Christopher Hitchens, Romantic

The late author picked his battles well to the end


Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, Twelve, 816 pages, $30

When polemicist and author Christopher Hitchens died in December of esophageal cancer at age 62, many of those mourning his death used the occasion to tell us something meaningful about themselves. Hitchens, they reported, had played a major role in their efforts to define themselves politically, morally, and socially.

Such disclosures, even when bordering on the maudlin, were apt. Hitchens transcended the relatively narrow boundaries for public intellectuals in the United States by transforming himself into a media phenomenon and inserting himself into the fabric of daily life and deliberation through all the means at his disposal. Here was a man equally at ease in the university lecture room and the debating hall, on William F. Buckley's Firing Line and Jon Stewart's Daily Show

Hitchens cultivated a flamboyant persona. Like many men moved by ideas, he also had a weakness for style, and for the louche men of action with whom he frequently crossed paths. Yet ideas generally won out. If there are any doubts, Arguably, Hitchens' last collection of articles, should dispel them. 

Arguably will be the best remembered of the four compilations Hitchens published for its sheer size and topical breadth—but also because the collection is a memento mori. He knew when the volume came out that he was dying. The cover of the British edition is evocative. It shows Hitchens standing in his Washington, D.C., apartment, a Kurdish flag on his lapel. Behind and around him are the tools of his trade: filtered coffee on a tray at his feet, an aureole of books, reading glasses, a computer, and next to it a Panama hat to cover hair ravaged by chemotherapy. Hitchens, with an expression dour and bulldog-like, appears to be taunting his illness. And for more than a year after being diagnosed, he kept up that front.  

There were many paradoxes in Hitchens, but three stand out in Arguably. The first is that this man of sharp angles and muscular opinions could understand half-tones while appreciating, and even seeking out, the charms of ambiguity. This sensibility, almost Mediterranean in nature, was appropriate for someone always drawn more to the human than to the institutional. 

Take Hitchens' essay on Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the British writer Rebecca West's posthumously famous book about Yugoslavia during the 1930s. Hitchens praises the work over its shortcomings, seeing in West an "ardent woman who manifested a nice paradoxical sympathy for the honor, bravery, and pageantry of the past, and for the apparently more modern ideas of socialism and self-determination." This sympathy pushed West to champion Serb nationalists, who did not merit the approval, yet never blinded her to the perils of fascism. 

West, as Hitchens wrote, "had stepped onto the perfect soil for one so quixotic." It was a quixotism born partly of a turbulent love life, that of a woman "whose feminism was above all concerned with the respect for, and the preservation of, true masculinity." How concise, and how astute to pursue that in the Yugoslav context, given the way that sexual violence came to define the savage conflict of the 1990s.

Hitchens' sense of the counterpoint lying underneath is apparent in passages on other cosmopolitans. Of Karl Marx he noted, "the genius of the old scribbler was to see how often the sheerly irrational intruded upon the material and utilitarian world of our great-grandfathers." Modern-day Marxist determinists will fail to notice that fact, the consequence of Marx's own material deficiencies, which compelled him to engage in hack journalism to feed his family. And what better way to describe French intellectual André Malraux, with sarcasm and esteem, than as "a sort of impresario of the left" at the time that he embarked on his "finest hour" in defending Spain's Republicans?

Hitchens' taste for the equivocal notwithstanding, Arguably is peppered with calls to arms. That's not surprising from someone who memorably described his post-9/11 mood like this: "On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy—theocratic barbarism—in plain view." The passage virtually replicated a section in Evelyn Waugh's novel Officers and Gentlemen, in which the main character, Guy Crouchback, an anti-communist Catholic, reacts with elation to news of the Soviet-German Pact of 1939.

