December 15, 2021

The most distinctive thing about Christopher Hitchens was his voice. Not his written voice in the LRB, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate and the other publications he wrote for, but his spoken voice. Hitchens was distinguished by his slightly tousled hair, the rings beneath his eyes, the hirsute chest, and his expressive hand gestures, but most of all by this voice: a beautifully-plummy baritone which seemed just as resolute and knowing in intimate interviews as on the large public stage.

He eventually became a YouTube Bruh: that genre of male intellectual celebrity, like Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray, “destroying” idiots in bite-sized video clips. But the appeal of Hitchens, to me at least, wasn’t just polemical; he possessed a suavity that impressed me powerfully. He was just as likely to riff on Anthony Powell’s twelve-novel sequence on twentieth-century British upper-class life as to publicly humiliate a religious crank.

I was 13 when I first discovered him. He had a similar appeal to me as James Bond: the willingness to engage in combat, the charm and sophistication of a worldly bruiser, even the booze. In a 2000 documentary called Hitch Hike, made by Channel 4 and tracking Hitchens’s book tour of his polemic against Bill Clinton, he said, “Jimmy Cameron was the reason I wanted to become a journalist”. He added that Cameron, who was a foreign correspondent, wrote a piece in 1966 outlining all the things he had accomplished as a journalist. Here is Hitchens ventriloquising Cameron: “I’ve sat with Ho Chi Minh, and I was deported from South Africa, and I was there listening to Nehru at midnight when India became a free country. I’ve also swum in all the five oceans and fucked on all five continents”. Hitchens himself made the world of the hack seem glamorous.

Or, perhaps, not the glamour of Bond or a foreign correspondent, but another form: the monied public intellectual. As Ian Parker puts it in his excellent 2006 New Yorker profile of Hitchens: “Hitchens has the life that a spirited thirteen-year-old boy might hope adulthood to be: he wakes up when he likes, works from home, is married to someone who wears leopard-skin high heels, and conducts heady, serious discussions late into the night.”

On the topic of glamour, there was something also Francophile about him, and not just his fondness for exposing part of his chest in interviews and debates. He was an eighteenth-century style iconoclast, a public school Voltaire, who took down sacred cows: Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, and God. This tendency toward confrontation was instilled by his education in Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, the heretics of Communism. One must never stick rigidly to the party line. Individual responsibility and moral conscience were essential.

Nevertheless, there was also a coarseness beneath his oratorical sheen: when he tried, for instance, to divorce the civil rights movement from its religious influence, emphasising the secularism of A. Philip Randolph over the religious fervour of Martin Luther King. This was sophistry. Arguing, as he also did, that religion poisons everything, was intellectually juvenile and inconsistent with his deep appreciation of John Donne.

When he said, moreover, “there is an unusually high and consistent correlation between the stupidity of a given person and that person’s propensity to be impressed by the measurement of IQ”, this was a brilliant epigram. H.L. Mencken would be proud of its rhetorical force, but it’s also nonsense: IQ is one of the most stable findings in psychology and social science.

Related to this coarseness was his deep appreciation for vulgarity and obscenity. Substantial passages of his memoir Hitch-22 are dedicated to explaining the games he used to play with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Clive James and others: the boomer version of Dr Johnson’s Club. He called the gathering “the Bloomsbury kebab joint”. One of their games consisted of substituting the word “heart” for “dick” in well-known titles, or the word “love” for “fuck”, or “love” for “hysterical sex”. So they got, among many other confected titles, “The Dick of the Matter”, “The Man Who Fucked Women”, and “Hysterical Sex in a Cold Climate”.

He once said to an audience who were distracted by a heckler, “leave him alone … I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire”. On the question of Mother Teresa’s virginity, he wrote: “Who can say what happened with the dashing boulevardiers of Skopje when Agnes Bojaxhiu was but a pouting and trusting lass? (The whole problem with missionaries is that one never quite knows their position.)”.

This bawdiness was at times entertaining and at times embarrassing. But what we value in intellectuals is not often the particular arguments they make but their personality. As Edward Said wrote, in an essay about public intellectuals, “when I read Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell it is their specific, individual voice and presence that makes an impression on me over and above their arguments because they are speaking out for their beliefs. They cannot be mistaken for an anonymous functionary or careful bureaucrat”.

The voice of Hitchens worked less well in print. As Martin Amis once wrote of his good friend: “He thinks like a child; he writes like a distinguished author; and he speaks like a genius”. Martin’s father Kingsley was more brutal: he described Hitchens as “the one who can talk but can’t write”. This was in the Seventies, during Hitchens’s New Statesman days, when his prose was more functional and didactic. According to Amis fils, however, Hitchens’s writing improved after 1989. But there were still some odd tics in his style after this, such as his tendency towards using brackets for a needless digression on some point, and puncturing that digression with a showy italicised word or phrase. I can endlessly listen to him speak in interviews and discussion panels; but reading him can be a bumpy experience.

When Amis said Hitchens thought like a child, he was getting at something. Although Hitchens’s moral convictions seemed admirably clear, they also strayed into simple-mindedness: some of his criticism of the “anti-imperialist” Left and religious extremism is still valuable, but his zealous support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan looks even more disastrous now.

Although Hitchens spent much of his career going after sacred cows, many of his fans now treat him in a hagiographical fashion. After the Spectator journalist Angus Colwell wrote a piece criticising Hitchens’s gung-ho support for the war in Afghanistan in August, many people described Colwell as possessing “sour grapes” and argued that Hitchens was “living rent-free” in his mind. These responses speak to the cultishness that surrounds some of Hitchens’s fan base; it is like someone is attacking their dad.

But if there is one thing worth taking from the writings and life of Christopher Hitchens, it is the importance of thinking critically and independently. Turning a blind eye to his faults out of a sense of sentimental loyalty seems profoundly un-Hitchian. It’s a shame that many of his supporters do this. But then again, as the title to Julien Benda’s book about intellectuals suggests, La Trahison des Clercs, public intellectuals are often like clerics. We should be able to admire Hitchens’s voice without taking it as holy writ.

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