He wasn’t brought up in all the government, religion, philosophy and English courses I took in college. Just like Joseph Campbell, he seems to have existed on the periphery. Things have not changed as I still struggle to find someone who knows of him and can speak thoughtfully about him. Because of this, I feel obligated to do unto you what had been done unto me about nine years ago: an introduction. May I introduce one of the greatest minds to have existed until a week ago, Christopher Hitchens.
I first discovered Hitch while a friend and I watched him on MSNBC. This friend then shared a story about how he was fortunate enough to find himself one evening at the same dinner table with both Hitchens and Pat Buchanan. Never before had he been audience to such eloquence, wit and erudition. He’s the kind of person, my friend went on, that speaks as if his words were scripted. The conversation between the two followed in such line. There were no filler words of um, uh and the like. And the boundaries that corral most discussions dissolved as these men, with gentle ease, skidded across passages of Shakespeare to quotes from obscure authors to pre-Socratic philosophers and lines of poetry that even Google would be hard pressed to find. Without trying, I stumbled up an article corroborating the Hitch-Buchanan synergy.
This was quite enough to pique my interest. What made it even better was mention of his legendary drinking and overall stamina for the combined drinking and conversation power available to few on this earth. Back in 2004, “Operation ‘Buy Hitch a Drink’” attempted to raise monies for the purchase of Johnnie Walker — Hitch’s favorite libation. They had accrued over $600 in three days. About that time, Hitch graciously asked if the money could be donated to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Much more known were his five or even ten hour lunches. Bottles of wine and drams of whisky and cognac would be consumed, and the conversation would be legendary. In all the remembrances since his passing, I’ve come across so many recollections of not just these marathon lunches and dinners but how they were the best afternoons ever spent by those lucky enough to be in Hitch’s company.
One such memory involved a four bottle lunch with Hitch, his editor and a fellow journalist in tow. Hitch had a deadline set for that day. After the lunch, Hitch and company went back to his apartment where he took just one hour to type out — with only his index fingers — a luminous 1,000 word article that needed no further refining. Damn the reporter for not listing what this article was, by the way. Alas, it could have easily been each article he ever wrote. There are quite simply scores of stories like this. Outnumbering this type of storytelling, however, are the many, many more stories and accounts of Hitchens being a contrarian, a demon behind the podium, a rhetorician, a force usually dreamt up in books and movies but rarely from real life.
It is this part of Hitchen’s life that seems to have garnered him more hatred than almost any other. When being introduced for a debate, the moderator mentioned how Hitchens was invited by the Vatican to be an actual devil’s advocate and argue against sainthood of Mother Teresa. Hitch could be overheard saying, “The old bitch got it anyway.” In other debates, he would sometimes call out a question as stupid or get riled up and demand an apology. His anger was stunning.
This bothered many people. In a very thoughtful blog entry, writer and journalist Micah Sifry blames Hitch’s outbursts on a growing narcissistic strain within Hitch, helped along with too much alcohol.
I’ve thought a lot about this type of sass and how I reconcile it with my admiration for such a man. And then I remembered Jon Stewart’s visit on the now defunct CNN show, Crossfire. While it’s still difficult for me to watch, I do so with an abounding glee as Stewart allows his own anger at both the conservative Tucker Carlson and liberal Paul Begala for perpetuating the type of vitriol that stifles real change and elucidation in American politics. Very soon after, Crossfire was canceled, and Stewart’s appearance on the show is cited as the primary reason for the cancellation. I’m also reminded of Stewart’s recollection of how comedian Bill Hicks taught him “to walk the room”:
“If Hicks didn’t think that the room was worthy of him, he would ‘walk it,’ that is, drive his comedy further than even he might normally think of doing. ‘The audience’s apathy spurred him on,’ [Jon] Stewart says. For instance, at one gig, as Hicks was launching into a bit about the Zapruder film, a drunken blonde called up to him, ‘You suck!’ Hicks rolled the words around in his mouth, stepped downstage and pointed to the woman. ‘Get out! Get out, you fucking drunk bitch! Take her out! Take her fucking out! Take her somewhere that’s good. Go see fuckin’ Madonna, you fucking idiot piece of shit!’ Hicks began to imitate her voice– ‘You suck, buddy! You suck!’ –and ended up skipping around the stage in her persona. ‘I got a cunt and I’m drunk. I can do anything I wa-aant! I don’t have a cock! I can yell at performers! I’m a fucking idiot ‘cause I got a cunt!’ He knelt down. ‘I want you to find a fucking SOUL!!!!’”
–from the Introduction written by John Lahr in Bill Hicks: Love All The People: Letters, Lyrics, Routines
After I read this, I put the book down in shock and realized that Stewart walked the room that day that he went on Crossfire. This type of anger also reminded me of the movie Network. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore,” is the line that should be going through your head. Was Hitchens mean? Did he step over the line? Sure. But his anger was rarely gratuitous, unlike the likes of Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. When you live your life in the muck that is the larger national conversation, when you face, from day to day, from episode to episode, from debate to debate, from audience to audience, with people who are an insult to an educated mind, with people who have so little respect for their own opinions to not read and write themselves into knowing, isn’t anger warranted?