Hitchens: The Heretic

A review of Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview (Melville House Publishing, 2017).

In Stephen Fry’s introduction to Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview, there is an aside which, although we may simply put it down to bad writing, reminds the reader of how Hitchens is often characterised (and idolised) by his fans. How would you address the late journalist and political man of letters? ‘The Hitch’ or ‘Christopher,’ Fry advises us: ‘but never, unless you wanted a verbal slap that could cause tears to spring to your eyes, never “Chris”’. Now, what would a verbal slap look like? It would not, I’m sure you’ll agree, befit a man whom Fry tells us possessed ‘originality and power’ in mind and language.

Yet, understandably, Fry has mistaken the character of Christopher Hitchens for the caricature made of him by YouTube video uploaders, who title republishings of his television appearances and public debates as if he were not a writer but a wrestler: ‘Hitchens DESTROYS Muslim opponent’ – ’20 times Hitchens went in BEAST MODE’ – ‘Hitchens ANNHILATES a feminist college girl’. My examples are fabricated in order to spare hurt feelings, but I can find plenty of real examples. Hitchens, it is fair to say, was combative in a public forum, and positively enjoyed making fools suffer; but he wasn’t a wife-beater. Indeed, this collection of interviews, at its best, gives us Hitchens the dialectician; Hitchens the heretic.

One of the best pieces reproduced in this collection is a Guardian interview with Hitchens from 2010. At the time, he had been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and only had a year to live. The interviewer, Andrew Anthony, bypasses talk of ‘provocateur and contrarian’ and identifies instead an author ‘incurably in love with the dialectic’. Unlike the Hitchens of the ‘BEAST MODE’, slapping opponents with verbs, this Hitchens has no wish to convert (or annihilate) his enemies, but rather use them to shape and refine his own positions. Indeed, this approach puts him at odds with his New Atheist ally Richard Dawkins in an interview published here, who would persuade every believer on earth to give up his faith. In his interview with Richard Dawkins for the New Statesman, this difference creates a faintly palpable tension between them.

In whatever cause Hitchens chose, his dialectical acrobatics would always lead him to a heresy.

At its worst, this collection reproduces in transcript form various television appearances. One wonders whether it is necessary for the reader to be subjected to these formalities:

Hitchens: Nice to be back

Stewart: Welcome to the show.

Hitchens: It’s very nice for you to have me back.

I watched the original broadcast, and these words were mumbled quickly and drowned out by the music played to introduce Jon Stewart’s guest. The poor reader, however, is not spared the ocular exertions required to get through such passages.

Elsewhere in the book, there are errors and typos of the kind that make you wonder if the transcriptions were written by a robot: ‘How affective are these Sunday morning talk shows for getting your message out?’ asks a C-SPAN interviewer; or, that is, he probably didn’t. In one genuinely fascinating interview with Hitchens about his formative years, the transcriber has put down ‘Goethe Program’ when it meant ‘Gotha Program’, which, ironically, Hitchens lists as something the modern left-wing student has neglected to learn about in favour of identity politics. It isn’t too late for the left-wing student to learn about the Gotha Program, but he won’t hear about it from this book.

If there be any praise, and if there be any virtue of this collection, it is that it should make the reader go back to Hitchens’s writing. The Internet doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon; YouTube is here to stay. Yet if Hitchens is to have any lasting power, it won’t be within the ephemeral realm of memes and news cycles. It will instead be with the common reader.

The banality of cancer, as Andrew Anthony points out, lacked dialectical substance, and grounded Hitchens, who worked with the ‘elevated registers of the epic and the ironic’. The work of the grounded Hitchens was collected in Mortality; the last book he arranged for publication before his death in 2011. It was a collection of essays Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair: he writes of the suffering and humiliations he undergoes in ‘Tumourtown’; the tortures of chemo-therapy; the prayers of the faithful that he should be cured, convert at last, or go to hell; the cliches of consolation; and, finally, the disease, wasting away his great faculties.

In the last of the essays in that collection, Hitchens reflects on the waterboarding he voluntarily subjected himself to as a means of arguing that it is, contrary to the government line, a form of torture. He then notices the black metallic cross fixed opposite his hospital bed; one that looms over the patient, whichever way his bed happens to be facing. Hitchens is reminded that, during the Spanish Inquisition, the ‘condemned’ were forced to witness the same cross as they slowly perished.

In the final lines of the essays (perhaps the last he ever wrote), Hitchens shames the religious order of this hospital for its role in the Inquisition. Yet what he writes, here, is a rage against the dying of the light and registers a note of regret — even ambivalence — about one of his own allegiances:

The operators of that famous hospital should be ashamed of the historic role played by their order in the appalling legalization and application of torture, and I have the same right if not duty to be equally ashamed of the official policy of torture adopted by a government whose citizenship papers I had only recently taken out.

There is a barely detectable moment of vulnerability here. The absence of vulnerability in his writing was not one of his strengths, as Stephen Fry and the YouTubers would argue, but one of his weaknesses. If the common reader is to rediscover his life and thought in years to come, now that the subjects of his polemics are receding further into the past, we ought to look again at his corpus and and redefine what is worth preserving. A study of his writing, then, becomes ever more necessary. But the student of Hitchens won’t find much to grapple with in this rather clumsy, ill-hashed collection.

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