It’s Been a Lot of Fun

David Runciman

  • Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens
    Atlantic, 435 pp, £20.00, June 2010, ISBN 978 1 84354 921 5

In his book about religion, Peter Hitchens has a lot more to say about his brother Christopher than Christopher has to say about Peter in his book about himself.[*] ‘Some brothers get on,’ Peter writes mournfully, ‘some do not. We were the sort that just didn’t.’ He continues:

At one stage – I was about nine, he nearly 12 – my poor gentle father actually persuaded us to sign a peace treaty in the hope of halting our feud. I can still picture this doomed pact in its red frame, briefly hanging on the wall. To my shame, I was the one who repudiated it, ripped it from its frame and angrily erased my signature, before recommencing hostilities. In a way, the treaty has remained broken ever since.

Yet five decades on, things are starting to thaw. Peter and Christopher were brought together on a platform in 2008 to debate the latter’s book against God (God Is Not Great), and discovered that neither of them had the stomach for the vituperation and mutual hostility their audience had been anticipating. A few days earlier, Christopher had cooked Peter supper in Washington, ‘a domesticated action so unexpected that I still haven’t got over it … If he is going to take up roasting legs of lamb at this stage of his life, then what else might be possible?’ Christopher, it seems, no longer makes Peter angry. He just makes him a little sad. What he is sad about is Christopher’s inability to see that his militant atheism is just an extension of his earlier Trotskyism. Christopher, Peter thinks, is still hankering for a world in which evil is vanquished and all the mistakes of the past can be eradicated. What he can’t see is that this wishful thinking is precisely the kind of self-delusion that he takes to be characteristic of religion. That’s because it is a kind of religion. In his yearning for certainty, Christopher is merely replicating the intolerance and taste for indoctrination that he professes to despise among the priesthood.

This idea that the new wave of furious proselytising for atheism (which includes not just Hitchens but people like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett) is just another surrogate religion is a familiar one. It’s what the God-botherers always say about the God-bashers. But in the case of Christopher Hitchens it’s not entirely convincing. The blustering, obscene, insatiable, limitlessly restless author of Hitch-22 doesn’t come across as much of a priest manqué, not even a whisky priest. What he most resembles, to an almost uncanny degree, is a particular kind of political romantic, as described by Carl Schmitt in his 1919 book Political Romanticism. Schmitt was ostensibly writing about German romanticism at the turn of the 19th century (the intellectual movement that flourished between Rousseau and Hegel) but his real targets were the revolutionary romantics of his own time, including two of Hitchens’s Trotskyite heroes, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. For Schmitt, political romantics are driven not by the quest for pseudo-religious certainty, but by the search for excitement, for the romance of what he calls ‘the occasion’. They want something, anything, to happen, so that they can feel themselves to be at the heart of things. As a result, political romantics often lead complicated double lives, moving between different versions of themselves, experimenting with alternative personae. ‘Reversing one’s position between several realities and playing them off against one another belongs to the nature of the romantic situation,’ Schmitt writes. Political romantics are ostensibly self-sufficient yet also have a desperate need for human comradeship. ‘In every romantic we can find examples of anarchistic self-confidence as well as an excessive need for sociability. He is just as easily moved by altruistic feelings, by pity and sympathy, as by presumptuous snobbery.’ Romantics loathe abuses of power, but invariably end up worshipping power itself, sometimes indiscriminately: ‘The caliph of Baghdad is no less romantic than the patriarch of Jerusalem. Here everything can be substituted for everything else.’ Above all, in place of God they substitute themselves. ‘As long as the romantic believed he was himself the transcendental ego, he did not have to be troubled by the question of the true cause: he was himself the creator of the world in which he lived.’

