For most of his 40-year career, Christopher Hitchens’s notoriety has been confined to highbrow journalistic, literary and political circles. In the last 15 years, he has been familiar to readers of Vanity Fair and the Atlantic, and to viewers of the American current affairs shows that invite him on to say outrageous things in stylish phrases. His aptitude for the iconoclastic flourish—describing Princess Diana and Mother Teresa at their deaths, for example, as, respectively, "a simpering Bambi narcissist and a thieving fanatical Albanian dwarf"—sustained his currency as an intellectual shock troop of the left. Then, with his support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and for George W Bush’s re-election in 2004, the left itself became a target of his polemics. But whichever side he took, he continued to file what were essentially minority reports to a specialist audience. Only God was able to promote him beyond such factional interests by providing the subject of a bestseller. While Hitchens has authored 16 books, including works on Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, the Elgin marbles, George Orwell, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, his assault on religion in God is not Great was the first occasion for which a publisher had arranged a serious US book tour.
Now his proselytising atheism has granted him something like the status of a household name. But why does this insolently charismatic, upper middle-class Englishman seem to attract, and repel, so many people? It may be something about the way in which he combines a raffish, old-fashioned intellectual showmanship with an eye for the big story. His current battle against faith is the biggest of his career—it is the earliest argument he remembers having as a child, and the one that will be with him to the end.
Christopher Hitchens’s apartment is curiously unchanged in the 13 years since I first visited him in Washington. A portrait of him and his wife, screenwriter Carol Blue, is still unframed. There is little art on the walls, few travel mementos; just bookshelves, a spacious living room, a modest kitchen and an annex for the alcohol. The aesthetic is not so much utilitarian as uncluttered of anything that would distract from the essentials of his life: reading, meeting people, drinking, laughing, arguing, writing.
It’s around 3am, there’s a half-empty bottle of whisky on the table and Hitchens is regressing. I’ve come to trace a pamphleteer’s journey through the ideological left—from the convulsions of 1968, through the inversions of 1989 and into the moral convolutions of Iraq. But as our first conversation unravels, Hitchens guides me back to one of his old strongholds—the 17th-century contest between king and parliament of the English civil war.
For Hitchens, the Cromwellian revolt represents not just the foundational struggle for parliamentary rule, but the great rejection of divine right. Relishing its triumphal Protestant music, he launches into a recital of "The Battle of Naseby," Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 19th-century eulogy to the decisive encounter, in 1645, of the English revolution. (Hitchens’s memory is encyclopaedic. Ian McEwan has observed that it is as if everything he has ever read or heard is "instantly neurologically available.")
In God Is Not Great, he declares himself a "Protestant" atheist. He claims that the liturgies of the King James Bible and Cranmer prayer book provided, at once, a poetics to embrace and a belief system to reject. He plucks a secular vocabulary from the literary canon and rips away its religious roots. But he is no optimistic Enlightenment rationalist. He identifies himself with Thomas Paine’s disillusion at the French terror, and Rosa Luxemburg’s famous warning to Lenin about the inexorability of one-man rule. He retains, however, from his Marxist youth an intellectual absolutism and a disdain for liberal dilemmas and trade-offs—hence a brutal assault on Isaiah Berlin’s genteel liberalism in a 1998 essay. And there is an undertow of violence in his arguments, an inability to empathise. He is, for example, incurious about what religious belief feels like, or what meaning it has for millions of people—even though, unlike his co-anti-religionist Richard Dawkins, Hitchens concedes that religious feeling is ineradicable.
As with other public polemicists, arguments for or against any issue become arguments for or against him. His starting point is always confrontation, his procedure to wrestle out contradiction, his endpoint a position of certainty. It’s that preternatural capacity for certainty, carried through the velocity and elegance of his writing, which has made him the most scintillating and disturbing British journalist of the ’68 generation. He is not exaggerating much when he says: "The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them."
…For all that the personality is exorbitantly on display, he has scarcely written about himself before. The only near-intimate account he has laid down in print was a piece published in 1988 by the New York magazine Grand Street—called "On Not Knowing the Half of It." In this he tells the story of how his brother discovered, many years after her death, that their mother had been Jewish. Much of the article is exercised by the question of whether his inheritance played a part in the shaping of his views. Largely, he concludes with satisfaction, it did not. He describes his annoyance at an editor telling him that it would make things easier because Jews are allowed to criticise Israel. The legacy of the ’68 generation he most deplores is that of identity politics or any argument that begins "speaking as a…"—gay man, Scot, single mother, Muslim and so on. Nevertheless, while he revolts against the Kiplingesque notion of "thinking with the blood," he relishes the surprise of his ethnicity and at least a remote connection to a great tradition of critics and intellectual outsiders.
It seems it was an atmosphere of genteel antisemitism in Britain generally, and of conservative opinion in her husband’s family more particularly, that persuaded Yvonne Hitchens to keep her Jewishness secret. One of the more "narcissistic recollections" in the Grand Street article suggests how she transferred her ambitions on to her first son. Hitchens recalls overhearing an argument between his parents during which his father declared that they couldn’t afford private school fees. His mother disagreed, concluding with the retort: "If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it." By insisting that the necessary sacrifices be made, she was doing more, Hitchens suspects, than merely ensuring his social elevation. "Now I wish I could ask my mother," he wrote, "was all this effort expended, not just to make me a gentleman, but to make me an Englishman?"
"Luke Ford reports all of the 'juicy' quotes, and has been doing it for years." (Marc B. Shapiro)
"This guy knows all the gossip, the ins and outs, the lashon hara of the Orthodox world. He’s an [expert] in... all the inner workings of the Orthodox world." (Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff)
"This generation's Hillel." (Nathan Cofnas)