An easy label for Christopher Hitchens? Careful, it could be a fighting word
Thursday, June 3, 2010
"Help me do something bad," The Hitch asks, as a welcome into his Kalorama apartment.
Now there's an invitation. Who does bad better than Christopher Hitchens? Maggie Thatcher, the British prime minister whom Hitchens declared "sexy," once dubbed him a "naughty boy," and there's always someone on the left or the right -- or both -- calling him worse.
At this moment, though, Hitchens only needs an accomplice in the naughtiness of smoking a cigarette inside his apartment. That violates what his wife, Carol Blue, later observes with both affection and exasperation, is an "alleged" and frequently broken vow. Together, we slide a round, marble-top table over to the window, seeking ventilation, careful not to upend glasses of Johnnie Walker Black Label that Hitchens has deemed suitable refreshment because it's just past noon.
Hitchens swore off smoking a couple of years back in an orgy of self-improvement concocted by Vanity Fair, whose editors talked him into writing about getting a Brazilian bikini wax and prettifying his "British teeth," which he remembers as "crooked and jagged snaggle-fangs." He returned to the indulgent crutch of nicotine last fall during an all-nighter wrestling with the final chapter of his memoir, "Hitch-22," which debuted this week. "The book made me do it," he says through a cumulus of smoke.
His exhales hang in a muggy Washington afternoon and Hitchens sweats through a blousy cotton shirt. His hair flops disobediently into his eyes and he gathers it up from time to time with a swipe. His complexion has the pinkish hue of a man who has been known to smoke in the shower and takes his cocktails early and often. He is handsome in a rakish, though puffy, way. He has described his body -- quite accurately -- as "porpoise-like" and written of his "respectable minimum of secondary and tertiary chins," all of which survived his short-lived fitness regimen.
He confides that he considered titling his memoir "Both Sides Now." Hitchens, now 61, could probably argue any position, like the ultimate debate club champ. Over the years, he's battered away at Henry Kissinger ("war criminal"), Bill and Hillary Clinton ("liars"), Mother Teresa ("fanatic fraud") and many more. He's been an avowed socialist, skewered organized religion in the best-selling "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" and defended the Iraq war, a position that alienated much of the left.
With Hitchens, fighting is animating.
"I'd rather have an argument than be bored," he says between puffs. "It's some insecurity of mine -- I find it hard not to win. I'm not good at conceding. That hasn't made me easy to live with."
Try to find a label for him and he'll argue that, too. He once wrote a book called "Letters to a Young Contrarian," but he regrets the title. He's not a contrarian, he says. "They say I picked a fight with Mother T. or Bill Clinton. Nobody ever says I wrote books about Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell. They call me a polemicist, a street fighter. As if I went looking for these fights -- they actually found me."
A conversation with Hitchens mimics a trip through Wikipedia. Every thought is hyperlinked, with one subject slaloming into the next in ways baffling and enlightening, confounding and profound. In just a few minutes, sipping by the window, he invokes Kingsley Amis, Julian Barnes, Evelyn Waugh and Eric Idle, to name only a few.
The statue across the street of Civil War general George B. McClellan reminds him, naturally . . . of Karl Marx. "Did you know Marx's best book was about the Civil War?" he says. He prefaces a recollection about something Barnes once told him by saying, "This is showing off." Monty Python figures into the conversation because Hitchens once sang "The Philosophers Song" onstage at the Sydney Opera House during a book festival, and he's pleased to reprise his performance.
"Plato, they say, could stick it away," Hitchens half-sings, half-recites. "Half a crate of whiskey every day/Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle/Hobbes was fond of his dram/And René Descartes was a drunken fart/I drink, therefore I am."