Death of a Conflict Heavyweight: Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens, best appreciated by me as Henry Kissinger’s nemesis, died on, outlived by the dreadful Kissinger. A consummate arguer and controversialist. He will be missed, along with our other major loss this year Tony Judt. My old university fellow radical at UEA, Ian McEwan, wrote this in the Guardian in Christopher’s memory: See also our correspondent Victor’s balancing comments below the posting. Hitchens hated hagiography as Victor says and some balance is in order. Alex Cockburn also did a number on  Hitchens in this week’s Counterpunch…

though it follows a long battle between Counterpunch and Hitchens, it also feels like a posthumous Hitchens denouncing himself and self hatred was clearly one of his qualities as Victor notes.

Christopher Hitchenswith Martin Amis and Ian McEwan

Christopher Hitchens with Ian McEwan (left) and Martin Amis in Uruguay, posing for a picture which appeared in his memoirs, Hitch 22. Photograph: PR

The place where Christopher Hitchens spent his last few weeks was hardly bookish, but he made it his own. Close to downtown Houston, Texas is the medical centre, a cluster of high-rises like La Défense of Paris, or the City of London, a financial district of a sort, where the common currency is illness. This complex is one of the world’s great concentrations of medical expertise and technology. Its highest building, 40 or 50 storeys up, denies the possibility of a benevolent god – a neon sign proclaims from its roof a cancer hospital for children. This “clean-sliced cliff”, as Larkin puts it in his poem about a tower-block hospital, was right across the way from Christopher’s place – which was not quite as high, and adults only.

No man was ever as easy to visit in hospital. He didn’t want flowers and grapes, he wanted conversation, and presence. All silences were useful. He liked to find you still there when he woke from his frequent morphine-induced dozes. He wasn’t interested in being ill, the way most ill people are. He didn’t want to talk about it.

When I arrived from the airport on my last visit, he saw sticking out of my luggage a small book. He held out his hand for it – Peter Ackroyd‘s London Under, a subterranean history of the city. Then we began a 10-minute celebration of its author. We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything. Only then did we say hello. He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn’t hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he’d finished it.

He could have written a review, but he was due to turn in a long piece on Chesterton. And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it, they raised it to the condition of a good university library. And they protected us from the bleak high-rise view through the plate glass windows, of that world, in Larkin’s lines, whose loves and chances “are beyond the stretch/Of any hand from here!”

In the afternoon I was helping him out of bed, the idea being that he was to take a shuffle round the nurses’ station to exercise his legs. As he leaned his trembling, diminished weight on me, I said, only because I knew he was thinking it, “Take my arm old toad …” He gave me that shifty sideways grin I remembered so well from healthy days. It was the smile of recognition, or one that anticipates in late afternoon an “evening of shame” – that is to say, pleasure, or, one of his favourite terms, “sodality”.

That must be how I came to be reading The Whitsun Weddings aloud to him two hours later. Christopher asked me to set the poem in context for his son Alexander – a lovely presence in that room for weeks on end – and for his wife Carol Blue, a tigress for his medical cause. She had tangled so ferociously with some slow element of the hospital’s bureaucracy that security guards had been called to throw her out the building. Fortunately, she charmed and disarmed them.

I set the poem up and read it, and when I reached that celebrated end, “A sense of falling, like an arrow shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain,” Christopher murmured from his bed, “That’s so dark, so horribly dark.” I disagreed, and not out of any wish to lighten his mood. Surely, the train journey comes to an end, the recently married couples are dispatched towards their separate fates. He wouldn’t have it, and a week later, when I was back in London, we were still exchanging emails on the subject. One of his began: “Dearest Ian, Well, indeed – no rain, no gain – but it still depends on how much anthropomorphising Larkin is doing with his unconscious … I’d provisionally surmise that ‘somewhere becoming rain’ is unpromising.”

And this was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature. Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd, he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions towards Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s A German Requiem: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”

While I was with him another celebration took place in faraway London, with Stephen Fry as host in the Festival Hall to reflect on the life and times of Christopher Hitchens. We helped him out of bed and into a chair and set my laptop in front of him. Alexander delved into the internet with special passwords to get us linked to the event. He also plugged in his own portable stereo speakers. We had the sound connection well before the vision and what we heard was astounding, and for Christopher, uplifting. It was the noise of two thousand voices small-talking before the event. Then we had a view from the stage of the audience, packed into their rows.

They all looked so young. I would have guessed that nearly all of them would have opposed Christopher strongly over Iraq. But here they were, and in cinemas all over the country, turning out for him. Christopher grinned and raised a thin arm in salute. Close family and friends may be in the room with you, but dying is lonely, the confinement is total. He could see for himself that the life outside this small room had not forgotten him. For a moment, pace Larkin, it was by way of the internet that the world stretched a hand towards him.

The next morning, at Christopher’s request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton. Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review.

His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame”. Right to the end.


