In his final interview, conducted with Richard Dawkins and published in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman (and a worldwide internet sensation), Christopher Hitchens, who died from cancer on 15 December 2011 at the age of 62, spoke of how the one consistency for him, in his four-decade career as a writer, was in being against the totalitarian, on the left and on the right. “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.” And the ultimate totalitarian was God, against whom (or the notion of whom) he was raging until the end.
Hitchens himself was many things: a polemicist, reporter, author, rhetorician, militant atheist, drinker, name-dropper and raconteur. He was also an absolutist. He liked a clear, defined target against which to take aim and fire; he knew what he wanted to write against and he did so with all the power of his formidable erudition and articulacy. He was an accomplished and prolific writer, but an even better speaker: his perfect sentences cascaded and tumbled, unstoppably. He was one of our greatest contemporary debaters, taking on all-comers on all subjects, except sport, in which he professed to have no interest at all.
Born in 1949, he remained a recognisable late-1960s archetype, radicalised by the countercultural spirit of the turbulent era of the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. (He reminded me of Philip Roth’s David Kepesh: celebrity journalist, upmarket talk-show star, libertine, hyperconfident scourge of bourgeois respectability and conventional behaviour.) The son of a Tory naval officer and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a bizarre love pact, Hitchens was educated at the Leys School in Cambridge and at Oxford, where he joined the far-left, anti-Stalinist sect, the International Socialists, a forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, agitating at demonstrations by day and romping with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night.
He remained a member until the late 1970s and continued, long after that, to defend the Old Man, as he and the comrades called Trotsky. If there was a parliamentary road to socialism, he didn’t seem much interested in it in those early days, though towards the end of his life he claimed that the British Labour Party was “my party”.
After university, Hitchens worked for the New Statesman under the editorships of Anthony Howard and Bruce Page. He was operating then very much in the shadows cast by his luminously gifted friends and fellow NS staffers Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and James Fenton. Other friends, including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, were also beginning to establish themselves as unusually ambitious writers of fiction. Yet there was a feeling among that group of clever young men – with their smart book chat and bolshie political opinions – that the Hitch, as they called him, was a powerful intellect and journalist but a mediocre stylist. “To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the 20th century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work,” Amis once wrote of Saul Bellow in what served as a self-description and statement of intent. Amis had his own exalted style from the beginning; Hitchens, certain in his opinions but less so as a stylist, took much longer to find his.
Amis, in Koba the Dread, his 2002 book about Stalin and the British left’s historic reluctance to condemn the crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellites, suggests that his old friend began to improve and grow as a writer, his prose gaining in “burnish and authority”, only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been ideologically and stylistically constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line, even at the expense of truth-telling.
My view is that Hitchens was liberated as a political writer long before the fall of the Berlin Wall – through moving, in his early thirties, first to New York and then to Washington, DC. There, after some early struggles, he found his voice and signature style, contributing to Harper’s and the Nation and, later, as a well-paid deluxe contrarian, to Vanity Fair and the Atlantic.
I once had a drink with him (everyone seems to have had a drink with Hitchens) in the mid-1990s after we were introduced by the then Conservative MP George Walden. We were in the basement premises of Auberon Waugh’s old Academy Club in Soho, central London, and the air was rancid with cigarette smoke. He sat opposite me at a table, chain-smoking and drinking whisky, and he spoke in long, rolling sentences as he recited from memory large chunks of W H Auden’s poetry. I felt battered by his erudition – can you keep up! Hitchens exuded what I thought then was a superb worldliness. His voice was deep and absurdly suave – and, in manner and attitude, he closely resembled his old friend Amis, both more than half in love with their own cleverness and fluency. He was engaging, yet I found his confidence disturbing: he knew what he knew and no one could persuade him otherwise.
An absence of doubt defines his later work. His weaknesses are overstatement, especially when writing about what he despises (clericalism, God, pious moralising of all kinds), self-righteous indignation (“shameful” and “shame”, employed accusatorially, are favoured words in his lexicon), narcissism, and failure to acknowledge or to accept when he is wrong. His redeeming virtues are his sardonic wit, polymathic range, good literary style and his fearlessness.
Until the beginning of this century, Hitchens played the role of Keith Richards to Amis’s Mick Jagger. He was the more dissolute, the heavier drinker and lesser writer, very much the junior partner in an ostentatious double act. (Their relationship was a kind of unconsummated marriage, Amis said recently, though Hitch would have happily consummated it at one stage.) Amis was a multimillionaire literary superstar, “the most influential writer of his generation”, as he liked to put it. He wrote in the High Style, after Bellow, and declared war on cliché. Hitchens, by contrast, wrote journalism and quick-fire columns and was not averse to using ready-made formulation. Even in his final interview, with Dawkins, he described himself as a “jobbing hack”. “If I was strident, it doesn’t matter . . . I bang my drum.”
After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Hitchens remade himself as a belligerent supporter, in his writings and through public debates and his many appearances on American television, of the so-called war on terror. He supported the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the arguments over dodgy dossiers and unilateral declarations of war, he sided with George W Bush, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Tony Blair rather than with his old friends at the Nation.
At last, he had found his grand anti-totalitarian cause. A robust Manichaean, he denounced “Islamofascism”, a catch-all term that was so loose, generalised and opaque in its application as to be meaningless. The Taliban, Iranian Shia theocrats, Sunni al-Qaeda operatives, British Muslim jihadists, Hamas, Hezbollah – in spite of their different origins and sociopolitical circumstances, they were all “Islamofascists”.
Hitchens believed his mission was comparable to that of Orwell and those who presciently warned of, and wrote against, the dangers of appeasing both communist and fascist totalitarianism in the 1930s. He became a hero to neoconservatives and the pro-war left, the leader of the pack.
How will he be remembered? In many ways the comparisons made between him and Orwell, to whom he returned again and again, as evangelical Christians return to Jesus (“What would George do?”), are false. He had no equivalent to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Homage to Catalonia. He was not a philosopher and made no original contribution to intellectual thought. His anti-religious tract God Is Not Great is elegant but derivative. His polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals, such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, feel already dated, stranded in place and time.
Ultimately, I suspect, he will be remembered more for his prodigious output and for his swaggering, rhetorical style as a speaker – as well as for his lifestyle: the louche cosmopolitan and gadfly; the itinerant, sardonic man of letters and indefatigable raconteur.
In the introduction to his final book, the essay collection Arguably, Hitchens wrote that since being told in 2010 that he had as little as another year to live, his articles had been written with “full consciousness that they might be my very last”. This was, he wrote: “Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another . . . it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending.”
How to live
One is reminded here of Duke Vincentio’s remark in Measure for Measure when he urges Claudio, who has been tricked into believing that he is about to be executed:
Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.
What the duke means is that through acceptance of and resignation to death we may find a kind of peace and a deeper knowledge of what it means to live, or to have lived, well.
To sue to live, I find I seek to die;
And, seeking death, find life: let it come on.
The culture no longer throws up a Christopher Hitchens. Today, he has no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters; there are followers and disciples but no heir apparent.
A J Liebling used to say that: “I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better.” He could have been describing Hitchens, whom death may have silenced but whose essays and books will continue to be read and who, through the internet and YouTube, will continue to be watched and listened to, as he went about his business, provoking, challenging, amusing and stridently engaging with the ways of the world, always taking a position, never giving ground. The Hitch, the only one.
This is an edited version of articles published on newstatesman.com and the Daily Beast and in the Financial Times