All of this sounds a lot like Christopher Hitchens. In Hitch-22 he makes much of his ability to move between different worlds, as when an undergraduate at Oxford, where he was sometimes Chris, the socialist agitator on the picket lines, and sometimes Christopher, dinner-jacketed sampler of the high life. In both roles he fitted right in: he was, in his own words, John Bunyan’s ‘Mr Facing-both-ways’. He is intensely, almost insanely sociable. He discovered at an early age that being able to perform as a public speaker meant that ‘you need never dine or sleep alone.’ Early on, he mainly chose to sleep with boys (and throughout his life he seems to have preferred to dine with men). He discovered girls relatively late, while at Oxford, but eventually found one who seemed to fit the bill:

I was actually a bit more confident on the platform than I was in the sack, and I can remember losing my virginity – a bit later than most of my peers, I suspect – with a girl who, inviting me to tea at one of the then-segregated female colleges, allowed me to notice that her walls were covered with photographs taken of me by an unseen cameraman who’d followed my public career. Since apparently I could do no wrong with this young lady …

Losing your virginity to a woman who has already constructed a shrine in your honour: what could be more transcendentally egotistical than that?

Schmitt says that one of the characteristics of political romantics is that they lack a gift for real music, and try instead to develop the rhythms of their life ‘out of historical, philosophical, theological or some other scientific material, an intellectual music for a political programme’. Hitchens makes much of the fact that he is not at all musical, and lacks confidence in his aesthetic judgments (something that attracts him to his great friend Martin Amis is that Amis has no problem telling him what sorts of book he should like). But Hitchens has complete confidence in his political judgments, which are robust, intensely felt and invariably propped up by vast amounts of selective reading. He has been, in his own words, ‘a consistent anti-totalitarian’, though he admits that this means ‘one might have to expose oneself to steadily mounting contradictions.’ He has had to adjust himself, intellectually and geographically, to his growing taste for the United States and his sense of its power to do good in the world. He moved to the US – first to New York, then Washington – in 1981. In 2007 he became an American citizen. In between he has identified himself with a wide variety of causes, in which the common theme has been a desire to take on the evil-doers, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa to Bill Clinton to Saddam Hussein. The United States is a great country for political romantics because there is always something going on. There are almost limitless occasions on which to display yourself.

But what’s wrong with a bit of political romanticism? Schmitt says that the problem is it produces only gesture politics, and that ‘the romantic wants to be productive without being active.’ Hitchens has certainly been productive, generating 1000-plus words of always usable, sometimes sparkling copy every day, no matter how much he might have drunk the night before. He also loves a good gesture. His swearing-in ceremony as a US citizen was specially arranged to suit his sense of its importance, presided over by Michael Chertoff, George W. Bush’s appointee as head of the Department of Homeland Security, and conducted on Jefferson’s birthday at the Jefferson Memorial. ‘There was a very stiff breeze blowing across the Tidal Basin,’ Hitchens recalls, ‘but it served to give a real smack and crackle to the Stars and Stripes that Chertoff’s people had brought along.’ Another flag might have cost him his life in Beirut in the spring of 2009.

Walking along Hamra Street, the still fashionable boulevard of the city, I suddenly saw a swastika poster. This, I needed no telling, was the symbol of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party … I took out my pen to deface the offending display … I managed a four-letter word or so before being grabbed very hard from behind. A weaselly but wiry little tough guy kept hold of my jacket while speed-dialling for backup with his other hand … There were suddenly gaunt-looking creeps everywhere, with wolfish expressions on their faces. I had, without knowing it, disfigured a poster that commemorated one of their ‘martyrs’.

Hitchens got a ‘kicking and a smacking’, but escaped more or less intact. He subsequently discovered that ‘the last man in trouble on this block – a Sunni Arab journalist who had only tried to photograph the swastika flags – was still in hospital after three months’ intensive care.’

Sometimes political gestures exact a heavy toll. But sometimes they make no difference at all. Hitchens establishes his romantic revolutionary credentials early on in the book by remarking that:

Official Britain may have its Valhalla of heroes and statesmen and conquerors and empire-builders, but we know that the highest point ever reached by European civilisation was in the city of Basel in 1912, when the leaders of the socialist parties of all countries met to co-ordinate an opposition to the coming world war. The names of real heroes like Jean Jaurès and Karl Liebknecht make the figures of Asquith and Churchill and Lloyd George seem like pygmies.