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Philosophy of Conflict, Religious Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Death of a Conflict Heavyweight: Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

  1. Victor says:

    I knew Hitchens –we were not close friends nor enemies–seeing him drink everyone else under the table at dinner and parties was not all that great

    Hitchens hated Christians–particularly Catholics.–he also ridiculed Judaism, Islam etc

    He claimed to be Jewish–a claim his brother refutes– his brother claims that there is a possibility that they are 1/32 to 1/64 of Jewish heritage–who isn’t ?–

    Hitchens claim to be Jewish came after his vocal support of David Irving and Edward Said began to threaten his financial interests–Irving is a clown–but Said was a decent man

    –Hitchens denounced and vilified Said when the man was on his death bed.

    Hitchens beat the drums for the war in Iraq and cheered that war till his last breath

    Hitchens learned the art of debate in English school and university

    –he graduated with a 3rd class degree for which you only have to be warm and/or breathing.

    But he was a good debater–in the English style

    –which essentially means you prepare to debate either side of the matter, focus upon your opponents weakest points, use ridicule, irony, insult and go for the jugular.

    In the English debate tradition winning and humiliating your opponent is everything

    –doesn’t matter if you believe in your position–it is a blood sport.

    Americans are not used to this UK blood sport.

    We believe in either dialog or adversarial argument–which has rules of evidence, a judge and due process etc.

    Combine Hitchens skill in Brit debating tactics with his background in Trotkyist ideology and technique and American audiences were enthralled.

    It was like seeing a drunken monkey who could speak and type articulate prose

    If Hitchens had tried the same tactics with an Alabama accent he would have failed on the circuit and been seen as a bully and a clown.

    The things I do not understand about Hitchens are

    1/ His vicious hatred and contempt for all religions–Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Islam, Buddhist

    2/ His daily alcohol binge drinking–he would start at 11 am-or earlier and end at 3 am or later.

    What was he desperately trying to escape from through booze?

    The case of Ernest Hemingway comes to mind–he too was a talented young man who poisoned his talent with booze.

    What Hitchens and Hemingway also had in common was parental suicide–one his mother-the other his father.

    Also Hitchens smoked 3 to 5 packs of Rothmans cigarettes per day almost to the end–he was and intelligent man–he knew he was killing himself.

    Hitchens hated hagiography almost as much as he hated religion

    –or even himself

    • @Victor. I agree with much of what you say. Tragedy comes in many forms and throwing away talent is one of them, as is self poisoning or prolonged in front of an audience suicide. And as for his style of debate, perhaps only in Henry Kissinger did he find a worthy target for the blood sport approach. Alexander Cockburn who clearly loathed Hitchens did a number in the Hitchens style (perhaps an indirect tribute though Cockburn inherited this from his Dad I assume) on him in Counter Punch this week. Terry Eagleton also was effective on Dawkins and Hitchens lack of any actual knowledge of the religion and its content. Rabid atheism seems like a religion to me….

  2. Victor says:

    You make a good point
    Hitchens engaged in a very public act of suicide–and his friends cheered him on.
    No one drinks a bottle of Black Label scotch per day with several bottles of wine and 3-5 packs of Rothmans cigarettes every day–in public unless it is public suicide by substance abuse.

    Where were his friends?

    –maybe they enjoyed spectacle of the Washington DC town drunk killing himself on U Tube.

    • @Victor, though I liked Ian McEwan many years ago, who knows how he has turned out. Public exposure does strange things to people. Alcoholics are power freaks in most cases, and I have walked away from them, once I realized this. They don’t/can’t really have friends because of their focus. So I don’t know what the circle round Hitchens was like. Just that, as you suggest, however self hating and other hating he was, he perhaps deserved better? But maybe only the tough hide types could cope with him?

  3. @Victor, my other thought was that the only effective cure for alcoholism for most people (George W Bush may be an exception, but look where that got us: Middle East infantile grandiosity) is Alcoholics Anonymous and that involves, not only the 12 step process, but some acknowledgement of a ‘higher power’. So Hitchens fight against God may have another context, though maybe this is too reductionist?

  4. Victor says:

    Hitchens praised the NKVD for their slaughter of Christians in the Soviets Empire

    The NKVD ran on vodka and nicotine

    –Hitchens ran on Johny Walker Black Label and Rothmans Blue cigarettes

    The only ” higher power” he believed in was himself and Trotsky.

    Most of the neocons who led us into the war in Iraq were Trotskyists– who had changed their colors but not their stripes

    • @Victor. Spot on. I agree about the Neo cons or at least some of them and the Iraq War. Knowing some of them in the 70s, they were a fairly out of touch with reality belief system. While as in the current Russian joke, ‘Marx lied about Communism, but told the truth about Capitalism’, the Trots vanguard-ism is ideally suited for a self appointed intellectual elite telling us what is good for us. Not a lot of dialogue with them is possible. If only some of them had actually worked in the real world, though we had a few on our assembly lines that were reality impervious and did a lot of damage.

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