I admire him even more having read his memoir.
As one of the most prolific and provocative essayists of the last thirty-odd years, Hitchens seemed to be everywhere–his journalist’s beat the places where injustice, cruelty, and war loomed most horribly. From Belfast during the heights of the “Troubles,” to Argentina during the period of the “disappeared,” to Poland at the beginnings of the “Solidarity” movement, to Zimbabwe, Mogadishu, Romania, Cyprus, Iraq, and Iran, Hitchens brought his sensible eye and exquisite writing style to reveal to the world the frequent cruelty and inanity of world politics, exposing the greed and stupidity of many of the political leaders who claim to have the “peoples’ interests” at heart.
It is that principled, observant eye and the exquisite sense of writing that defines Hitchens memoir–for his biography is one of two sides: the principled, political advocate and the Oxford educated, man of letters. And the people he encounters come from both of these worlds as well.
On one hand, he is with a young Bill Clinton at Oxford when he infamously “did not inhale.” (Hitchens says that is probably correct because Clinton was terribly allergic to smoke. However, he adds, he certainly consumed more than his share of the “brownies.”) He meets Margaret Thatcher when she is made head of the Tory party. (He immediately got in a disagreement with her and she smacked his bottom with rolled up program to terminate the discussion.) He meets the vile General Videla of Argentina; the future first elected president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani; the Cypriot president, Archbishop Makarios. He debates Western pundits and arranges lectures for some of the world’s most unsung champions of the people.
On the other hand, his closest friends are major lights of the British literary world: the novelists, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, and the poet James Fenton. His accounts of their times together rival any of the apocryphal stories of the Algonquin Table. (My favorite line is the critic’s Clive James’ review of Pumping Iron, the documentary on body-building that introduced Arnold Schwarzneggger to the world. James said that Schwarzenegger looked like “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts.”)
But what stands out in Hitch-22 is not the list of notables with whom Hitchens associated or fought against. It is the dedication to principle with which he lived his life. As a young man he was a dedicated member of the International Socialist party and later became a dedicated member of the Labour Party. Both of these he jettisoned when he believed that the party had strayed from its principles–and he continually called them on it.
As he traveled from hot-spot to hot-spot, he began to trust the leaders of all these revolutionary movements less and less. Here’s what he says:
I eventually came to appreciate a feature of the situation that since helped me to understand similar obduracy in Lebanon, Gaza, Cyprus, and several other spots. The local leadership that are generated by the “troubles” in such places do not want there to be a solution. A solution would mean that they were no longer deferred to by visiting UN or American mediators, no longer invited to ritzy high-profile international conferences, no longer treated with deference by the mass media, and no longer able to make a second living by smuggling and protection-racketeering.
A bit cynical to be sure, but this is from a man who has entered the belly of the beast and refuses to swallow the muck he sees there.
Always an iconoclast, Hitchens attacks those he believes deserve it, no matter what their status or reputation. For example, early on, he admits that he felt separated from the rest of the world in November, 1963 for not mourning sufficiently the assassination of the American president. The sainted Jack Kennedy he condemns as a “high risk narcissist” for the game of chicken that he played with Russia over the Cuba missile crisis. (This event very likely sowed his interest in geopolitics.) He very famously debunked Mother Theresa and was called in by the Vatican to present a case against her when she was up for canonization. (This used to be called “The Devil’s Advocate,” a position that the Vatican eliminated by the time Hitchens was called in. He jokingly said that he must then be advocating for the devil, pro bono.)
Like any good thinker, Hitchens is not afraid to change his mind, to reconsider his position, when presented by new facts.
More than anything else, it is this life as a DELIBERATE THINKING HUMAN that impresses me more than anything else in his story. Hitchens considered the world around him with open, unprejudiced eyes, tried to make sense of it, and tried to expose what he saw as nonsense.
Hitchens died 15, December 2011, after a struggle with esophagal cancer. His writings live on. I have two collections of his essays on hold at our public library. I can’t wait to tackle them.