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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

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Hitchens, 2006. (Christian Witkin)

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.”

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regina winters says:

Having read/heard several decriptions of Hitchens as a self-hating Jew, I was surprised and now am quite of changed-mind. Wonderful article.

Hitchens –how ironic his first name now appears!–is indeed that tenth man…the Johnny-come-lately, the almost-absent, yet the one who allows the Minyan to start its holy work.

This is a fanciful recreation of Hitchens’ life.

It leaves out the essays and books he wrote supporting antisemitic people like Israel Shahak and David Irving (the Holocaust denier) It also left out his anti-Zionist book on the Palestinians.

Hitchens decided to become a Jew (and the story of his mother’s revelation needs to be corroborated by evidence. Was it an accident that he went public with this bit of information when Christopher was being criticized for his association with David Irving?

I think not.

HannaH says:

He was so damn liberal. And I’m so damned conservative. But I love reading anything he wrote. To me it was the only honest man on the left. I will miss him and his memory always be a blessing. He was not a religious man. But I think he was a man of G-d. I think G-d will look kindly on him. We all lost a good man

This reminds me a bit of Bill Maher, who’s also an atheist with a Jewish mother who found out very late in life that his mother was Jewish.

R Bruce Stark says:

Marc- Fabulous synthesis of the yin and the yang of who Christopher Hitchen’s was. Stunning in the way you have shown how his inner search connects to the universal we and the threats to mind, thought, freedom, and truth.
The comments on what “Jewishes” is through the prism of Joyce and the historical evolution of Jewish thought is a remarkable
take on a huge subject. Really thought provoking. “Arguably” the best take on CH yet. Thanks- R. B. Stark
P.S. You just may have inspired a new song– “I wanna Be Jewish”………….for a 21st Century Enlightenment” movement– Post- Fundamentalist, Post Ideological…one can hope (and think)

R Bruce Stark says:

[my typo]should say- ‘Jewishness’ (sorry), or nod to Joyce -Jewish wishes……..

wonderful piece. he would have got a kick out of it

Christopher Orev says:

Nice work, Marc, and produced quickly. Thanks and congrats.

Funny how a man renowned the world over as a lonely, independent-minded, iconoclastic rebel should somehow come to be eulogized by absolutely everyone as a true kindred spirit–even by Marc Tracy, who sees in the virulently anti-Zionist atheist Oxonian the quintessential Jew. Perhaps he wasn’t quite the fearless, conscience-driven man of principle that his followers (presumably with his encouragement) liked to pronounce him to be?

RayneVanDunem says:

Disclaimer: I don’t believe in a deity, and was raised by an Evangelical mother.

Hitchens identified Jewishness with subversiveness, as if Judaism and Jewishness was all supposed to be pigeonholed into a particular “quality”, “relationship” or “function” to or for non-Jews.

After reading an essay from Jewish Ideas Daily about Hitchens’ own lifelong feelings on Judaism and Zionism – Hitchens’ waxed highly vitriolic with some of the most ancient of Christian anxieties about Jews – and then reading this essay AND the Wikipedia bio, I’ve come to see Hitchens as skilled with the pen and with wit but troubled and stunted in his sense of history. He, like many who’ve grown up in Christian or nominally-Christian homes since Christianity became the ideological force that assumed control of what remained of the Roman Empire and the surrounding area, was ideologically imbued with at least some of the obsession over Israel and the Levant that historically resulted in such misadventures as the Crusades. As a result, Jews were pigeonholed by him well before ever finding about his descent from a practitioner. “Good Jew”, “Bad Jew”, “Revolutionary Jew”, “Fascist Jew” and all that.

Other places, like India or China, in which neither Christianity nor Islam were ever major religions have not had this ideological issue of obsession over Israel or pigeonholing/stereotyping Jews until recent.

It’s also reminded me of my own perception of “atheism” as opposed to it as defined by those who view it as an ideology rather than as an absence of at least one ideology: One can doesn’t have to believe in a deity to be overly obsessed with a particular place or culture, or to inherit ancient bigotries, or to inspire fanatic devotion or a general sense of supremacy. I’m worried about all those, and Hitchens is another example of a life which I don’t want to live, no matter its works.

“Must Hitchens have been Jewish”

What the he’ll does this even mean? I literally have no idea.

Peter Painter says:

Hitchens was explicit about his heroes: they included Jefferson, Paine and Burke, but (apart from literary figures such as Joyce) his most unqualified praise was for Orwell.

If Hitchens had formative influences they were therefore Anglo radicals. To claim him for Jewry on the basis of a supposedly shared uppitiness is vulgar, self-aggrandising and encourages the kind of ethnic stereotyping that Jews have good reason to distrust.

In an article for Slate magazine, and elsewhere, Hitchens mused that Israel’s creation might have been a terrible mistake.

