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
And so now he is back in Dublin, dreaming of being a writer, spending his time harassed by the lesser intellects that surround him. Indeed, before the first 30 pages of Ulysses are done, Stephen encounters a shocking amount of anti-Semitism—shocking especially given that Stephen is not Jewish, and that Bloom does not appear for a few chapters. “I don’t want to see my country fall into the hands of German Jews either,” declares the obnoxious English friend of Stephen’s obnoxious Irish roommate, apropos of not very much, “That’s our national problem, I’m afraid, just now.” Stephen’s prime interlocutor in Chapter 2, his boss at the school he teaches at, is even worse. “They sinned against the light,” this Mr. Deasy says. “And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.” He adds: “Mark my words, Mr. Dedalus. England is in the hands of the Jews. In all the highest places: her finances, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay.” So frequently and bizarrely is the theme taken up, it is almost as though everybody thinks Stephen is a Jew.
When Hitchens was Stephen’s age, he too believed he was not a Jew, though his intellectual development would have suggested otherwise. His heroes were Marx, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg. He believed Marx, Freud, and Einstein to be, as he put it, “the three great anchors of the modern, revolutionary intelligence.” When Hitchens told his grandfather—his father’s father—that he was a Labour man, and was lectured to about all the foreign names among the party’s ranks (“Sidney Silverman, John Mendelson, Tom Driberg, Ian Mikardo”), this only, Hitchens remembers, “confirmed my grandfather’s view that there was something almost axiomatically subversive about Jewishness.” As importantly, Hitchens credited the Jews with his treasured atheism. He even perceived religious Jews to be the least sickly of monotheists: “Unlike other nations or peoples,” he argued, “Jews were among the witnesses to the alleged lives and preachings of Jesus and Muhammad, and turned away from men they deemed false Messiahs.”
Hitchens’ trip to Athens in November 1973 proved fateful for reasons beyond the obvious. In the midst of his personal carnage, he began reporting on the public carnage being carried out by the ruling military junta. This in turn led to extensive reporting on the Cyprus question, which in turn led to his first area of reportorial expertise, his first book, and his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, a daughter of prominent Greek Cypriot leaders. How could he start reporting on the news in the midst of this horrible tragedy? Well, he replied, the news was a tragedy, too: “It turns out, as I have found in other ways and in other places, that the separation between personal and public is not so neat.”
During this time, Hitchens and his friends—the poet James Fenton, the novelist Ian McEwan, the critic Clive James, a grab-bag of other pretty English young things including Anna Wintour (whom he briefly dated) and Tina Brown, and most of all his best friend Martin Amis—established themselves as London’s youthful intellectual establishment. In 1982, Hitchens was in the United States, and The Nation made him its Washington, D.C., correspondent—a position, Hitchens happily noted, that once belonged to the great muckraking radical I.F. Stone (yet another Jewish hero). Hitchens’ biweekly columns dabbled in conspiracy theories, indictments of the military-industrial complex, and other anti-authoritarian and vaguely left-wing commitments that, lumped together, were distinguished solely by idiosyncrasy. He scorned Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger. He flirted with being pro-life, and not only defended the Holocaust denier David Irving’s right to free speech but praised certain aspects of his histories. At times, he adopted apparently contradictory or just plain outlandish positions for the sake, it seemed, of making himself distinct. The only person who could have agreed with Hitchens on everything was somebody pledged to agreeing with Hitchens on everything. In his beliefs, he was deliberately solitary.
Then, at the age of 38, in the middle of the voyage of life, a series of events followed in fast succession that changed his knowledge of himself, his personal life, his career, and his intellectual development. In late 1987, Hitchens learned that he was Jewish. When his younger brother, Peter, introduced his Jewish girlfriend to their maternal grandmother—Dorothy Hickman, née Levin—she took the occasion to announce that this nice young lady was marrying within the faith. Hitchens’ brother (presently a rather staunch Christian) told his brother this.
In December 1987, his father died. In Hitch-22, the two events—Hitchens’ self-revelation about his heritage and his becoming orphaned—are disclosed in the same paragraph.
And something else was happening, too, outside of the walls of Hitchens’ own psyche: The demise of the Cold War was written on the wall, and the emergence of a new threat revealed itself to him in a strikingly personal way. On Feb. 14, 1989, Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, issued his famous fatwa calling for the death of Hitchens’ friend Salman Rushdie over the alleged heresy in his novel The Satanic Verses. Hitchens later wrote: “I thought then, and I think now, that this was not just a warning of what was to come. It was the warning. The civil war in the Muslim world, between those who believed in jihad and Shari’a and those who did not, was coming to our streets and cities.” Many years later, for the New Yorker profile, Rushdie himself—who wasn’t exactly undistracted at the time the fatwa was issued—was able to locate the sea change in his friend. “There’s a sense in which all this—Christopher’s move—is partly my fault,” Rushdie said. “The fatwa made Christopher feel that radical Islam was not only trying to kill his friend; it was a huge new threat to the kind of world he wanted to live in. And I have the sense he felt there was a liberal failure to get the point of what was happening.”