This is precisely the kind of romanticism Schmitt was writing about; indeed the Basel conference may have been one of the specific instances he had in mind. To celebrate an event that failed entirely to achieve its objectives, that merely allowed its participants to feel they had done what they could and had cut a good figure on the platform, to say that European civilisation reached its peak at the moment when it exposed its impotence in the face of the coming catastrophe: that is what it means to prefer the occasion to the outcome. (Incidentally, the ‘we’ here refers to ‘members of the Labour movement’, very much not to be confused with members of the Labour Party.)

Yet Hitchens would have no difficulty at all in batting away Schmitt. First, he would point out that Schmitt was a Catholic, so everything he has to say about the desire of political romantics to play God is inherently suspect. Second, he would point out that Schmitt was a Nazi, which means that there are some things much, much worse than political romanticism. In one of the many striking digressions in Hitch-22, Hitchens argues that the big difference between revolutionary socialists and Fascists is that revolutionary socialists are at least capable of changing their minds when confronted with evidence of the horrors that have been committed in the name of their creed. Socialists have consciences that can be pricked, eventually. By contrast, ‘we don’t seem to have any cases of Nazi and Fascist workers and intellectuals undergoing crises of ideology and conscience and exclaiming, “Hitler has betrayed the revolution,” or flagellating themselves with the thought: “How could such frightful crimes be committed in the name of Nazism?”’ In fact, Schmitt himself, a member of the Nazi Party from 1933 until 1936, is an interesting case-study here. After the war, he was arrested and held at Nuremberg, where he was questioned by an American lawyer about the intellectual support he had given to Hitler’s regime. How could he explain his actions? Schmitt replied that he had been deceived about Hitler. What he had thought he was getting in 1933 was a dictatorship, which he felt Germany needed. What he got instead was an entirely different form of politics, called ‘totalitarianism’. As a consistent anti-totalitarian, he felt betrayed. Still, it’s a pretty fine distinction, and it might have carried more weight if Schmitt had expressed it in 1936 rather than in 1946, and if he hadn’t spent the intervening years composing lawyerly justifications for the Nazi doctrine of Lebensraum. So Hitchens probably has a point.

Do the political crimes of someone like Schmitt really mean that nothing he says on any subject can be taken seriously? Hitchens considers a version of this puzzle when he recalls his experience of reading the memoir of his friend Christopher Buckley, son of the conservative commentator William Buckley. Hitchens discovers a line he particularly likes, about ‘bringing to life a circuit that will spare the republic’, but is horrified to realise that it comes from the address of his arch-nemesis, Henry Kissinger, at Buckley’s memorial service. (Hitchens had been at the service, but missed Kissinger speaking, because he preferred to ‘step outside into the rainswept street rather than be counted “among” his audience’; an entirely characteristic gesture.) However, he has to face up to the fact that he quite likes what Kissinger said. ‘Hardest of all, as one becomes older, is to accept that sapient remarks can be drawn from the most unwelcome or seemingly improbable sources, and that the apparently more trustworthy sources can lead one astray.’

So Schmitt can’t be entirely dismissed on ad hominem grounds. What else might Hitchens say to defend himself against the charge of being an incurable political romantic? No doubt that as well as being productive he has also been extremely active, travelling the world in search of bad people to confront and countries to liberate. He has been almost everywhere and met almost everyone and it has not just been all talk. He offered practical assistance to Czech dissidents during the 1980s, and was arrested in Prague as a consequence; he has helped to co-ordinate support in the West for the cause of Kurds; he has reported from Belfast during the Troubles, from Zimbabwe, from North Korea, always speaking up for those on the receiving end of mindless brutality, and often risking personal harm in doing so. Yet he is self-aware enough to recognise that all of this activity is just scratching the surface of political commitment.

My own efforts have certainly schooled me in my shortcomings as a writer, as well as proved to me what I suspected: that I lack the courage to be a real soldier or a real dissident. I have seen just enough warfare and political violence to know that, while I was pleased not to ‘crack’ at first coming under fire, I could never be a full-time uniformed combatant or freedom fighter, or even a war correspondent.

