We were friends, then we were great friends, then we were not so great friends, and we ended up as friends again. I suspect that this story of my relationship with Christopher Hitchens, a writer gifted and prodigal in equal measure who died last week, was not entirely unique. Few people who have met him were left untouched by the encounter or remained indifferent to his life and work. His talent to fascinate and charm people was equaled only by his gift to infuriate. He was one of the few writers who somehow managed to be totally absorbed in his own work and yet totally present to the world around him. To friends, he was always generous with his time, his table, his liquor, and, mostly, his loyalty. To enemies, he was a scourge, persistent and vengeful, taking no prisoners. Enemies he had aplenty, and he never tired of finding new ones. Friends he had many, though the inner circle remained small and largely constant.
His death is a tragedy in more than the obvious sense. His laughter, his wit, his energy, and his roguish charm are as irreplaceable as his encyclopedic knowledge, his hatred of tyranny, and his constant readiness to pierce any bubble of hubris, hypocrisy, or demagoguery. The volume of his journalism and other prose is staggering. His popularity and influence on both sides of the Atlantic have only grown throughout his career and, in the last few years, have reached the level of celebrity, something he would have scorned and relished at the same time. And yet there has always been a sense of something unfinished and incomplete about this remarkable man, which is transparently evident in his writing. A born rebel, a brilliant polemicist, he never wanted for targets to attack. He tore at them with gusto and relish, deconstructing with the meticulous skill of a Chinese reverse engineer. As his reputation and self-confidence grew, so did the stature of his targets, from Mother Teresa to Bill Clinton to God Himself. Sometimes, though, one could not help feeling a sense of waste at the expense of all this negative energy. It often seemed that construction and building were not Christopher’s strongest suits. Maybe the iconoclast in him did not leave room for many positive models; maybe his impatient side prevented him from writing anything much more elaborate than an extended pamphlet. And maybe he was simply shy of offering a vision of his own, of going out on a limb, of hanging it all out. No matter what, he would never be taken in for a sucker.
When we first met, he still considered himself a socialist of the Trotskyite variety and spoke of many people that I had no room for, dead or alive, as “comrades,” a seemingly poor starting point to a friendship. What made it possible for us to cross that divide was his genuine loathing of any form of totalitarianism and dogmatic orthodoxy, that and the fact that I found it hard to take his revolutionary aspirations very seriously. He was too debonair, too hedonistic, and too much of a thinking man to last more than a week on any politburo. Born in the same year, we quickly discovered shared tastes in literature, poetry, drama, music, and a few other things. The evenings we spent together, often with our wives, were among my most cherished memories of Washington.
The reason we parted ways had nothing to do with our differing views—first on the world revolution, and later on Israel and the Palestinians, Zionism, and his crusade (pun unintended) against God. Not only Christopher tolerated differences as well as any man, but actually needed them to satisfy his one, all-embracing passion, the love of a good argument. As often happened with him, the reasons for our falling out were purely personal, and with the course of time less and less important. I wrote when he fell ill, he answered back, we continued. Along with a large number of people, I will badly miss this conversation.
Photo Credit: Hugh Greentree