Imperial ‘Itch

December 22, 2011
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Christopher Hitchens was a big and impressive figure. And the sheer scale of the commentary after his death is a testament to one of his most attractive qualities: his capacity for close friendship, especially among his fellow writers and journalists, the gatekeepers of the public domain. But the mainly admiring accounts of the man and his life felt one dimensional—too much the central casting Hitchens, the fearless intellectual pugilist, the man of great appetites and so on.

This is not meant as an antidote to the eulogies (if you want those read Michael Lind and Neal Pollack at Salon), more an attempt to place him and understand him—and I write as a mere beginner in Hitchens studies: I have read a fair amount of his journalism but only a couple of his many books.

Indeed, one aspect of the eulogies I can confirm from personal experience. He was a great encourager of youth and youthful enterprises. In the early years of Prospect he was supportive and friendly and agreed unhesitatingly, for an almost non-existent fee, to a debate on the legacy of the 1960s with his brother Peter in these pages. And he later came to London to conduct the debate in person (a video is online here) at a Prospect event. (He didn’t bother to prepare and lost the debate, as he lost many of his Iraq war debates, notably the one with George Galloway.)

Later I fell out with him in a small way. Alex Linklater, a former Hitchens acolyte, wrote a brilliant portrait of him in 2008 that was respectful but not uncritical. When I next met him, at Hay in 2009 looking bloated and awful, I asked him what he thought of Alex's piece and he grunted in an unfriendly way about how offended he was by the caricature of him that we had used to illustrate the piece. When I heard he was dying I meant to establish friendly relations again, at least by email, but never did.

But surely the interesting thing about Hitchens—and what made him what he was—is that he stood at the intersection of late imperial Britain and hedonistic, baby-boomer Britain. And wasn't the apparent streak of self-loathing and the alcoholism (of course he was an alcoholic, albeit a highly functioning one) the compliment that the latter paid to the former.

He was born 18 months after Indian independence but as the son of a naval officer and through his public school and Oxford education he was, in part, trained for an imperial role that had just ceased to exist. He was old enough to catch a whiff of the ambition and grandeur of empire, and perhaps to feel a sense of respect and envy for his predecessors (including those who had just fought in the second world war). Hitchens liked that big stage and clung to the manner of the imperial intellectual in the sense that he felt he should have a view on (and possibly take part in) all the great conflicts going on around the world, many of which Britain still had a hand in during the 1960s and 1970s. Of course he belonged (at least for most of his life) to the left-wing current in the imperial elite, but Marxists and imperialists spoke a similar language, they both came from nowhere and saw the world "from above." Like the British imperial elite he never really belonged to a country—countries were for the little people.

Or rather he had no political allegiance to a country (except America towards the end of his life), but he remained, of course, drenched in English culture and letters. The most abiding image for me from all the eulogies was Francis Wheen describing playing “Abide with Me” on the piano in Hitchens's Washington flat and turning round and seeing tears pouring down Christopher's cheeks. My immediate thought was Kim Philby in Moscow—another member of the imperial elite who turned sharp left. (I don't want to push the analogy too far, but wouldn't Orwell have found many aspects of Hitchens rather ridiculous, with his embrace of America having something in common, psychologically if not politically, with the intellectual left's embrace of the Soviet Union in the 1930s?) But don't those tears tell us something else too—that here was a man of sentimentality and idealism, a man who wanted to believe, who wanted to commit and belong. A man with a religious temperament, as Ian Buruma pointed out in a famous review of Hitchens's God is not Great, with a black and white view of the world, weeping for somewhere pure and resolved that exists only in the imagination.

His politics were imperial and de haut en bas in another sense. He was not really interested in "the people," unless they were a long way away. When they were closer to hand, in Cowley for example, he seemed only too keen to swap his car-worker daytime donkey jacket for black tie and intellectual/sexual jousting in the evening. It is hard to resist the thought that he was only a leftie because that was the most romantic and interesting cause when he was growing up, and when the energy and ideas moved to the right perhaps he would have moved there too if Peter hadn’t already occupied that space. In any case he was never interested in economics or welfare states or the nitty-gritty of incremental improvement to people's lives. In that he also reflected the left's "cultural" turn in the 1970s away from organised labour towards the rainbow coalition of gender and minority politics. But Hitchens, famously a rumbustious man's man, was hardly a natural for rainbow coalition politics (especially the gender bit), though he did share the British new left's hostility to its own country.

