Hitchens: A Life Lived in Literature

Christopher Hitchens

I must say that I was never a fan of Christopher Hitchens, who died last week. Though I found him brilliant and provocative and stimulating, I didn’t like his scorched earth approach to debating. (We see enough of that in politics.) While his admirers praised him as a modern George Orwell, principled and determined to root out bullshit wherever he found it, I was always suspicious of what I saw as a self-righteous mean streak. To his credit, he would mix it up with anyone and would talk to anyone (especially students) for however long one wanted to talk to him.  However, as I wrote in a past post, even when I agreed with him I often didn’t like the part of myself that he appealed to.

I also think that his embrace of neoconservative foreign policy and his support for the Iraq War (which he never regretted) undermines either his claims to caring about humanity or his reputation for seeing things clear.  In my opinion, the suffering that the war brought to the people of Iraq and the toll it took on both America’s ideals and its economics far outweigh the benefits of overthrowing an evil man. If ideas are not just shiny toys but have consequences, then Hitchens has some answering to do.

Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the way that he lived his life in literature. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish alerts me to an article by author Ian McEwan’s that describes how literature was present even in his final days. For instance, there is this:

[T]his was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature. Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd [Peter Ackroyd’s subterranean history of London], he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions towards Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s A German Requiem: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”

At one point McEwan reads Hitchens a haunting poem by Philip Larkin about a train ride. It is clearly a metaphor for life’s journey, and in station after station the poet sees wedding parties—which is to say, other lives beginning, even as his is approaching its end. Life becomes more poignant as we get older, and the poet finds himself paying closer attention as the train progresses:

The Whitsun Weddings

By Philip Larkin

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.

They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl—and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

For me and for McEwan, the poem is comforting, perhaps because the metaphor of life as a journey makes death appear less frightening. It reminds me of the Emily Dickinson poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” which concludes with with the stanza

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

Hitchens found Larkin’s poem less reassuring. McEwan recounts,

I set the poem up and read it, and when I reached that celebrated end, “A sense of falling, like an arrow shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain,” Christopher murmured from his bed, “That’s so dark, so horribly dark.” I disagreed, and not out of any wish to lighten his mood. Surely, the train journey comes to an end, the recently married couples are dispatched towards their separate fates. He wouldn’t have it, and a week later, when I was back in London, we were still exchanging emails on the subject. One of his began: “Dearest Ian, Well, indeed – no rain, no gain – but it still depends on how much anthropomorphizing Larkin is doing with his unconscious … I’d provisionally surmise that ‘somewhere becoming rain’ is unpromising.”

But whether one reads the poem optimistically or pessimistically, it is powerful to see someone interpreting poetry as a way to engage with his upcoming death. If nothing else, Hitchens understood how much is as stake in literature.

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  • Mr. Bates,

    This post and poem is beyond wonderful… I love how he ends the poem… This makes me think, is there any great poems pertaining with life of air planes? I will read this again, and share this post with my friends… Thanks again.

    Good Day…

  • Sean

    I always made time to read Hitchens; he was absolutely refreshing among a lot of writers who always looked for meaning in the meaningless. His style was at times rather vicious and pessimistic, but I really liked how he cut through much of the fluff and nonsense that many seem to just swallow. Religion is an easy target, so it’s no surprise that much of his invective was aimed at those who willingly put themselves out there to be skewered. It’s hard to argue against reason and logic, and he was great at cleverly structuring his writing acoording to both with wit and an abundance of literary references. Well read and versed in politics, there was seldom an event that he couldn’t intelligently comment on.

    However, Robin, I too was troubled at how I felt after reading many of his pieces. Many of them appealed to the darkest and most pessimistic regions of my being. Maybe he was validating my own doubts, struggles with faith, and disgust with certain types, but there was always a grimey film that lingered with me after some of his stuff. Regardless, I’m grateful for individuals, like Hitchens, who are not afraid to push the envelope and engage in real conversations that promote thinking and learning.

  • Jason

    A little thing that bothered me in the NY Times article:

    “Not long after he stole my Ackroyd, he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions towards Turkey…”

    What is the “little thing”? Who is the “Slovakian novelist”? Everything else in the list is delightfully specific, but the Central European is generic. This is not chauvinism on my part – I just felt robbed of a reading tip.

  • Carl

    @John: a wonderful airplane poem: “Icarus”, by Brian Aldiss.

    As for Hitchens, I tend to agree with Robin’s position. All of the major figures in the recent boom of atheist writing (Hitchens, Dennett, Harriss, and there’s one I’m forgetting) tend to have a vitriolic and/or impatient tone, while their opposite number includes both similarly vitriolic believers and much calmer voices (Francis Collins, for example, or the Dalai Lama). I prefer my discourse calm. Still, they all made for compelling reading.

  • Robin Bates

    Wonderful comments. I’m wondering how much allowance we should make for someone who is interesting. Goodness knows, we get trapped into formulaic thinking fairly quickly, and Hitchens had a way of getting us to think fresh thoughts. So Sean, I think you have captured my own ambivalence. Is Dawkins the other name you’re trying to recall, Carl?

    Since posting, I have been reading about Hitchens’s legendary drinking bouts–there’s a debate about whether or not it aided his creativity, but it certainly contributed to his nastiness. But apparently he could, after fighting viciously with you, turn around and be your friend. For what that’s worth.

    But interesting though he was, he doesn’t appear to have approached anything like greatness, even at the level of an Orwell and certainly not that of a Swift. Andrew Sullivan, a friend and admirer of Hitchens, says that it was pride that kept Hitchens from reconsidering his support of the Iraq War–and pride is THE cardinal sin in Swift’s eyes, the vice that brought out his vituperation. I consider Gulliver’s Travels to be the world’s greatest satire, and in Book IV, Swift goes after the know-it-all satirist, which is what Gulliver has become. In other words, Swift wasn’t hesitant about going after satirists, himself included. Hitchens lacked that humility.


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