Echoing a novel in a moment of national crisis was fitting for an author who saw himself in the tradition of crusading intellectuals. The French have a word for novelistic: romanesque, from roman, which also gives us the word romantic. That Hitchens could momentarily, yet decisively, channel a fictional character leads us to a second of his paradoxes: This most hardnosed and unflinching of writers allowed a strong romantic impulse to infuse his thoughts. That is why he could ride to the defense of Salman Rushdie when he was under an Iranian death sentence. Now and then Hitchens could also go too far, as when he implicitly justified the brutal repression of Algerian Islamists during the 1990s—driven, perhaps, by the sense that religious extremism represented the grimmest antithesis of the romantic. 

In Arguably, Hitchens shows that the pool of writers and thinkers who influenced him was broad and deep, with places of honor reserved for those who courageously denounced the big lies. In a luminous essay on the novelist and communist operator Victor Serge, we see why Hitchens was captivated by one of those "intellectual misfits…ground to powder between the upper and nether millstones of Stalin and Hitler." Serge died in "penurious exile in Mexico," but he told the truth about Stalinism. What are penury and truth if not romantic motifs?

And what of Jessica Mitford? The second youngest of the Mitford sisters, she fled her bizarre aristocratic family for a cousin, communism, and the United States, where she lived until the end of her life. Hitchens sees this as a worthy instance of a woman betraying her class to follow her principles. His essay on Mitford is delicious, from one English exile in America to another, with heroic melancholy at its core: The cousin, Esmond Romilly, who enlisted to fight in World War II at the age of 22, was killed a year later. 

Hitchens' pet hatreds—religious doctrine, Henry Kissinger, the death penalty, and a great deal more—became so well known that it seems pointless to repeat them. Arguably is especially useful as a compendium of what preoccupied Hitchens off the well-trodden paths. 

Several of the less familiar essays remind us of a third paradox: Hitchens took on the most serious of topics with redoubtable seriousness but was also exceptionally funny. The power in humor is why he was such an admirer, and a careful reader, of P.G. Wodehouse, Kingsley Amis, George MacDonald Fraser, and Waugh. And it is why, you suspect, his post-9/11 break with Gore Vidal, that rare American literary figure who is genuinely funny, left a mark. In Arguably, the divorce is consummated, principally because the two former friends disagreed so violently over America's reaction to 9/11. For Hitchens, Vidal's writings on the subject, saturated with conspiracy theories, showed that Al Qaeda's attacks had "accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant." 

After Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested in an airport restroom for trying to pick up another man, Hitchens penned an erudite piece on what the British once called "cottaging," or cruising in public lavatories. Linking together conversations with gay politician Tom Driberg, a poem published in Private Eye, and statistics from a 1970 doctoral thesis, he composed a thoroughly amusing digression built on the slenderest of conceptual reeds. It is hard to view the Clapham Common toilet in quite the same way after learning that it "acquired such a lavish reputation…that, as I once heard it said: 'If someone comes in there for a good honest shit, it's like a breath of fresh air.'?"

With time, Hitchens did less reporting abroad. That was a shame, but age has its prerogatives. There are exceptions in Arguably, including a piece on a visit to Beirut, where Hitchens was beaten, along with two colleagues, by members of a loutish pro-Syrian party. That episode garnered publicity but hardly showed Hitchens at his most lucid. The assault came after he had defaced a plaque commemorating a party hero. 

More memorable on that trip was Hitchens' lecture at the American University of Beirut, titled "Who Are the Real Revolutionaries in the Middle East?" In it he sought to defend modern Arab democrats who had resisted dictatorship, thinking his listeners would concur. Instead, Hitchens was rudely badgered for having supported the Iraq war. The reception so rankled him he describes it in his introduction to Arguably, explaining why he dedicated the book to a Tunisian, an Egyptian, and a Libyan who embodied the Arab revolts of 2011. Hitchens had been correct about the pull of freedom in the Arab world, his dedication a riposte to an audience too self-righteous to have anticipated this. There can be felicitous clear-sightedness in what feels emotionally proper. 

The knowledge that he had perhaps less than a year to live, Hitchens noted, "has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending." How odd for him to suggest that he had ever left any doubts on that front.

Contributing Editor Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster).