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
Later in 1989, Hitchens met Carol Blue, the woman who became his second wife. He promptly told his wife, Meleagrou, who was the mother of his son and was then pregnant with his daughter, that he and Blue were in love. He split up and remarried: In a sense, his daughter’s birth’s baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table.
Politically, his course was set. The muddy complexities of the Cold War—which pitted an ostensibly Communist system that was in fact brutal, crude, repressive authoritarianism against an ostensibly free system whose capitalism run rampant and omnipotent national security state nixed the possibility of true democracy—had permitted Hitchens only to call for a pox on both their houses. Now he could truly honor that which he believed good and condemn that which he believed bad. Good is free speech, anti-clericalism, irony, and mercy; bad is conformity, theocracy, fanaticism, and an incredibly misplaced sense of justice. It may have taken a cataclysm of 9/11’s scale to reveal where Hitchens stood. Perhaps 9/11—and specifically, the specter, in its aftermath, of this fervent lefty fervently backing a fervently right-wing president—was merely what made people notice. But an honest reading of Hitchens’ intellectual trajectory would find that his reaction to the terrorist attacks was entirely in keeping with more than a decade of writing and thought, and that if a new path was indeed blazed, it was blazed in 1989.
Hitch-22 has at its heart almost something of a mystery plot, and it goes like this: How can Hitchens absolutely believe in the wrongness of absolute beliefs—chiefly theism and totalitarianism? How does he square that circle? Like any good mystery, a clue is under the reader’s nose all along (the title), and the answer is not revealed until the final page. There, Hitchens explains:
It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time: to maintain that there is no totalitarian solution while also insisting that, yes, we on our side also have unalterable convictions and are willing to fight for them. After various past allegiances, I have come to believe that Karl Marx was rightest of all when he recommended continual doubt and self-criticism. … To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.” It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics. But that’s my Hitch-22.
The dialectic—the ability of opposites to feed off of each other and eventually produce a synthesis that assimilates the best aspects of both into an overpowering Truth—is the answer to the riddle of Hitchens’ career, particularly of what many saw as his rightward turn later in life. If he did not quite add up, perhaps that is because Marx is not “right” but rather “rightest,” and Hitchens achieved not “synthesis” but rather “Hitch-22,” his personal variation on Joseph Heller’s famed construct wherein two mutually exclusive premises are bound to co-exist. Belief in unbelief, certainty in uncertainty: These are the Scylla and Charybdis through which Hitchens skillfully steered his ship.
But Hitchens speaks most movingly and with the most tactile feel for the magic of the dialectic not while discussing what could be termed his faith, Marxism, but while discussing his mother’s faith. “Judaism is dialectical,” he argues. “Even pre-enlightenment Judaism forces its adherents to study and think, it reluctantly teaches them what others think, and it may even teach them how to think also.” Yvonne gave him “two sides to his head” not by virtue of being Jewish as well as English; the two sides, instead, are contained totally within his Jewishness.
Hitchens also credited the Jews with having prepared the antidote—atheism—to one of the manifestations of the “totalitarian principle” that he spent his life opposing. In the course of answering a “Proust Questionnaire,” he cited his real-life heroes as “Socrates, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky.” I count there two Jewish Marxists and the Jewish inventor of unbelief in God. Atheism is, for Hitchens and just generally, a distinctively Jewish virtue (or vice, if that’s how you feel about it).
Much of the chapter in Hitch-22 that deals with Hitchens’ Jewishness is based on a 1988 essay in the literary quarterly Grand Street in which Hitchens first reported this aspect of himself, and some of the best lines are even pilfered wholesale, with due acknowledgement: “I took my leave and, turning at her little garden gate, somewhat awkwardly uttered the salute ‘Shalom!’ ” Hitchens recalls of visiting his grandmother after learning of her (and his) heritage. “She responded, ‘Shalom, shalom’ as easily as if we’d always greeted and parted this way and, as I wrote it down at the time, I turned and trudged off to the station in the light, continuous English rain that was also my birthright.”
But there is a crucial passage from that earlier essay that Hitchens omitted from the book. In it, he takes readers back to the moment when he has just learned that he is a Jew, and he begins to wonder if there were ever any hints: