The Tenth Man
The key to Christopher Hitchens wasn’t his iconoclasm; it was his desire for belonging—and the proof can be found in an unexpected place
By November 1973, Hitchens was indeed living a life of coffee with cream, Campari with gin, and bores neutralized by laughter. A few years before, his parents had informally split; Hitchens’ chief annoyance with this seems to have been the needlessness and banality of their having waited until the kids grew up to do it. He was in London writing for the New Statesman when his mother and her lover—a former reverend who became devoted to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and converted her to same—committed a grisly double-suicide in a hotel in Athens (they overdosed on sleeping pills; he additionally cut himself in the bath). She had always, Hitchens notes ruefully in his memoir, had a “weakness for ‘New Age’ and faddish and cultish attractions.” Hitchens, then 24, had to fly there and had to see a photograph of her corpse. “I shall always have to wonder if she had briefly regained consciousness, or perhaps even belatedly regretted her choice, and tried at the very last to stay alive,” he sighs. According to the hotel’s records, likely the final thing she had done had been to try to call him. Perhaps it was to tell him good-bye. As it stood, the last conversation they had, he remembered, included her musing that she might move to Israel, of all places. The Yom Kippur War had recently begun.
Yvonne’s death, ghastly and undoubtedly traumatic, did not slow Hitchens down. If anything, it hastened his ascent. Yet it also must have taken the person he had been—“What it is to be twenty-four, and fairly new to London, and cutting your first little swathe through town”—and given him a sour undertone, a sense of the tragic, a complication. He could no longer be just another radical hack.
Not much happens in Ulysses. Odysseus’ 10-year, island-hopping homecoming is reduced to one (admittedly long) day in the life of Bloom, a Dublin advertising salesman. His wife, Molly—his Penelope—is a singer who is cheating on him with her manager. Odysseus’ trip to Hades is a funeral Bloom attends; the Cyclops is a drunken, anti-Semitic, and (naturally) eye-patched Irish nationalist; and so on.
And Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope’s son, is Stephen Dedalus, a young man who has returned from Paris because his mother has died, and who now wanders Dublin, forlorn—he misses Paris, and he feels suffocated by the dead mother and the dying motherland. What catharsis the novel achieves comes near the end when Bloom rescues a drunk Stephen from a beating being doled out by two English police officers and ferries him home. Bloom, whose son Rudy died as an infant more than a decade before, seems for a brief moment to have a male child again, while Stephen … well, Bloom cannot be his surrogate father, for Stephen’s father is very much alive. Stephen’s mother has just died, however, and so if anything it is Molly, sleeping upstairs, who adopts Stephen as her son.
The novel consists of 18 chapters, most of which reflect episodes of the Odyssey. It is common, among Joyce devotees, to ask which your favorite is. Chapter 9, Hitchens’ choice, is called “Scylla and Charybdis”; you may recall from high school that these are the monster and the whirlpool at opposite ends of a narrow channel through which Odysseus must safely steer his ship. In this chapter, Stephen unveils his ingenious theory of Hamlet, whose broad outline is accepted by Shakespeare scholars today but which in 1921 was still novel: namely, that the character Hamlet is not a reflection of Shakespeare, but rather of Shakespeare’s dead son.
The analysis is perfectly sound from a literary perspective, but it is also nearly beside the point: Stephen’s exegesis on Hamlet is most interesting for what it reveals—a portal of discovery—about Stephen. Stephen blames Shakespeare’s wife for inhibiting the playwright’s genius by forcing him never to fully sever ties with his hometown. But when Stephen inserts himself into Shakespeare’s life story, the dominant, older woman who comes to mind is his mother. An analogy is thus set up: Shakespeare desired the greatness of London but was pulled back to Stratford by Hathaway; Stephen desires the greatness of Paris but is pulled back to Dublin by his mother, “hurrying,” he thinks in this chapter, “to her squalid deathlair from gay Paris.” On her deathbed, she begged him to observe Christian rites. Stephen, once marked by the Jesuits for the priesthood, has completely turned his back on religion and refused, breaking his mother’s heart one last time. “You could have knelt down, damn it, Kinch, when your dying mother asked you,” Stephen’s roommate berates him. “To think of your mother begging you with her last breath to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused.” Stephen believes he had to refuse, and if anything he is resentful that his mother should have expected otherwise. “No, mother!” he thinks. “Let me be and let me live.”