On the fence with Christopher Hitchens

Seems like one either loves or one hates Christopher Hitchens (http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/02/25/richard-seymour-s-tawdry-christopher-hitchens-bio.html).  I was in either camp at different points in Hitchens’s life.  My antipathy toward Hitchens had started with his relentless attacks on Clinton during Clinton’s presidency and while Hitchens was writing for The Nation.  At first, I was mostly disenchanted, throwing off Hitchens as just a gadfly who liked to stir things up and get talked about.  I’m not an apologist for Clinton, but I often felt that Hitchens (and others) were always lying in wait for Clinton to screw up so they could crow and strut about in their righteousness.

His support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the tipping point for me.  I wanted nothing to do with him after that.  I don’t think I actually believed that he believed that the invasion was a good thing.  Rather, to me, he was just pandering.  He was a narcissist who would say and do anything to get airtime or his words in print.

And then I heard he was dying and that he wasn’t suddenly converting to organized religion in an attempt to save his soul.  I waited for that conversion, but it never came.  What did come was his appreciation for those people who said they would pray for him, especially those who said they would pray without attaching any strings.  He didn’t slight them, ridicule them for their beliefs.  I think he might have actually felt a bit humbled, just as anyone might feel humbled when total strangers with whom you have nothing in common, wish you well, wish that you don’t suffer, wish that you survive.    A sadness crept slowly over me as I heard about or read bits and pieces of Hitchens’s last days.  I felt uneasy about his illness, his impending death.  It’s so much easier to criticize people when they are healthy and you think they are going to be around, annoying you, for a very long time.

And then I read Mortality.  A beautiful, slim, tastefully produced volume of Hitchens’ last essays and notes.  With Mortality I began to understand that here was one very complicated guy.  In his essays for The Nation, he could be such an asshole, throwing ad hominids around as if they were bon mots of cleverness.  But in Mortality, his humanity rises to the surface.  I could feel his vulnerability, his curious attention to the cancer that would ultimately kill him, his surprise that he wouldn’t be around to see his children marry, his desire to live, his desire that his cancer have a greater purpose than just to kill him (for example, that new treatments could be tried on him and, even if they failed, what might be learned could save someone else).  Whether or not he realized it, by continuing his writing and detailing what his cancer was doing to him and how he was surviving from one day to the next, he was in fact giving that cancer a greater purpose.

After reading Mortality, I went on a bit of a Hitchens’ binge.  I felt obsessed with him, but something held me back from going out and buying all of his books.  A friend told me how she had finished with Hitchens after he wrote an essay for the The Nation in support of 2 Live Crew and the lyrics of their songs.  She had been offended by his statements regarding rape, how rape is every male adolescent’s fantasy, wink, wink.  I was crushed.  There’s nothing funny about rape.  I tried in vain to find the essay, to read it for myself, in the hope that I would interpret his words differently and prove her wrong.  I did find the context:  2 Live Crew had been arrested in Florida on obscenity charges.  OK, so this was a free speech issue, a censorship issue, but Hitchens could have supported 2 Live Crew’s right to free speech without calling their lyrics “poetry” and suggesting that since rape is every male adolescent’s fantasy, we are hypocrites if we are offended by those same lyrics.

Looking for this essay brought me to his other essays excoriating Bill Clinton and Elie Wiesel and my respect for Hitchens did another nosedive.

I had to stop and think.  Hitchens was a gifted writer with an incredible store of knowledge, a facility with language that was seemingly innate.  But he was a human being who, in my humble opinion, did not always use his gift in ways that were respectful of it.  His ad hominid attacks were nothing for him to proud of, no matter how “funny” or “humorous” his admirers claimed they were.  People who engage in such attacks are not advancing the discussion, the debate; they are distracting us from it.  They are showing off; you don’t necessarily come away any more enlightened about the subject than you were when the debate started.  Hitchens was merely being an entertainer and a glib one at that.  He was an extrovert who seemed to engage in little if any introspection.

In an interview with Mother Jones (http://books.google.com/books?id=IecDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA12&dq=christopher+hitchens+rap+Jack+and+Jill&hl=en&sa=X&ei=-VYyUe6iMeTx0wGN2oGABg&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=christopher%20hitchens%20rap%20Jack%20and%20Jill&f=false)  he claimed surprise that anyone would think he was a misogynist.  Best as I could tell, his surprise was genuine.  Other interviews with him and his friends suggest he was a great friend to have, very loyal, unless your last name is Blumenthal.  Again, I think he was oblivious to how his actions, his words, his language, could do irreparable harm to a relationship that he claimed to hold dear.  I don’t think he really meant any ill-will (except, of course, toward Clinton).

Can one be on the fence with Christopher Hitchens?  Would he turn over in his grave if he knew that I (or anyone) felt sorry for him, felt that he was a small man with a big gift?  I mean small in the sense of him being needy, like the rest of us.  We are all needy, but he certainly never wanted anyone to see him as such.  Now until his voice was adversely affected by his cancer treatments, did he realize that he was nothing without his voice (and by extension, his writing):  “To lose this ability [speech] is to be deprived of an entire range of faculty:  It is assuredly to die more than a little.”  As an introvert, I have often (and still do) take pleasure in being silent, without a voice so to speak.  But that is not Hitchens and, perhaps, that is one reason why my heart softened when I read his words.  He was his voice; without his voice, he might never have been as successful (and as polarizing) a personality as he was.

I am still obsessing about Hitchens, clipping articles and interviews into my Evernote account and wondering why he has this hold on me now.  What does it matter?  I would have meant nothing to him if he had ever met me.  Perhaps there’s some envy here:  He wrote and said what he damn well pleased.  I am constantly censoring my own work to the point that it rarely is viewed by anyone but me. So maybe some envy, and definitely some regret that I didn’t appreciate the man more while he was alive.