Monday, December 19, 2011

Nobody Wrestles With Somebody

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the 'transcendent' and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don't be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.
Ever since I first saw the news that Christopher Hitchens had finally succumbed to the esophageal cancer that had been killing him slowly for a couple years, I have been trying to decide if I should say anything about him. That, of course, led to the next question: If so, then, what?

I remember the first time I saw Christopher Hitchens on television. It was about six months after I had read a column of his in The Nation, before I subscribed. The image has been burned on my brain, and the image I last saw - gaunt, unshaven, the dual horrors of cancer and its current "treatment" rendering him nearly unrecognizable - seem like book ends on a life that ended too soon. He seemed a journalist out of some old central casting director's idea of "Journalist". British, he would have looked better dressed if he didn't also have that central casting aura of dishevelment about him. His speech was ever so slightly slurred, indicating a familiarity with John Barleycorn that was once a requirement of the species. When I discovered he also chain-smoked, I thought to myself, "Of course he does."

He was also, dare I say it, not-quite-beautiful in a way few men ever achieve. Even the slight swelling he started to take on as years of dissipation caught up with him but before the cancer took its unholy share seemed to add a cherubic quality. It was easy to look at him and think, "Man, this guy is too good looking."

Reading Hitchens was a joy. Only one other writer has filled me with the kind of thrill I felt when I read Hitchens, and Larry McMurtry is a very different kind of person, and writer, from Christopher Hitchens. Which indicated, at best, a catholicity of taste on my part that each of the others might appreciate. In any event, reading Hitchens was a joy, for me at any rate, because he read as if writing was, for him, effortless. After seeing him on television a few times - once with his brother Peter, as different a person as could be imagined, I might add - I would read Hitchens' columns in The Nation, stories in Vanity Fair, and the occasional book (I only own one, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a magnificent tome for any maturing international lawyer wanting to make a name for herself) and in my head I could see him at a desk. The desk sat in front of a window. On his right was an overflowing ashtray with one burning and several smoldering cigarettes. On his left was a glass running with condensation. On the other side of the glass was a bottle of gin, three-quarters empty (I think because Hitchens was British, I pictured gin; I have no idea what he quaffed). He would sit there, his fingers flying over the keys of an old electric typewriter, the stacks of copy piling up like the butts in the ashtray. Whisked off to an editor, they would need no work, no tinkering. Not even a spell-checker, and certainly not a fact-checker! His writing, for me, was so beautiful, I could actually hear his voice when I read, something no other author has done for me.

It has been enough, for now, to mourn the loss of a kind of craftsmanship that is too rare these days. Not that I really believe my romantic image of Hitchens effortlessly pouring copy out his typewriter; a style as signature as his only comes from years of work, and hours of writing, then erasing, then writing again, then pulling the paper out, swearing as you crinkle it in to a ball and throw it away. The consonance of his written work with his speaking voice meant, for me, that it was possible to say something, say it beautifully, and say it as yourself. If I took anything from Hitchens, it was this possibility. Not so much to write, but to speak, using words, as an individual whose voice was one's own.

In the days since, I have been reading quite a lot of encomiums, eulogies, and malogies for Hitchens. From Scott McLemee in The American Prospect, to George Scialabba in n+1, to Katha Pollitt and D. D. Guttenplan in The Nation, to Alex Pareene at Salon there has been, as Scott wrote, a bit of grave-pissing. At least from those who once counted Hitchens as a fellow-leftist, a companion in the struggle against mendacity and simple-mindedness, his betrayal of these same values over the last decade of his life left many angry and confused. It led, for at least the first 48 hours after his death, to a bit too much wistfulness.

Charlie Pierce, lately of Esquire, calls out one of Hitchens' late-life fellow travelers, the very kind of mediocrity he spent the better part of his previous life lampooning and impaling with elegance. It is fair to say that, while it would be nice to believe Hitchens privately held someone like Ross Douthat in contempt, I think we reward ourselves a bit too much with that thought. The fact is, I think, Hitchens came to believe he really was as marvelous as his admirers told him he was, and wished to spend his time with as many such persons as possible.

There is also the class angle. I should say that this was not an aspect of the complexity I even considered until I read one or another comment on Facebook over the weekend. Then, from his haughty disdain of the Clintons to his lip-curling at various religious enthusiasms to his frequency at high-powered Capital parties made a great deal more sense. Which is not to say his former Trostkyite sympathies were not genuine; the British upper middle class provided a plethora of communists of various stripes, including Kim Philby, who spent the last years of his life enjoying Stalin's hospitality.

The epigram that begins this post, borrowed from a Facebook friend, is classic Hitchens. I believe it is either a marvelous summary of, or perhaps even a quote from, Letters to a Young Contrarian. There is nothing in the quote itself I find horrible or awful. Some of it I find laudable. One sentence, however, sticks out like a sore thumb, at least to this more than casual admirer of Hitchens: "[P]refer dignity for yourself and others."

Dignity for others? Absolutely. Part of our duty to others who are not granted dignity is to work to ensure it is recognized by others. Yet, this often entails stripping ourselves of dignity in the process. At the very least, what passes for being dignified among those who attend Georgetown and Cleveland Park parties, can call intimates of Presidents by their first names, and ensures that even rumpled, their clothes have the right labels.

At the end of the day, I believe Hitchens faced a choice: carry himself with dignity, or struggle against the forces of brutality and ignorance that may well strip him of that dignity. It makes me sad to believe, even for a moment, that he believed such a choice existed. Yet, the evidence of the previous decade, the shifting sands of his excuses for an allegiance with the social, cultural, and political forces that worked against everything he held near and dear, have led me to the conclusion that his dignity was far more important to him than his friendships. He sold, not his soul, but something far larger and more important: his passion. He sold it to the real barbarians who threatened the west. He did so because he mistook bonhomie for dignity. For that, even more than his occasional well-written screeds against the religious faith that feeds me and millions of others around the world, I am still angry with Hitchens. More than angry, however, I grieve for the loss of so fine a mind, so sharp a pen, and so passionate a fighter to the forces of destruction he labored so long to defeat.

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