Comparative memorialization

Neal Pollack knew Christopher Hitchens better than you.

Christopher Hitchens and I were friends for 40 years, plus another five when we were enemies. He took ideas so seriously that if he disagreed with you on a matter that he deemed important, he’d literally throw you in a ditch. It was 1972, the height of our mutual virility. He and I went to a pub to celebrate his most recent intellectual victory over the establishment press. I intimated that sometimes women could be funny on purpose. Even back then, the thought enraged him. Hitchens threw a drink in my face, pressed a lit cigarette into my neck, and hit me over the head with a barstool.

Compare Dave Zirin, not being satirical, in The Nation on Friday:

I met Christopher Hitchens once and once only in October of 2005. I had just written my first article for The Nation, Hitchens’s former employer…I found myself drinking in a New York City downtown bar, and there, sidling up next to me, was Christopher Hitchens.

With a couple Jamesons in me, I couldn’t resist. I turned to him and said, “Hello, Mr. Hitchens.” He faced me with a glass of brown liquor in each hand and an unlit cigarette in his mouth…

He responded, “I see you bought the Nation magazine lies about there being no weapons of mass destruction though.”

I said, “Come on. Not even Dick Cheney argues that there were WMDs in Iraq. You can do better than that.”

Hitchens then looked me up and down and spit his unlit cigarette against my chest. As my mouth dropped wide, he turned one last time and walked to his table. I stood there stunned, embarrassed and oddly proud.

A little more Pollack –

Many was the time we passed the bottle until dawn, bemoaning Thatcher’s England, Reagan’s America, and also some stuff about the Middle East. Sometimes Hitchens would bring over a dissident writer who was fleeing oppression in his native country, and we’d all make fun of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana, then remove our pants to compare our manhoods. We were so middle-aged and foolish then, so committed to the struggle.

For months, he’d wander the streets at night, looking to drunkenly berate someone who disagreed with him about the evils of Islamofascism. Occasionally he’d attempt to strangle young journalists, who admired him unquestioningly, with their own neckties.

Now that’s an elegy.


  1. says

    Oh dear! How cruelly are our illusions dissipated. The strange thing is that almost every writer that I have ever admired seems to have a very gritty side, when you look beneath the surface. I’m sure Shakespeare’s story doesn’t read very well either. Remember Amadeus? How much of that was true? Could the man who composed such sublime music have been such a lewd kid? As Hitch himself said, we’re only a chromosome or two away from chimps! And he would know!

  2. julian says

    I will say this about Christopher Hitchens: he remains the only one of the Four Horsemen I would have loved to get into a drunken fight with.

  3. says


    Thanks for that Harris link. Good stuff.

    My own life was altered somewhat in the mid 1970s, when an enraged drunk challenged me to a fight. I saw straight away that his drunkenness was to my advantage. At the same time, he was also a professional wrestler, and that fact definitely was not. But fortunately, he allowed himself to be restrained by his lady friend. She had a power of persuasion in the situation that I definitely lacked.

    So I began learning judo the very next day, and spent the following 25 years in serious training. So thanks to that drunk, my life took a definite turn for the better.

    Hitchens’ native combativeness, probably more often than not generously lubricated, got him into serious danger in at least one documented instance. See the link below.

  4. Torquil Macneil says

    Yeuch, that Zirin piece. It is almost funny how he tries to swagger about losing a fight he started even though he had to wait for his opponent to die before he dared to put the boot in.

  5. sailor1031 says

    @Eric: very little of Amadeus was true other than the scene with the Emperor saying “too many notes”…that did happen and the fact that WA Mozart really did write all that great music. Some other facts were in there too but mostly it was fictionalised so I wouldn’t use it as anything other than an example of good drama. However with regard to the scatology, Mozart’s correspondence with his family is full of references to bodily functions. I think the super-genteel and straitlaced victorians bequethed to us a reluctance to discuss such things. Before Victoria it wasn’t such a taboo

  6. says

    I guess my point was simply that we are human beings — and I did not miss the satire, although as satire, I think, Pollack’s piece is unsuccessful. We tend to think that human beings who are exceptional in some way, as Hitchens certainly was, should be exceptional in every way, and if we have such expectations we will be cruelly disappointed. I think of the regard that Christians have for Jesus, but if you read the gospels, there are many occasions when you just have to say that he doesn’t really deserve the adulation that people accord him. The same goes for Hitchens. I think he was a brilliant writer, a sensitive reader, and a great bon vivant. But he was also a human being with human failings, some of them lementably obvious, and there’s a tendency, when we are eulogising someone, to neglect that gritty side — his derogation of women, for example. (That was a surprising feature of Hitch-22, the fact that he scarcely mentions his wives or his children, his claim that women aren’t funny, or his opposition, on very slim grounds indeed, to abortion, which seems to me was a residue of religion in him.)

