December 20, 2011

A Contrary Life

A motif emerges in friends’ reminiscences of the alternately brilliant and maddening Christopher Hitchens. At some point they all have to note that they didn’t agree with Hitchens on everything. In fact his barbed-wire views were so various, so untethered from standard ideological allegiances, that it is mathematically impossible to agree with all of them.

Many of the tributes mull the question of whether Hitchens was, in the end, a man of the left or right. If you go by the degree of discomfort eulogists of both factions display toward him, he winds up on the left. His liberal friends may have a tough time accepting his unrepentant touting of the Iraq conflict, but that pales compared to conservative distaste for his atheism and general loathing for hierarchy. Lots of young Trotskyites wound up as neoconservatives. Hitchens didn't so much discard one for the other as fuse the impulses together, with ferocity of judgment the bonding agent.

Admiring individual contrarians, as opposed to contrarianism itself, can be a fraught business. When summoning a pithy Mencken quote one has to keep in mind his pro-German sentiments in the lead-up to WWII. In late career, the contrarian may reveal himself not as an all-around puncturer of fuzzy thinking, but a much less interesting creature, the hedonistic Tory.

Still, one can look to figures like Hitchens and Mencken for the aspiration to question assumed truths, and to pursue logical propositions to their pitiless conclusions. To defend itself, even a culture of empathy needs the ability to construct an argument. Relying on cant or empty pieties leaves you only able to sputter when challenged. What does not kill your argument makes it stronger.

No matter how intense a detractor one might be of one Hitchens stance or another, the techniques he uses are transferable to the support of any position based on facts and reason.

If you look at him as a practitioner of the vanishing art of debate, his weak arguments become as informative as his strong ones. There you see the dodges you might skewer when deployed against you. In neocon mode, Hitchens cheats wildly, engaging his opponents’ worst arguments or resorting to untestable counterfactual assertions. This is where you see his twin passions, his hatred of tyranny and religion, combining to overwhelm the skepticism that anchors his best polemical writing.

I certainly envy the legendary Hitchens recall—virtually everything he read went straight to the memory bank and stayed there. As someone who makes his living as a writer, I can only gasp at his mammoth output, mysteriously squeezed into days given over to the voracious pursuit of Johnny Walker-fueled conversation. One account clocks him at a hard-to-credit 10,000 words per day—all the more staggering when you consider time spent on reading and other research.

With his prodigious intake of Scotch and cigarette smoke, Christopher Hitchens embodied the romantic image of the hard-drinking, hard-typing man of letters. I’m happy to identify with that so long as I don’t have to do it. His early death from esophageal cancer illustrates the real-life hazards of that image. As any contrarian knows, being a romantic figure is a dangerous business.