Hitchens knows his own taste is for just enough political adventure to get the juices flowing, but not so much that long-lasting personal hardship might come his way. Even when he’s not really enjoying himself, he needs to be sure of finding a way to enjoy himself.

It certainly sounds like it has all been a lot of fun. His has been an enviable life: not just all the drink and the sex and the travel and the comradeship and the minor fame (surely the preferable kind), but also the endless round of excitements and controversies, the feuding and falling-out and grudge-bearing and score-settling, the chat-show put-downs, the dinner party walk-outs, the stand-up rows. Christopher Hitchens has clearly had a great time being Christopher Hitchens. But – and I don’t want to sound too po-faced about this – should anyone’s life be quite so much fun, especially when it is meant to be a kind of political life? Hitchens admits to some regrets, including that he has not been a better father to his children (and by implication a better husband to his wives, though he doesn’t actually say that), but he doesn’t seem to have agonised about it much. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have agonised much about anything. He doesn’t rationalise his political shifts so much as acquiesce in them: if it feels like he has no choice, then he has no choice but to follow his feelings. He has seen his fair share of misery and despair, and may have caused a certain amount of it himself, but it is entirely unclear what this has cost him.

There is one moment when he admits to suffering something like a crisis of the soul, though a brief one. Hitchens was, notoriously, one of the cheerleaders for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In early 2007, he heard about the death in Mosul of a young soldier from California called Mark Daily, who had left behind a statement explaining his reasons for having volunteered to fight. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Daily had thought hard about a war whose justice he had initially doubted, and eventually felt the call to take part: ‘Somewhere along the way, he changed his mind. His family says there was no epiphany. Writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him.’ Hitchens encountered this story out of the blue in an email, and he recalls:

I don’t exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay. I had just returned from a visit to Iraq with my own son (who was then 23, as was young Mr Daily) and had found myself in a deeply pessimistic frame of mind about the war. Was it possible that I had helped persuade someone I had never met to place himself in the path of an IED?

In a state of profound unease, he contacted the author of the LA Times story, who put him in touch with the Daily family. The Dailys, it turned out, could not have been nicer – ‘one of the most generous and decent families in the United States’, as Hitchens puts it, with perhaps pardonable hyperbole. They invited him to their home, told him he had nothing to blame himself for, introduced him to Mark’s widow, allowed him to read some of Mark’s letters home, and eventually asked him to join them at the private ceremony in which Mark’s ashes were strewn on a beach in Oregon, the site of his boyhood holidays. Hitchens, unsurprisingly, found all this deeply moving, and he writes about it in an unabashedly mawkish way. He tells us he will not quote from Mark’s letters, except to record that in one of them he told his wife: ‘My desire to “save the world” is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you.’ Hitchens comments: ‘If that is all she has left, I hope you will agree that it isn’t nothing.’ All in all, the whole episode makes for deeply uncomfortable reading. It’s not just that it is something like a political romantic’s wet dream: the moral case for action put down in words, the handsome warrior reading them and dying for them, the bereaved family salving the writer’s grief. It’s also that it allows Hitchens to move on from his condition of deep pessimism about the war, never to return (at least not as reported in this book). Daily’s death, and the wave of emotions it unleashes, stands in the place of any serious reflection on how and why the Iraq war turned out so badly, to the extent that even Hitchens admits he was ‘coarsened and sickened by the degeneration of the struggle’. Instead, Daily’s heroism becomes the rationale for fighting. This is the war romanticised. It is also, frankly, nauseating.

