AUTHOR’S NOTE: I had just finished this essay when I heard the terrible news that my friend Christopher had a cancer whose prognosis was dire. My heart and thoughts go out to him, as they would to a brother. I have known Christopher as a man of great courage and decency and have an affection for him that is not adequately expressed in the intellectual argument that follows. It is indeed an intellectual argument, and Christopher, I am sure, will welcome it as a testament to the way in which he has challenged us all — just as I am sure that he will continue to do so.
This is the first of a two-part series.
I first met Christopher Hitchens in 1970 when I was editing Ramparts, then the largest magazine of the Left. Hitchens, who was fresh out of Oxford and ten years my junior, was embarking on his first adventure in the New World. When he arrived at my Berkeley office looking for guidance, and after we had gotten acquainted, he asked me in all seriousness, “Where is the working class?” Only the devout Left — the “holy rollers” as I thought of them — still believed in this mythical entity in the nation where every man was king. But rather than make an issue of it, I directed my visitor to the local Trotskyists, failing to realize that he was one of them.
Our next encounter took place a dozen years later and was not nearly as pleasant. By then I had abandoned most tenets of the leftist faith, although not yet departed its community. I was invited to a small lunch at which Hitchens was present with Nation editors Victor Navasky and Kai Bird, and one or two others. Before long the conversation at the table turned to the Middle East, and I found myself confronting what in those days we referred to as a political “gut check.” What was my attitude, Hitchens wanted to know, towards Israel’s invasion of Lebanon? The Left abhorred the invasion, whose purpose was to clear out the PLO terrorists who had entrenched themselves behind an international border and were shelling towns in northern Israel, killing civilians. “This is the first Israeli war I have supported,” I said, thereby ending any fraternal possibilities for the remaining conversation.
Two years later, my writing partner Peter Collier and I voted for Ronald Reagan, and three years after that organized a “Second Thoughts” conference, which brought together former radicals like ourselves who had become advocates of the anti-Communist cause, specifically in Nicaragua and Vietnam. Hitchens came to the conference with his Nation cohort and long-time friend, Alexander Cockburn, and attacked us. In the Nation column he later filed, Hitchens described our implication that second thoughts might be superior to first ones as “smug,” and my suggestion that supporting America’s enemies should be considered treason, as “sinister.”
But times change, and now Hitchens himself has been associated with a generation of post–9/11 second-thoughters. He has revised his attitudes towards the Left and its loyalties and has vaunted a patriotism towards America he would once have thought of as, well, sinister. To commemorate and explicate these heresies, which he prefers to describe as a “mutation” rather than a “metamorphosis,” he has written an engrossing memoir, called Hitch-22. Among its other uses, the book provides a fertile occasion for those of us who preceded him to take a second look at second thoughts, and to measure the distances that we, and our one-time antagonist, have come.
Hitchens is a man of such unruly contradictions that it may be said of him, as Dr. Johnson did of the metaphysical poets, that he has “the ability to yoke heterogeneous ideas by violence together.” Opponent of America’s war in Vietnam and supporter of America’s war in Iraq; libertarian defender of free-market capitalism and unabashed admirer of Trotsky and Marx; friend to Paul Wolfowitz, a neoconservative hawk, and to Victor Navasky, an apologist for the Rosenbergs, Hamas, and Alger Hiss.
It is not only incompatible ideas and comrades that Hitchens comfortably embraces, but modes of being. He is both a political renegade and keeper of the flame, a ferocious partisan and practiced ironist, a postmodern skeptic and romantic nostalgist, a passionate moralist and calculating operator, a hard-headed critic and dewy-eyed sentimentalist, a serious thinker and attention grabber, irreverent contrarian and serenader of the choir, one-dimensional polemicist and literary polymath, self-styled Man of the People and accomplished social climber, and — most inexplicable — an Oxonian gentleman with conservative manners who is also a master of vitriol and ad hominem.
If there is one thing to be discovered in reading Hitchens’s memoir, it is that there are not many things you will figure out about Hitchens that he has not already thought of himself. Thus his chronicle opens with a wonderfully realized account of his origins, containing portraits of his conservative naval father and romantic mother, “two much opposed and sharply discrepant ancestral stems: two stray branches that only war and chance could ever have caused to become entwined.” On the one side the rebel who refused to know her place; on the other the man Hitchens calls the Commander, who defended Britain in the war and of whom he says in tribute, “Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done.”
Throughout this narrative, we are alerted to Hitchens’s pursuit of “the Janus-faced mode of life.” As the Roman god of temple doorways, Janus looked both ways and is depicted with two faces in the statuary honoring him. Grabbing the horns of his own enigma, Hitchens observes that the doors of the temple were open in time of war, and war “is a time when the ideas of contradiction and conflict are most naturally regnant,” and that the most intense wars are civil, and the most rending conflicts internal. “What I hope to do now,” he says of the text before us, “is give some idea of what it is like to fight on two fronts at once, to try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind, even occasionally to show two faces at the same time.”