Nation columnist and regular guest on all the talk shows in Washington—where he had settled in 1981 after a decade of Fleet Street journalism—he was by now well known in political circles. Though not yet the figure who would soon skyrocket to fame and become a major cultural celebrity in the wake of his controversial public break with the Nation over the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, he was the most visible, informed, loquacious, and in-demand pundit around.
Still, perhaps my obscurity—not to say diffidence—worked to my advantage that afternoon. A friendly magazine editor who had occasionally published our work had arranged the lunch, and he contacted me the next day. “Hitchens rang me up and said that you and I had played him a mean trick.”
“Yes, apparently you said next to nothing at lunch, never mentioned Orwell, and then ‘came out like a tiger’ on the set.”
“Yes. He was quite annoyed.”
“Hitchens was just back from Afghanistan, so I asked him at lunch what he had seen, and then he talked about Waugh, whose work he knows much better than I do.”
“All I heard from him was, ‘He lulled me, it was a Trojan horse maneuver.’”
“I hope I didn’t offend him.”
“Offend him?!! Are you crazy?! Whatever you did, it was genius! He thinks you beat him, and nobody ever bests him. Plus it was on Orwell, his hero!”
“Believe me, if the show had covered any topic besides Orwell, I would have looked like a tongue-tied ignoramus next to him.”
“If so, that was another masterstroke. If I were you, I’d never appear on a one-on-one show with him again. You’ll hold his esteem forever.”
The next decade witnessed several meetings, phone calls, and email exchanges with “Christopher”—without much ado we had glided into a first-name acquaintance—that included visiting his Palo Alto residence, interviewing him at his Washington apartment, and dining with his friends. Was it the PBS show? I’ll never know. My intuition is that a tacit yet deep fraternal bond had somehow been established, as fellow literary siblings—senior and junior—of our shared intellectual big brother.
As it turned out, however—whether by accident or the “genius” of Providence—we never did make another joint appearance on any broadcast. George Orwell would, however, bring us together soon again. Not long after the PBS show—which the producer proudly informed me had won a national documentary award—I learned that some colleagues in the Boston area were sponsoring an international conference for the George Orwell Centennial. Scheduled for May 2003, a month before Orwell’s birthday, the conference would be an extravaganza: more than two thousand paying guests and an A-list of invited panelists, including intellectuals from every major European country, plus Susan Sontag, Daniel Bell, Robert Conquest, David Rieff, and others. The New York Times, the BBC, and other major news organizations were making arrangements to cover it. Asked to deliver the keynote address, I had devoted it many a midnight lucubration.
A couple of days before the conference opened, I received a cordial call from the head organizer. “John, just wanted to check in with you. Hope you are doing well.”
“Yes, thanks for asking.”
“Well, listen. Out of the blue, I just heard from Christopher Hitchens. He’s come back early from the Middle East and wants to come to the conference. Isn’t that fantastic?!”
“Definitely. That will attract even more publicity and more attendees. Your provost and the grants organizations will be delighted.”
“Right. Exactly. I’m glad you agree. And so I’m sure you’ll also understand that, when he mentioned he’d be happy to deliver the keynote, I told him ‘yes.’”
“Eh … well, yes, I need to give him a central role in order to justify his fee to the administration. I didn’t think you’d mind. Don’t worry. We’ll add you to a good panel and you can still deliver your talk. We’d just need to cut it in half, maybe two-thirds … ”
More than a bit miffed, I sat in the audience before the keynote with a decided “show-me” attitude. Knowing Christopher, he would probably be well lubricated on arrival and wing it.
Within moments, I was converted. Witty, eloquent, incisive, puckish, cogent, trenchant, and more: It was my first experience of witnessing a “live” Hitchens performance in the form of a one-hour, full-length address. It was also my first and lasting reminder to myself: the Hitch is better than anything you, John, ever witnessed on two lengthy tours of the leading British debating unions as a college student—and far better than anything you could have done, on Orwell or any other topic. (Memo to JGR: Do not appear on another show with him.)
The setting for the keynote was the Wellesley College chapel, the largest space available on campus for such a big audience. This was four years before the publication of his bestselling atheistic manifesto, God Is Not Great, but Hitchens did not hesitate to punctuate his address with scathing remarks about organized religion, including approving nods to Orwell’s atheism and a regretful aside that George had not survived to join him in exposing the fraudulence of that “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf”—the very phrase that he had used in his stringent obituary of Mother Teresa in 1997—a remark that occasioned a momentary collective gasp followed by raucous laughter when the Hitch paused and twinkled a grin. He meant it. Yet I am not sure that our audience—even his fellow secularists among us—fully realized it.
Later that evening, at the reception, I congratulated him on the boffo keynote.
“Come now, John, I really owe you an apology.” He did not pause. “Is it true that I bumped you? You were scheduled to give that talk. No?”