The other problem with the easy ride life has given Hitchens, or perhaps he has given himself, is that although it must have been fun to live, it’s not much fun to read about. Hitch-22 is a long, discursive, occasionally gripping, intermittently diverting but sometimes rather boring book. It is not very funny, despite being crammed full of jokes. Many of these jokes come from the table talk of his literary friends. We get a long account of the sparkling wordplay that was a feature of the all-male Friday lunches Hitchens used to attend, along with people like Amis, Craig Raine, Mark Boxer, Julian Barnes and others. This seems mainly to have consisted of replacing regular words with slightly or much ruder ones: house becomes ‘sock’ (as it does in Amis’s genuinely funny novel Money), man becomes ‘cunt’ or ‘prong’. So you get A Cunt for All Seasons, The Cunt Who Shot Liberty Valance, Batcunt, Supercunt and so on. ‘These and other similarly gruelling routines had to be rolled around the palate and the tongue many a time before Clive James suddenly exclaimed: “A Shropshire Cunt by A.E. Sockprong”.’ I have a Y chromosome, so I can just about see that this is funny. But I can’t imagine that it was enough, as Hitchens suggests, ‘to make the long interludes of puerility worthwhile’.

Also sometimes present at these lunches was Martin Amis’s father, Kingsley, and it is Kingsley’s style that Hitch-22 most closely resembles. There is plenty of saloon bar wit and wisdom, and phrases it’s hard to believe anyone uses any more, like ‘in respect of moi’ and ‘your humble servant’. Hitchens relishes the bluntness of Kingsley’s judgments about things other people have a tendency to get precious about. He calls Hamlet’s account of having lost his mirth ‘the best definition of the blues that was ever set down’, something Kingsley might perhaps have written, Martin never. He also relishes Kingsley’s insistence that the only critical tool anyone really needs is the word ‘good’ and its variants (running from ‘bloody good’ to ‘some good’ to ‘no good’ to ‘absolutely no bloody good at all’). So Jane Austen, both men agreed, is ‘not all that good’. The reason Kingsley gave, with which Hitchens concurs, is that she had an ‘inclination to take a long time over what is of minor importance and a short time over what is major’. Having just tried to read The Old Devils, I can say that this is an almost perfect description of why Kingsley Amis’s own later fiction was absolutely no bloody good at all.

Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs, which Hitch-22 resembles much more than it does Martin Amis’s genuinely touching autobiography, Experience, is a very funny book because it is so sclerotic: its author had reached the point when he could barely find anything good to say about anyone (though as Hitchens points out, he managed to find a kind word for the Hitch himself). But Hitchens is too soft for this style, and his memoir if anything errs the other way. This is one of those books in which the author’s friends are invariably the best at what they do (best novelist, best poet, best critic etc), and the people who are the best at what they do are invariably the author’s friends. Hitchens, with his excessive need for sociability, is not discriminating enough. It is noticeable that almost the only time he has a harsh word for his adored buddy Martin Amis is when Martin publishes a book about the Soviet terror and its Western apologists (Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million), a subject in which Hitchens is extremely well versed. It turns out that Martin doesn’t really know what he is talking about. This is like someone who always believes what they read in the papers, until they find an article about themselves, at which point they notice that it’s all made up. Hitchens, as a newspaper man, should know better.

The funniest moments in Hitch-22 tend to occur when the humour is somewhat inadvertent. There is a hilarious discussion of the manliness of Edward Said, in which the set-piece comes when Hitchens’s wife, Carol, has her bag stolen during a lunch with the extremely dapper Said. Said immediately rose to the occasion. Did he chase down the thieves, or summon the cops? No. He took her shopping.

At once, he was at her service, not only suggesting shops in the vicinity where a replacement might be found, but also offering to be her guide and adviser until she had selected a suitable new sac à main. I could no more have proposed myself for such an expedition than suggested myself as a cosmonaut, so what this says about my own heterosexual confidence I leave to others.

The question of heterosexual confidence also looms large in Hitchens’s encounters with the somewhat less dapper Norman Mailer. They fell out spectacularly after Hitchens asked Mailer during a TV show that also featured Germaine Greer whether ‘he’d ever wondered about his apparent obsession with sodomy and its male occasions (the barracks, the prison, the boxing gym …) as well as its more notorious female ones’. Mailer, apparently, ‘reacted extremely badly’ in the green room afterwards, making all sorts of threats. But the two men made up again in the aftermath of the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. ‘Never to be outdone when the electricity of violence was in the air,’ Hitchens writes, ‘[Mailer] initially had to be talked out of a hypermacho scheme to raise money for a retaliatory “hit” against the ayatollah but renewed contact with me because, I suppose, my own position made me look a bit less like a faggot.’

