It sounds like an awkward time at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature panel on the life and works of Christopher Hitchens last night. Apparently it was billed as a tribute but it was also a discussion, and the result is that it wasn’t an unadulterated tribute.
Mr. Hitchens’s erudition, wit and prolificacy were taken for granted by the five participants: Katha Pollitt and Victor Navasky, his erstwhile colleagues at The Nation magazine; Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair; and George Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker. The question initially posed by the writer Ian Buruma, the event’s moderator, was whether Mr. Hitchens’s work and ideas would stand the test of time.
Well I’ll tell you what I would have said if I’d been on that panel. Yes. Absolutely yes; very much yes. I think he had huge flaws – or, more to the point, that there were huge flaws in some of his ideas and work – but I also think the quality of his work was of the kind that stands the test of time. I think he wrote far too well and too shrewdly on too large a range of subjects with too much wit and insight not to stand the test of time.
Mr. Navasky said Mr. Hitchens didn’t have “original theories,” but rather offered “original takes” on things. Ms. Pollitt said that no magazine writer who “weighs in” so regularly on the issues of the day can expect their work to age well. She went further — since, she claimed, it was probably “the reason” she was invited to be on the panel — and called Mr. Hitchens a “tremendous misogynist” who didn’t have “a lot of serious, professional respect for women writers.” She also chided his habit of greeting her with a kiss on the hand, a habit she called “grotesque.”
That was one of the huge flaws – although I’m not sure I would call it misogyny (but then Katha knows a lot more about it than I do, having been a colleague for many years) – the failure to take women seriously. (Although there were exceptions. That Jefferson scholar who wrote about him shortly after he left the scene, for instance.)
But they also pointed to some of his vital work, both serious and comic, like the time he was voluntarily waterboarded, or his series about self-improvement, for which he had a seaweed body wrap and dabbled in yoga. Mr. Packer singled out Mr. Hitchens’s performance in a debate with Tony Blair about whether religion is a force for good, and he also praised Mr. Hitchens for speaking out strongly and often about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie when no one else was willing to “stick out their neck.”
Mr. Rushdie, the festival’s founder, was sitting front and center in the crowd. During the time allotted for audience participation, he approached a microphone and said he wanted to pay tribute to Mr. Hitchens, “which is what I thought we were doing tonight,” he added, with an edge in his voice. He championed his friend’s best works as “masterpieces of style,” called his book “God is Not Great” an “extraordinary polemic,” and said he fit comfortably in the tradition of great essayists going back to the 18th century and his work would undoubtedly endure.
That’s what I think. It’s exactly what I think. I said much the same thing almost ten years ago, when B&W was new.