The work of equality, or building the institutions to promote it, is a slow, often tedious, collective endeavour. Raising the banner for liberty against the authorities is easier and quicker, and can be done by one person sitting alone behind a typewriter. Perhaps it's no wonder that the baby boomer generation gave up the work of hard construction for pleasure in destruction. "Tutto e subito": we want everything and we want it now as the Italian 1968er slogan had it. Christopher represented this shift didn't he? A sybaritic figure and a great destroyer too. A sort of Enoch Powell of the left—not a team player, a man who followed only his own gods.

And Hitchens had enough self-knowledge to understand that somewhere along the road he had become an emblem of baby boom irresponsibility and, I suspect, hated himself for it. He may never have missed a journalistic deadline but in the bigger picture (and in his own judgement) he was unable to produce any intellectual work of lasting value, always distracted by the next conversation or drinking session.

In a very English way his conviviality was surely a cover for his unhappiness, or at least a complement to it. A more fulfilled character does not need that constant injection of alcoholic oblivion nor the craving for an audience, for attention, for recognition. And, to indulge more psychological speculation, do not the main objects of his polemical attacks all represent part of him? Henry Kissinger, the modern day imperialist moving the pieces on the global chess board, as he dreamt of doing. Winston Churchill, the statesman and man of letters who was tested by big events in a way that Hitchens never was. Mother Teresa, the life of sacrifice to a bigger cause that perhaps Hitchens yearned for. Bill Clinton, the hedonistic baby boomer with insufficient self-discipline. He was Hitchens but with the most powerful country in the world to run too. And surely he made a better fist of it than either the Bush that came before or the one who came after him. Yet he was excoriated by Hitchens, unable to deal in the messy realities of power and compromise. Clinton was flawed and no doubt abused power, but he made life fractionally better for the average American. And those in the Bush team that Hitchens ended up saluting were hardly angels.

He may have had a great talent for friendship, but he also had a great talent for destroying it. The self-destructive Hitchens annihilated many of his American friendships in his moralistic pursuit of Clinton. And towards the end of his life he seemed increasingly the true believer adrift. The certainty was more important than the object of it. Then, at the very end, he returned to the British public school/imperial idea—that he had spent so much of his life ridiculing—that ultimately character is all that matters in a leader.

Perhaps his tragedy was that he made the incoherent seem too coherent through the sheen of personality and fluent argument—that was his Mephistophelean gift and the attraction to those of us less able to pull it off. It was a confidence trick, the same confidence trick that 100 years ago allowed the British district administrator to rule over a million people with a handful of loyal men. And maybe that explains the disproportionate interest, at least in Britain, in his passing—he is on the one hand one of the last of those big, quasi-imperial figures, a reminder of a time when Britain was a bigger place, but, on the other hand, strip away the facade and he is merely a Washington bon vivant and minor media celebrity, a true reminder of our diminished status.

More Christopher Hitchens in Prospect:

How to be a public intellectual Voted the world’s fifth best public intellectual,Christopher Hitchens takes on the uses and abuses of the term

Pinochet, Milosevic… Henry Kissinger?Christopher Hitchens and David Rieffexchange frank views on politics, personalities and what constitutes a war criminal

The legacy of the sixties Was the sixties the start of a slide into moral and political nihilism or a flawed but authentic progressive convulsion? Brothers Peter and Christopher Hitchens debate

VIDEOPeter and Christopher Hitchens discuss the Abolition of Britain in a Prospect debate chaired by John Humphrys

Profile: Christopher Hitchens From ’68 agitator to staunch supporter of George W Bush’s Iraq war—what explains Hitchens’s political journey? Alexander Linklaterspent three days with him in Washington trying to find out

The art of the essay Christopher Hitchens is the embodiment of the well-informed essayist, Philip Hensher writes. The others aren’t even worth disagreeing with