In fact, Hitchens’s stance during the Rushdie affair turns out to be one of the defining moments of his life, and in some ways forms the centrepiece of this memoir. When he discovered that his friend’s life had been demanded in forfeit by a cleric offended by something he had written, he felt, he says, ‘at once that here was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved.’ The hates included dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. The loves were literature, irony, humour, the individual and free expression. But it was also a great opportunity to sort out the sheep from the goats: you were either for Salman, and therefore to be loved, or against him, and therefore to be hated. In this respect, it represented a dry run for the other central event in Hitchens’s later life, the terrorist attacks of 9/11. On both occasions, he responded with visceral sympathy for the victims, and then with visceral loathing for anyone who did not share his feelings (he describes the mealy-mouthed response to 9/11 in some quarters as ‘an unexampled case of seeing all one’s worst enemies in plain view’). In the Rushdie case, the villains were often predictable enough, including high Tories who ‘openly vented their distaste for the uppity wog in their midst’, and religious leaders who spoke out in favour of compromise and dialogue. But they also included some ‘previously trustworthy’ writers and public figures who shied away from taking Rushdie’s side, for fear of being caught in the backlash. Arthur Miller declined an invitation to read from Rushdie’s novel in a New York auditorium, partly on the grounds that, as a Jew, his presence could only make matters worse. ‘That this kind of thing should be said,’ Hitchens laments in characteristically measured tones, ‘and by the author of The Crucible, was, to an infinite extent and degree, lowering to the spirit.’ But some people rose to the occasion.

Susan Sontag was absolutely superb. She stood up proudly where everyone could see her and denounced the hirelings of the ayatollah … Cowardice is horribly infectious, but in that abysmal week she showed that courage can be infectious too. I loved her. This may sound sentimental, but when she got Rushdie on the phone – not an easy thing to do once he had vanished into the netherworld of ultraprotection – she chuckled: ‘Salman! It’s like being in love! I think of you night and day: all the time!’

This is the way Hitchens wants his political commitments to feel: like a version of romantic love.

Along with Rosa Luxemburg and Susan Sontag, the other great romance between Hitchens and a woman described in this book is with his mother, Yvonne. She is the subject of its first chapter, and Hitchens makes it clear that he was far closer to her than he was to his father, a stiff-upper-lip naval man known as the Commander. Yvonne was a vivacious, unhappy woman, who clearly adored her elder son. He adored her in return, and her indulgent spirit presides over Hitchens’s account of his own life. It also produces its defining tragedy. Yvonne abandoned the Commander to live with a much younger man called Timothy Bryan, a one-time priest who had become a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When Hitchens was 24, living in London and, as he puts it, ‘cutting [his] first little swath through town’, he received a phone call telling him that Yvonne had been found dead in Athens, probably murdered. When he went to collect her body, he discovered that she and Bryan had committed suicide together. He tells us that she left two notes, one for him and one for whoever had the miserable job of discovering the bodies. This seems an unnecessarily cruel detail. Was there really no note for Peter? And why does Christopher feel the need to tell us so?

Janet Malcolm recently published a short fragment from an abandoned autobiography, explaining why journalists should not memorialise themselves.

Another obstacle in the way of the journalist turned autobiographer is the pose of objectivity into which journalists habitually, almost mechanically, fall when they write. The ‘I’ of journalism is a kind of ultra-reliable narrator and impossibly rational and disinterested person, whose relationship to the subject more often than not resembles the relationship of a judge pronouncing sentence on a guilty defendant. This ‘I’ is unsuited to autobiography. Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. The observing ‘I’ of autobiography tells the story of the observed ‘I’ not as a journalist tells the story of his subject, but as a mother might. The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathising with its sorrows and allowing for its sins. I see that my journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love.

That, emphatically, is not Christopher Hitchens’s problem, which is what makes this book very hard to like, never mind love.

[*] The Rage against God (Continuum, 168 pp., £16.99, March, 978 1 4411 0572 1).