Christopher Hitchens - An argument with life

Christopher Hitchens, in his autobiography Hitch-22, enunciates the contradictions of living the lives of Comrade Chris and socialite Christopher. Between the donkey jacket wearing Comrade Chris and dinner jacket socialite Christopher, he enlivened life with multifarious roles. In his extraordinary career, Hitchens redefined and owned the role of Public Intellectual by being a writer, a journalist, a broadcaster, a polemicist, a raconteur, a provocateur,and a pugnacious critic of culture.

Christopher Eric Hitchens was born in Portsmouth to Eric and Yvonne. His father, whom he called "the commander", served in the British Navy and his brother Mr.Peter Hitchens is a well known conservative commentator. The formative person in Hitchens’s life seems to be his mother Yvonne who had Jewish roots. His account about his mother will remains as one of the most affecting pieces written in our times.

Hitchens being arrested during an anti-apartheid protest in Oxford. Image credits: Daily Mail UK/Billet Potter

An alumni of Balliol College in Oxford, he became a revolutionary in his student years. He was a member of a far-left Trotskyist-Luxemborgist group which became the International Socialist Movement (and eventually, the Socialist workers Party of Britain). As a young socialist, he volunteered to become a coffee plantation worker in revolutionary Cuba. As a definitive member of 60s he emerged as a pamphleteer for the far-left. While in college he befriended Martin Amis and their friendship became a defining event in the life of Hitchens. Although Hitchens had occasional detours to the lands of homosexuality, Mr.Hitchens asserts his camaraderie with Amis as the best that two heterosexual men can have (Amis calls it "a love whose month is ever May"). After college, he was hired by New Statesman, where he worked alongside James Fenton and Ian McEwan. These would be luminaries of English Language enlightened the pages of New Statesman and along they became friends for lifetime. Hitchens, who was always fond of big cities, eventually crossed the Atlantic after being offered a job from The Nation. There, he got invited to the intellectual salons of “New York Intellectuals” and befriended the likes of Lionel Trilling. While being a columnist for The Nation, Mr.Hitchens evolved into a polemicist who lacerated demagogues. His rogue list included Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Dalai Lama, Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagen and Michael Moore. The Trials of Kissinger and The Missionary Position, though stranded in place and time, are among the best polemics of 20th century. In one of his first essays after he was diagnosed with cancer, he remarked his wish to write the obituary of Henry Kissinger. Mother Teresa, a holy cow of religious right, suffered dearly at the hands of Hitchens. He followed his best-seller book on Mother Teresa with a documentary titled “Hell’s Angels”. His less salient targets included Lady Diana, Mel Gibson and Cindy Sheehan.

Hitchens’ fall out with what is often called as the American Left started with the events of September 11, 2001. A date on which the sky came falling down, Hitchens (by now, a Washington DC resident) opened his new war-front against political Islam. He popularized the phrase Islamo-fascism and entered public debates with the pacifist wing of the liberal establishment. He along with the Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, author Peter Galbraith, Labour MP Ann Clwyd, Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus and Iraqi Politician Ahmed Chalabi formed a pro-intervention group on the left. He had also served alongside Susan Sontag and David Rieff as a journalist in Bosnia during the "humanitarian war". Hitchens himself would have liked others to use Iraq in post-positive with Bosnia when remembering him. Hitchens’s urge for dissent was not limited to his columns, he once asked for a Kosher Menu in a restaurant which did not encourage Jews. In a more daring act, he defaced a poster of SSNP (an ultra-nationalist Fascist party in Syria) in Beirut which had a swastika as it’s symbol. The SSNP militia rounded up Hitchens and his escape occurred only after being beaten badly by the SSNP members. Hitchens on being asked about the incident said “I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don't really have the right to leave one alone.” .

A celestial fight against Totalitarianism

For a man of convictions like Hitchens, if there ever was a turn-off, it was certainty. Hitchens abhorred totalitarianism in its entirety. In various times, he has attacked Fascists, Stalinists, Roman Catholic Church, Islamic extremists, Hindu fundamentalists and Jewish settlers. In the last decade he joined forces with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Ayan Hirsi Ali. The secular juggernaut led by the four horseman gained strength and their works contributed to an unprecedented interest in atheism among general populace. In 2007 Hitchens released a major best seller, “God is not great, How religion poisons everything”. With this book he revived the urbane criticism of religion once championed by the likes of Marx and Diderot. Atheism became a major preoccupation for Hitchens and some of his best writings came in this period.. If some of his earlier polemics were stranded in time and place, the celestial dictator offered Hitchens a target worthy of attack. He re-chiseled the ten commandments for Vanity Fair, which admirers like me feel, is a much needed improvement of the original.

Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series has a novel by the name Washington DC, in which characters shed their skeletons which in turn are worn by others. Political Pundits of our times for fear of marooning often take shelter in such skeletons offered by political powerhouses. Hitchens’s success lies in the fact that he never had such Damascus moments. His life remains as a one long fight for moral propositions. The biography industry will soon start its searches for atavism in Hitchens’s story to draw parallels. The probable victims list include Yvonne Hitchens, Eric Hitchens, George Orwell, Trotsky , Thomas Paine and even Kingsley Amis. Yours truly would like to include one more name to the list, the character of photojournalist played by Jacques Perrin in Costa Gavra’s film “Z”. Mr. Hitchens himself has noticed this uncanny resemblance when he visited Greece in 1970 to retrieve his mother’s body (His mother Yvonne Hitchens had committed suicide while she was holidaying in Athens). He was a fearless reporter who did front-line reporting from places like North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Portugal, Cyprus, Granada, Cuba, Lebanon and Argentina. Many a times he ignored the role of passive observer and opted to be a politically minded activist in such places. The idea of compartmentalizing an otherwise sui generis individual like Hitchens is irresistible. But it will be apparent to anyone who has read him or followed his work that, these comparisons are frivolous. To quote Martin Amis, “Christopher was preternatural”.