In high school I was, like many incipient writers, too high-minded and self-involved to take any serious notice of the world as described by journalists. Wars, elections, and revolutions were trivial events beside the development of literature and my part within it. Later, as a college freshman, when I first discovered politics, it was on a summit of vertiginous abstraction. Thoreau or Adorno inspired my first doubts about our political system and I couldn’t be bothered by the newspaper, partly because of the language in which it was written. To be expected to read such shit seemed to me part of the evil of late capitalism—a part that I understood much better than the economics or foreign policy part. So when I finally began to learn something about politics as a daily reality, it was crucial to have before me the example of someone like Christopher Hitchens, assuming that there was anyone like him. Throughout the ’90s, Hitchens’s bi-weekly column in the Nation seemed to offer proof that you didn’t need to opt between literature and eloquence and sensibility, on the one hand, and current events and polemical opinion on the other; and for better or worse this demonstration has probably affected the course of my life as few other literary examples have. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined becoming “political” if this meant ceasing to care about written language most of all, and the figure of Hitchens suggested that no such choice was necessary.
I was the intern assigned, at my request, to Hitchens by the Nation in the winter and spring of 1998, incidentally the period when, thanks to Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, the word “intern” acquired the salacious implication it’s never lost since. Fact-checking Hitchens’s articles put in me in a position to confirm his prodigious memory. Talking on the phone vindicated the easy abundance of his wit and charm. And the one time we met up for “a drink,” as they say, of course we had too many to count.
“An orange juice,” I said to Hitchens in the Old Town Bar, where when I arrived he’d been amiably baiting an occasional cartoonist for the New Republic. “I’m just getting over the flu.”
“Fuck off!” he replied—he later wrote a paean to the expression for Slate—and ordered me a Johnny Walker Black.
I remember we talked about the Maoist turn of the American New Left at the end of the ’60s, the persistent necessity of nuclear disarmament, my personal background—about which he showed a genuine curiosity—and his inability to master foreign languages or write fiction, shortcomings he seemed to rue without regretting them, if that makes any sense.
I emerged from the Old Town Bar in a barely ambulatory state, Hitchens and I embraced each other on a street corner like parting lovers, and we never saw each other again. I asked him once if I could use his name in a pitch I wrote as a young freelancer on the make, and he said by all means: “May you flourish!”
From the perspective of a young writer, Hitchens’s defection from the left at the end of 2001—I can remember where I was standing in my kitchen when I read it—was in some sense liberating, since it saved us from having to admire or identify with him too much. It was a strange defection, when Hitchens never exactly repudiated the concerns that had exercised him during the previous decades. He had despised Clinton, for example, in large part because of the latter’s elimination of “welfare as we know it,” and yet Hitchens seemed to forget about American poverty altogether in the next and last decade of his life.
It’s been said many times that Hitchens tended to “personalize” politics, to think in terms of character and friendship rather than structure and movements. That seems true, but also incomplete. My sense of him as a writer was that, like a poet, he loved certain rhetorical and musical effects much more than others, and he wanted from his journalistic occasions above all opportunities to produce those cherished effects. Some poets go for the seductive, the meditative, or the playful. Others, like Shakespeare or Yeats in many famous passages, seem happiest when they are ranting, mocking, cursing. Hitchens seems to me to have been one of those poets. He had a certain grandly vituperative music in his head, and that music only fit certain moods as applied to certain subjects.
Still, I don’t know why he couldn’t have spent the Bush years using his talent for contumely against Bush and his Democratic accomplices rather than by treating the Iraq war as a morality play. You can allege cynical motives for Hitchens’s apostasy, or romantic ones, but it’s impossible to say. And Hitchens couldn’t illuminate the issue himself, since for all his tremendous intelligence he was not an introspective man. In fact his heedless, spontaneous way of being himself made for a lot of his charm.
Because Hitchens was such an industrious and distinctive journalist, I will miss him, as many people will, in the most literal way, as if a bird that had visited a tree outside my window for years and years should one day never come back. Who did I read more regularly in my adult life? Not even any actual poets. But another part of the sadness of Hitchens’s death is that it makes the loss of him for the left, which occurred a decade ago now, absolute and final. The most energetic and often the most brilliant polemicist in the language lavished his last ten years on attacking religious belief and advocating and defending a war that was at best an awful tragedy. The believers are still with us, as they will presumably be until human societies make a life without God bearable to more people. The war has just officially ended, having killed 4,500 Americans and 100,000 or twice that many Iraqis. Meanwhile, the same decade since September 11 seems to have witnessed the climacteric for both American empire and global capitalism. These were the years when a capitalist crisis to rival those of the 1870’s and 1930s seized the world, and when a chance to head off catastrophic global warming was passed by. These were the years when the decline of American democracy began to look irreversible, and when the American economy approached a zero-sum game rigged in favor of the rich. What should Hitchens have said about these developments? It would be fatuous to presume to know. But clearly the answer, to be pronounced more in sorrow than in anger, is: something more than he did.