    I don’t read a lot of biographies, but when I do I am often surprised and sometimes disappointed at the pettiness of people who, in their public personae, were geniuses of no mean character. Reading Katha Pollit’s obituary reminds one that Hitchens was very human, and because he was in some sense larger than life — he did self-dramatise — his humanity tended to be exaggerated. And when you exaggerate your humanness, your negative features get exaggerated along with the positive ones, so it is not surprising to hear the Hitchens could be a bully, for example.

    When I was a boy I admired Field Marshal Mongomery. He was a childhood hero. I still think he was a great battlefield general — one of the greatest of the Second World War. But there was an extremely troubling side to him as well. He could be a tyrant, a bit of a show-off, and arrogant. Recognising those features doesn’t make me admire him less, but it reminds me that he, like everyone else, is human, and that is an important reminder to have. The tendency to mythicise is very strong, and it is from this that moral intransigence and lack of empathy derive.

    Of course, with Hitchens, we know that he took some positions which many people consider simply wrong, although he felt, for some reason, that he had to remain consistent to the end. Perhaps he still believed, against the evidence, that the Iraq war was justified, and was worth all the death and destruction that it brought about. Very few people think this is consistent with his other political beliefs, although I think it is true that we probably do not take his warnings about Islam seriously enough. I think he was probably right to think that Islam itself is a morally deficient creed, more so than many other religious creeds. Hitchens’ recognition of this is, I think, largely correct — although one must remember that he was sometimes very generous towards Islam — and we should consider ourselves warned. But it is very important, I think, to remind ourselves that Hitchens was a human being, and some of the adulation that has understandably poured out over the last few days since his death has sometimes lost sight of this.

    Nevertheless, as I have said elsewhere, we will miss him. He was a voice for reason and even for moderation, and it was largely his forcefulness that transformed atheism from a marginal aspect of culture, and placed it right at the centre. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett were important in this; Hitchens, it seems to me, was essential.

  7. says

    Ah, well, jolo5309, you can scarcely call de Souza’s condemnation of Hitchens and elegy, now, can you? And the concluding hope that Hitchens now knows a mercy that he did not show in life is scarcely redeeming. It is interesting that de Souza should remember most acutely Hitchens’ comment on Mother Teresa upon her death; but Mother Teresa was perhaps all that he said about her and more, though people want to whitewash her memory by forgetting how she profited from misrepresentations of her goodness. She was positively despicable in the way that she ran her hospice for the dying, for the fact that the dying could not receive family visitors (if I remember aright), or that they were given very little rememdy for pain, and in the way that the Albanian dwarf, as Hitchens called her, would say to those who were suffering that they were being kissed by Christ. According to de Souza, Hitchens said,

    On Mother Teresa: “The woman was a fanatic and a fundamentalist and a fraud, and millions of people are much worse off because of her life, and it’s a shame there is no hell for your bitch to go to.”

    Of course, that was an indelicate way to put it, but she was all of that, I think, when the facts are known. That she was recognised as a living saint is an indication of how low the standards are for sainthood, and de Souza’s conviction that Mother Teresa is fine is ludicrous. He has no way of knowing any such thing, since it is very unlikely indeed that there is a life to follow this one, even though he says, half in sorrow, that there is a hell to which Hitchens may go.

    de Souza’s polemic has all the hallmarks of religion, refusing to recognise that, despite everything, it is probably best to recall, upon a person’s death, not only the good that they have done, but the evil that they encompassed as well. Hitchens’ remarks upon Jerry Fallwell’s death were no doubt cruel, in one sense. To say that he was so full of shit that if he was given an enema he could have been buried in a matchbox is both clever and cruel. But it was also true. All one had to do was to listen to this man talking about hurricane Katrina or 9/11 to realise how much of his influence was poisonous, and, not to put too fine a point on it, full of religious bullshit. Why should religious leaders who speak in this vicious way be respected and adulated by those who see through their deception? Sure, Hitchens no doubt was being quite consciously theatrical, but, at the same time, though lacking mercy, did he not speak true? And should we not be told the truth of these religious pretenders, instead of being told we should reverence them, so that the next pretender will have an easier time pulling the wool over our eyes? Hitchens was not kind of Falwell in life. Why should he then have been kind to him in death? Shouldn’t we despise people like Falwell, who was quite prepared to blame 9/11 on homosesexuals and people who approve abortion and others whom he despised for the horrific crime committed by Islamist jihadists, and for which, they alone were responsible? Isn’t someone who said such despicable things, just as someone like Mother Teresa, who was the cause of much pain and distress, rightly despised? de Souza apparently thinks that the religious should be given a reprieve, but since their influence is so great, we should remind people of their evil. Despite Mark Antony, should not the evil that men do live after them?

  8. jolo5309 says

    @eric, given the choice I would rather have someone say what De Souza said about Hitchens about me than any platitudes. It tells me that Hitchens arguments were effective and a little too accurate for De Souza’s liking.

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