"Christopher Hitchens As Gertrude Stein"
I didn’t write anything on the occasion of Christopher Hitchens’ death, because I didn’t feel like I had much to add. I never met him, though we were neighbors, and I occasionally saw him getting out of cabs. There are candles, flowers, and bottles of whisky in a makeshift shrine outside his building. And I wasn’t overly influenced by his writing, though this line from a review of Philip Roth remains an all-time great: “When Raymond Chandler felt things going limp in a story, he would have the door open and then it would be: Enter a man carrying a gun. When Roth is in the same fix, we know that some luckless goy chick is about to get it in the face. Exit reader.” But I’ve rather enjoyed watching the people who did know first Hitchens glorify him — and by extension themselves — and then dissect him. And I love this parody, by Neal Pollack, of the whole arc:
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. The next thing I knew, it was two days later and I was lying hogtied and naked beside the M5. Hitch had already severely damaged my reputation in a vicious essay in the Guardian. But that’s how he operated, and that’s why we loved him.
It’s rather wonderfully reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “A Twenties Memory” (and by extension Midnight in Paris):
I remember one afternoon we were sitting at a gay bar in the south of France with our feet comfortably up on stools in the north of France, when Gertrude Stein said, “I’m nauseous.” Picasso thought this to be very funny and Matisse and I took it as a cue to leave for Africa. Seven weeks later, in Kenya, we came upon Hemingway. Bronzed and bearded now, he was already beginning to develop that familiar flat prose style about the eyes and mouth. Here, in the unexplored dark continent, Hemingway had braved chapped lips a thousand times. “What’s doing, Ernest?” I asked him. He waxed eloquent on death and adventure as only he could, and when I awoke he had pitched camp and sat around a great fire fixing us all fine derma appetizers. I kidded him about his new beard and we laughed and sipped cognac and then we put on some boxing gloves and he broke my nose.
Hitchens seems to have been singularly successful at setting up his approval and friendship as highly valuable commodities, less Orwell than the version of Gertrude Stein in Allen’s story. I can understand why, I suppose. In an age of specialists, generalists hold a special fascination. A capacity for alcohol can seem like an important marker of physical tolerance in an intellectual community (though I think Katha Pollitt does a particularly nice job dismantling why that should be true). And if you know someone with the capacity to pronounce loudly and emphatically on your fitness as a person and a thinker, all the better to have them pronounce in your favor. It’s fun being a sage or judge. But I’m always curious about the impulse to make yourself an acolyte.