“Well, yes, but …”
“Rather presumptuous of all of us, I’d say. You should have given that keynote. It's commonly acknowledged that you are the leading scholar of Orwell.” I was overcome. Still, I somehow had the presence of mind to reply, with no hesitation and complete sincerity, “No, you should have given that talk. It's commonly acknowledged that you are the leading successor to Orwell.”
And I rather like the fact that he did not dispute that contention. Instead, there was again that winning smile and twinkle in his eye.
Christopher Hitchens may have been the greatest overall combination of speaker and writer in the English language of our time. The two skills are so different that it is rare indeed to encounter a master of both.
He may have been a better speaker than a writer. True, his mature literary and personal essays rival those of any littérateur in recent decades on either side of the Atlantic. Yet any reader who makes a careful study of his work will note a leap in quality by the late 1980s and 1990s, from the hard-hitting, argumentative political and intellectual journalist at the New Statesman to the livelier, more nuanced, more engaging man of letters who emerged within a decade of his American arrival.
He really came into his own in the late 1990s, when he began to pull out all the stops in his takedowns of Clinton and Kissinger, and even more so by the time that I got to know him in the run-up to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and thereafter in his aggressive role as God’s leading antagonist—that is, the leading public spokesman for atheism. For the last decade of his life, his writing was the equal of his speaking.
Anyone who imagines that he was a “natural” speaker, however, is sadly mistaken. His closest friend, Martin Amis, once compared him to Demosthenes. What Amis did not say is that, like the Athenian orator-statesman who overcame a speech disorder by filling his mouth with pebbles and declaiming on the beach before the raging sea until he became a master of elocution, so too did Hitchens suffer and surmount a speech impediment: his stammer. Largely unknown to the public is the fact that he had been shy and prone to stutter when he was a young schoolboy. He rarely discussed it, and it goes unmentioned in his autobiography and other memoirs. (Remarkably enough, in a lengthy January 2011 review of The King’s Speech—the award-winning film of how the future King George VI overcame his debilitating stammer—Hitchens delivers an absorbing historical and social critique without ever bringing up George’s stammer—or his own.)
The child is father to the man. Young Christopher showed his mettle by choosing, with a determination equal to Demosthenes—and an even greater boldness—to “cure” his stammer by “forcing myself to speak in public,” as he once vouchsafed in an interview.
And so he did—and we all know the spectacular result. Like the classical wounded healer, he became strongest in the “damaged” place. He became a rhetorician, both on the page and at the podium, of peerless eloquence. He became a wordsmith who could frame an argument and turn a phrase better than any essayist of his generation, perhaps any essayist since Orwell.
And like Eric Blair, who grew into the pseudonymous George Orwell, Hitchens grew into the persona that he projected: the Hitch. Just as “George Orwell” was the greatest character that Eric Blair ever created, so too was the invention of “the Hitch” the grandest feat that Christopher ever pulled off.
How will he be remembered? It may seem rather surprising that his reputation has not tumbled in the last decade. Doesn’t that happen with practically all writers—and particularly journalists/intellectuals? Gone and near forgotten?
Just the reverse. He exited the international stage in a blaze of glory, still at the absolute peak of his powers, and it is those magnificent performances in which he proudly and defiantly brandished his scarlet letter—A(theist)—that circulate everywhere today, in videos and podcasts and sound bites galore.
I do not think Hitchens will come to be regarded as the successor to George Orwell. Nor, except in some general sense, will he be much remembered as a political journalist. No, I believe he will be remembered as a speaker and rhetorician, especially for his attacks on faith and religious belief. These oratorical performances will also fix him in the public memory as a gadfly, an indefatigable raconteur, a sardonic and wide-ranging man of letters who could sprinkle every observation with an appropriate anecdote or literary flourish.
That is to say, he will be remembered because of the videos, of which there are now hundreds of segments uploaded to YouTube. He will continue to be watched and heard, reverberating throughout cyberspace, provoking, challenging, and stridently engaging the world, always taking a position, never giving ground.
Almost all the writings that Christopher most valued may go down the memory hole and turn to dust. Yet the “pixelated” Hitch with his gleaming insolence, charming insouciance, obstreperous audacity, and nearby glass of “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative” (Johnnie Walker Black Label) will flicker forever before us. Our adamantly unSaint(ed) Christopher: like Milton’s Satan, more “alive” than God Himself, as if a tongue on hellfire. And no less defiant, even if he has now discovered, wherever he is, that God Is Great—in fact, Greater.
And so the man who insistently denied the possibility of immortality, railing against it with his dying breaths in his farewell memoir Mortality, gains immortality in a (digital) form that the stammering schoolboy could never have even imagined.
That’s the Hitch.
John G. Rodden has published several books about the work and heritage of George Orwell, including George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy (2020).
Image: CC-BY-2.0, Wikimedia Commons. Originally posted to Flickr by ensceptico at https://www.flickr.com/photos/54613395@N00/404073505
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