By Marc Tracy, Tablet,
December 19, 2011
By the time Christopher Hitchens died last week at the age of 62, the arc of his intellectual career was so notorious, ingrained, and agreed-upon that the many, many tributes tended to skip it and instead move straight on to relating the man’s personal kindnesses, biting polemical barbs, and prodigious feats of alcohol consumption. The contours of that broadly accepted arc are as follows: Hitchens, born in England, became known as a talented radical while at Oxford; then, first at the New Statesman and later, upon his move to the United States, for more than two decades at The Nation, he was the English-speaking world’s most prominent left-wing journalist and intellectual; then came 9/11, which inspired a strange conversion—all of a sudden Hitchens was chastising his former ally Noam Chomsky, unceasingly polemicizing against the outrages of Islamic fundamentalism or, as he frequently preferred, “Islamofascism,” and tacitly endorsing the re-election of George W. Bush (only four years after he supported Ralph Nader!). By 2006, when he received the New Yorker treatment, his profile’s subtitle articulated the confusion felt by the political class: “How a former socialist,” it promised, “became the Iraq war’s fiercest defender.” It’s a classic story of a radical’s life, with a bizarre and unexpected epilogue that took up his final decade.
While I derived as much pleasure from the mystery surrounding Hitchens’ curious right-wing turn as the next aficionado of intellectual skywriting did—this stuff is like Dancing With the Stars to some of us—the main enjoyment I took from him was the elegance and wit of his prose and the suppleness of his takes on literature and culture. And the essay that got me hooked on Hitch was not about the tyrant Saddam or the feckless left or the stooge Michael Moore or the anti-Semitic grotesquerie of Mel Gibson—was not, in other words, any of the polemics dedicated to tipping every unsacred cow in the meadow of his dreams—but rather the one about James Joyce’s Ulysses. I read it in 2004, in the upstairs café of the Barnes & Noble across the street from the movie theater where I worked that summer. It was pegged to the centennial of Bloomsday—June 16, 1904, on which the novel is set—and in part devoted to explaining why Joyce chose that day as his novel’s peg. In fact the word “peg” is all too appropriate, for that day was, as Hitchens puts it, “the very first time the great James Joyce received a handjob from a woman who was not a prostitute.”
But the sentence in the essay that struck me most was this: “In some intuitive manner, Joyce seems to have had the premonition that the Jewish question would be crucial to the 20th century.” There are many possible explanations for why Joyce made his Odysseus, the advertising salesman Leopold Bloom, Jewish. Among them: Joyce’s pacifism led him to identify with the persecuted Jewish people; Odysseus was the ancient wanderer par excellence, and therefore his modern iteration must be the modern wanderer par excellence—a Jew; the novelist Italo Svevo (né Aron Ettore Schmitz), whom Joyce knew in Trieste, was the real-life model for Bloom; etc. But Hitchens’ argument was more challenging and perplexing: Ulysses, he asserted, is urgent political writing disguised as escapism, and Bloom is Jewish because the Jewish question was, for Joyce, politically paramount. Joyce perceived that the Great War had not resolved all the contradictions that modernity had thrust upon an unwilling, antiquated civilization, and that chief among these was how it would deal with the Jews—emancipated yet unalterably different, and who, due to their unique history of influence over Europe and Christianity, were not merely a prominent question that had yet to be answered but the question that had yet to be answered. This was the most logically rigorous case for Jewish exceptionalism I had ever encountered.
Which is partly why a year later—on June 17, 2005, to be exact—while again home from college, I attended a reading of his at a store in Arlington, Va. It was the only time we ever spoke. As I got my book signed, I noted that Bloomsday had been the day before and asked Hitchens which his favorite chapter of Ulysses was. Hitchens paused several seconds, leaned back in his chair, and replied, “Probably the Shakespeare chapter. At the library.” As I turned to go, he called after me: “Happy Bloomsday.”
In Chapter 9 of Ulysses—the chapter Hitchens was referring to—the university drop-out Stephen Dedalus says, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” Stephen is referring to Shakespeare, and Shakespeare Hitchens was not; “man of genius,” too, seems a stretch. Nonetheless, this Chapter 9—this was a portal of discovery. Hitchens wasn’t merely tossing something off for an anonymous book-buyer. He was telling me something about himself. Hitchens always insisted that 9/11 did not precipitate or mark a break with his past thinking, though most people never quite bought this. But in citing Chapter 9, he actually explained exactly how this could be, and he explained something more, too: that any alterations he made to his thinking did not come from fear or loathing of terrorism or Islam. Nor did they come from Marxism, neoconservatism, penchant for dramatic conversions, hedonism, Englishness, Americanness, Anglo-Americanness, iconoclasm, or even atheism. They came not in 2001 but more than a decade earlier, and they came from his Jewishness, which in turn came, as Jewishness does under Jewish law, from his mother. I don’t mean here to claim Hitchens religiously; he clearly lived and died an atheist. But if you are one of those people searching for the ever-elusive Unified Theory of Hitch, the only one that stands up to scrutiny—believe it or not—has to do with his being Jewish. And with being Stephen Dedalus.
What made Hitchens different from all the other middle-class English young men? “I do know a little of how I came to be of two minds,” he relates on the first page of the first chapter of his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22. His father, a stern but not cruel Navy man whom Hitchens always refers to unironically as “The Commander,” is straight out of postwar British central casting, interchangeable with characters from the Master and Commander novels by Patrick O’Brian that Hitchens loved. But his mother? She “was the exotic and the sunlit when I could easily have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English gray,” he gushed, in that first chapter, titled “Yvonne.” “She was the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes.”
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.”
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.”
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:
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.