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
Then, most provoking and beguiling of all, there was the dream. Nothing bores me more than dream stories, so I had kept this one to myself. But it was the only one that counted as recurrent, and I had also experienced it as a waking fantasy. In this reverie, I am aboard a ship. A small group is on the other side of the deck, huddled in talk but in some way noticing me. After a while a member of the group crosses the deck. He explains that he and his fellows are one short of a quorum for a prayer. Will I make up the number for a minyan? Smiling generously, and swallowing my secular convictions in a likable and tolerant manner, I agree to be the tenth man and stroll across the deck.
As it turned out, Hitchens, the very model of the lone iconoclast, wished to belong; wanted to be part of a group, a movement, a thing larger than himself, even while disbelieving in the very existence, the very possibility of the existence, of such a thing. The unapologetic dissident, the idiosyncratic idol-destroyer, the casual hurler of insults and degrader of lesser intellects was also a man who valued family and friends (the latter to a highly unusual degree) and to the end proclaimed himself in the trenches with the Marxists and the atheists. That is his Hitch-22. And in his Jewishness—which makes heavy demands upon the individual to observe the rites and maintain the conscience even as, with the minyan and other particulars, it requires a community—he found the closest thing to a solution, a passage between Scylla and Charybdis.
“My initial reaction,” Hitchens would recall of learning that he was Jewish, “apart from pleasure and interest, was the faint but definite feeling that I had somehow known all along.” This is also what he was telling me when he cited Chapter 9 and, implicitly, his identification with Stephen Dedalus. For Dedalus, too, learns in the middle of his life that he has a claim on Judaism, and this, too, gives him the tools to become a complete person.
Wait, you say: Isn’t Bloom the Jew in Joyce’s story? Actually, Bloom isn’t Jewish. His father was a Hungarian Jew named Rudolph Virag (another suicide, it so happens); his mother was named Ellen Higgins, and was from Ireland. Bloom has even been baptized—three times (one of these times admittedly “under a pump in the village of Swords”). For literary purposes, Bloom is a Jew, and at certain crucial moments he bravely and significantly self-identifies as one. But for practical ones, he is just another Irish Catholic.
Stephen is just another Irish Catholic too, if one who renounced his faith. In a mystical sense, though, Stephen has a larger claim to the Jewish inheritance than Bloom. The central reconciliation in Ulysses comes when Bloom takes Stephen under his wing, adopting him as a son. In this important sense, then, Stephen is Leopold and Molly Bloom’s son. And any son of Leopold and Molly Boom would indeed be Jewish, because Molly is Jewish, a native of Gibraltar whose mother was named Lunita Laredo, commonly read as Sephardic. “There can be no reconciliation if there has not been a sundering,” Stephen says that night. In his newfound Jewishness, he found his way back to amor matris.
Hitchens’ sundering was even more violent. Hitchens traveled to Athens, witnessed something unspeakable and for a very long time unwriteable, and spent the rest of his life proclaiming his love of the Athenian traits of rationalism and democracy and pointedly ignoring the place’s mystical, religious elements. Athens is Reason, Leo Strauss said, and Jerusalem is Revelation, and for a time, Hitchens maintained the dichotomy. But in 1987-1989, Hitchens’ mother finally let him be and let him live, allowing him to commence the third and final act of his life. What becoming Jewish did was allow Hitchens to seize upon Judaism’s rationalist strain—Spinoza, not Abraham; Moses Mendelssohn, not Moses Maimonides (and not one-word Moses); and the Haskalah, not the Enlightenement. He was orphaned and made Jewish almost simultaneously, departing a small affiliation while joining a much larger one, and, as one can imagine Hitchens putting it with a due nod to a different Marx, joining one of the few clubs of which he may have wished to be a member.
Must Hitchens have been Jewish? Some would say no and would point as proof, first, to the fact that he lived over half his life in ignorance of his Jewishness, and second, to the fact that even the turn that defined the latter half of his career, though admittedly well-timed to his discovery of his heritage, did not contain anything explicitly Jewish about it. I would respond by gesturing at the scoreboard: Hitchens was a lifelong subversive who identified subversiveness with Jewishness; and a lifelong atheist who identified atheism with Jewishness; and, it did so happen, a lifelong Jew. That he did not know this and turned out as he did is evidence to you of chance, as it no doubt was to him, but to me it is evidence of something else.
Enough metaphysics. If Hitchens is to be believed, he will not now be reunited with his loved ones in some celestial paradise. His body is all that existed of him, just as his mother’s body is all that existed of her. In his memoir, he remembers the first time he returned home after achieving initial fame at Oxford. “I was lucky to find my mother alone in the kitchen,” he wrote. “She brilliantly rose and greeted me as if I’d been expected for some brittle and glamorous cocktail party of the sort that she always planned and never quite gave.” His life turned out to be quite the party, glamorous and not at all brittle, complete with gin in the Campari. So long, and thanks for all the Hitch.