I doubt that Mr Tracy is ready to celebrate that degree of “independent thought”.

Peter Painter says:

PS: The New York Times’s silliest columnist, Roger Cohen, today has a piece entitled “Hitchens the American”. Now that he’s safely dead it seems like everyone wants a bit of Hitch.

Jermaine says:

It is ridiculous, self-aggrandizing and hypocritical to describe how being Jewish shaped the thinking of a man like Christopher Hitchens, who was at most one-quarter Jewish and a lifelong atheist. If someone made a similar argument about say, Paul Wolfowitz, they would be instantly denounced as a anti-semite.

tantelaeh says:

Carole Middleton is Jewish. A Goldstein with 4 grandparents all Jewish. What does that make of the King or Queen that reigns after William? It makes her/him a Jew when less than 4 generations have not yet passed.

She/he can put on a tallis and become the tenth person in any minion.

Bob Schwalbaum says:

Let me get this straight.. I presume Hitch’s mother was half-Jewish. So i can see there may have some ambiguity in his “Jewishness”

Am I correct?

I’ve no problem.. both my parent were full Jews.. certainly makes life simpler.. if not easier.

Marc Tracy says:

@Bob Hitchens’ mother was the daughter of a Polish-Jewish woman and an Englishman who converted to Judaism, so she was fully Jewish, and Hitchens was fully half-Jewish, as well as matrilineally so.

The Questioner says:

Why does everyone keep using the term “half-Jewish” to describe Hitchens? If his mother and maternal grandmother were 100% halachically Jewish, so was he.

Anyway, I find the postmortem deification of Christopher Hitchens by Jewish intellectuals strangely disconcerting, to say the least. Even without his disturbing flirtations with David Irving and other Holocaust deniers, from my vantage point Hitch didn’t appear to identify with Jews or Jewishness all that much. Atheism has nothing to with it; many of the great Jewish intellectual minds were nonbelievers. But Hitch talked to us and about us like he was apart from us, almost like an anthropologist studying a culture he sees as exotic or confusing. Even after he came out as a Jew, I don’t think he ever really saw himself as one of us. For the life of me, I don’t understand why so many Jewish thinkers (male Jewish thinkers in particular) identify with him.

Are we as Jews really that starved for intellectual heroes? And in our rush to deify The Hitch, whose voices in our community are we dis/missing? For example, I have yet to see any female Jewish intellectual—living or dead, religious or secular—lauded for her genius the way Hitch has been since his death. Certainly no Jewish thinker of color would get this treatment, even if s/he were steeped in yiddishkeit from birth. But yet a snooty, Oxford-educated Englishman who found his Jewishness late in life by accident is our ultimate gadol? What does that say about us?

“Why does everyone keep using the term “half-Jewish” to describe Hitchens? If his mother and maternal grandmother were 100% halachically Jewish, so was he.”

I’ve always found it odd that Jewishness in this sense is something ascribed by another, not by any sort of self-identification. I also find it somewhat absurd to consider yourself Jewish, though never practicing any faith, solely because you discovered that your mother was Jewish. I’m surprised that he’d permit religious tradition (Jewishness passing down through mothers) to have any effect on how he views himself. That to me seems very un-Hitchenslike.

R. Miller says:

Jamie makes a good point on being ‘Un-Hitchens-Like’ But, one could argue since he did not find out until later in life and then years later finding out he had cancer – it stirred something within him. He was always an iconoclast, a polarizing figure but finding out you have terminal cancer maybe made Hitch and his readers (like myself) wonder if he missed out on well, belonging – being part of a ‘people’ an identity.

What I would loved to have known is that before his brother told him he had Jewish roots – did he feel something had been missing. And, when he did bring the topic up from ime to time – was he just grateful to be a part of something besides a very WASPy/Enlish lineage – something more nuanced – like well, Hitch himself. . .

Michael E says:

Thanks for a brilliantly written piece by Marc Tracy. A noted Orthodox Rabbi once observed, “A Jew is someone who “must keep both feet planted firmly in the air”. Hitchens did not torture himself with the paradoxes in his life but, instead, embraced them. This made him both an iconoclast and one who was not afraid to express what what would appear superficially to be inconsistent viewpoints. This was,unbeknownst to him at the time, a product of his Jewish heritage which was transmitted to him in his mother’s milk, as it were. This excellent articl moves me to revisit Homerand Joyce, and to read Hitchen’s memoir for the first time. Thank you. I will be a regular reader of Tablet.com.
Michael Engel

Dan T. Wallace says:

Mazel tov to Mark Tracy on the exceptionally fine writing in the acute study of Hitchen’s mind, especially in “Hitch-22.” Hitchens is the kind of entertaining “rash” intellectual who makes the World of the Mind his own hunting ground seeking to target “the truth,” that often chimerical notion, a touch of Voltaire joshing the best of all possible worlds.

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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