Christopher Hitchens Was Prepared to Die… Since 1988

Emmanuel Rosado
Dec 18, 2019 · 7 min read
Christopher Hitchens at General Colin Powell’s MY AMERICAN JOURNEY Book Signing at Vertigo Books (by Elvert Barnes).

The permanent feeling while reading Christopher Hitchen’s prologue for his memoir, Hitch 22, is one of premonition. The first edition of the book features Hitchens watching a portrait in which he, his long-time friend Martin Amis and Julian Barnes appear. The photo was from a magazine, Face to Face, given to supporters of the London National Portrait Gallery. For the readers of the memoir in 2010, this prologue starts fairly benign, until Hitchens unveil the description under the photo:

Martin was literary editor of the New Stateman, working with the late Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes, who was married to Pat Kavanagh, Martin’s then literary agent.

After that brief, cold, and now legendary description, Hitchens goes on to say: “So there it is in cold print, the plain unadorned phrase that will one day become unarguably true.” From there on, it seems that the long-time atheist becomes a seer of his own fate. His ruminations in the first pages of the book unveil the expectations that Hitchens has for his future death. He goes on to say, “The fact is that all attempts to imagine one own’s extinction are futile by definition.”

Hitchens had doubts about writing his memoir. He thought of it as “too soon”. But as he explains, “Nothing dissolves this fusion of false modesty and natural reticence more swiftly that the blunt realization that the project could become, at any moment, rule out of the questions as having been undertaken too ‘late’.” And he was right, no longer than the book tour of his memoir, Hitchens found himself checking into a hospital, later finding out that he had esophageal cancer (same cancer that killed his old man).

The cruel twist of fate of his health turned his prologue into an intriguing read. Hitchens, by all means, concentrated his first pages on the topic of death. He talked about his negation to write the obituaries of living friends (ex-friends in this instant) like Gore Vidal and Edward Said. The tales of Ernest Hemingway reading the obituaries in the newspaper with a champagne glass on hand. At one point he exclaims that the man in that photo (the Face to Face magazine photo) was in fact “the late Christopher Hitchens.” Christopher meditates on how he knew already that he was born “into a losing struggle”, with him later proclaiming: “And yet I can’t quite applaud this admirable fatalism. I personally want to ‘do’ death on the active and not the passive, and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.”

In these pages, Hitchens would find some company later on in the decade, when the late Oliver Sacks, the grand neurologist that had dazzle readers with his combination of medicine, literature, and Victorian naturalist tradition, found out that his cancer had spread from his eye to the liver. In both cases, Hitchens and Sacks had to hurry up with their memoirs (with the latter barely making it to 2015). Hitchens would write a deeply reflexive collection of essays in Vanity Fair about him facing death, called Mortality (2012), with the last pages finding the “Hitch” struggling to look for air and clarity. The same went for Sacks, that posthumously delivered a collection of essays, Gratitude (2015), in which he valiantly faced his mortality with gratitude and acceptance. Both men were productive writers, atheists that show courage in their dying days, educated in Oxford, and with enviable prose. But a key difference stands alone in this comparison, Hitchens was prepared to die since the 1980s.

The 80s’ decade featured a young Christopher Hitchens that barely had amassed the wide collection of writings that is him today. He was still unavoidably on the left, with Marxism guiding his writings, and his anti-imperialism at his finest. In those years, he wrote for The New Statesman in London and The Nation in Washington. Muslim extremists were the least of his worries. He had other topics to tackle, including Ronald Reagan, the South African apartheid, Zionism, among others. For his books, he only had published two until 1988 (as their sole author), Cyprus (1984) and Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles (1987). It begs the question of the reader: How was he, prepared to die?

Indeed, that’s the logical question. How can a man that barely had two books to his name (I’m ignoring his contribution with Edward Said at the time, in that piece of work, his role was more of an editor), working as a journalist for two leftist magazines, ready to affront the ending of his life? It would seem that he was barely starting to enjoy life itself. The answer lays in the mysterious introduction for his first collection of essays, Prepared for the Worse (1988, Chatto & Windus).

Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch 22.

Now, there are two kinds of Hitchens readers: those who started to read him since the days of The New Statesman and those who saw his meteoric rise after September 11. The latter was a Hitchens that favored the U.S. intervention in Iraq and whose atheism became a world movement. Those readers (me included by the dreary default of age), don’t know of how Hitchens approached the world in the Reagan decade. For some, reading Prepared for the Worst (PFTW) seems to fulfill the sole objective of learning about Hitch’s early, radical left phase. That exercise would miss the point.

In PFTW, Hitchens delivers the first drops for his transformation into the voracious and defiant writer that the 1990s would meet. There’s no denying that after PFTW, Hitchens would unleash an emblematic decade of slaying sacred cows like Princess Diana and Mother Teresa; while facing the threats of theocrats that wanted the head of his friend, the novelist Salman Rushdie. Indeed, in the 90s, from three books, his productivity jumped to five. He landed a job at the popular magazine, Vanity Fair. His writings won him the praise of his peers and the scorn from Washington, including liberals (let not forget his bodyslam to the president at the time, Bill Clinton). What was the source of all this productivity and fury?

The introduction for PFTW gives a hint of this explosion in the following decade. Hitchens opens the introduction with a meditation on the Nobel laureate, Nadine Gordimer’s intention of continuing to write “as if she were already dead.” For Hitchens, such defiant affirmation is strange. The young writer exclaims:

Never mind that the ambition is axiomatically impossible of achievement, and never mind that it sounds at once rather modest and rather egotistic, to say nothing of rather gaunt. When I read it I still thought: Gosh. To write as if editors, publishers, colleagues, peers, friends, relatives, factions, reviewers, and consumers need to be consulted; to write as if supply and demand, time and place, were nugatory. What a just attainment that would be, and what a pristine observance of the much-corrupted pact between writer and reader.

What follows is a thread of excuses from Hitchens, for not approaching his collection of essays as a work that tries to address people posthumously. One finds Hitchens admitting in the following page, that he’s using the past tense because they were written in a time of “political and cultural conservatism”. The introductory essay is Hitch battling with mortality, even at a time that he was full of life. He claims that the essays are more of the present world that has been transformed, and of those who he’s attacking in the book. But later on, he’s already meditating about such topics:

I have lived to see Ronald Reagan called “a useful idiot for Kremlin propaganda” by his former idolaters; to see the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union regarded with fear and suspicion by the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (which blacked out an interview with Milos Forman broadcast live on Moscow TV); to see Mao Zedong relegated like a despot of antiquity. I have also had the extraordinary pleasure of revisiting countries — Greece, Spain, Zimbabwe, and others — that were dictatorships or colonies when first I saw them. Other mini-Reichs have melted like dew, often bringing exiled and imprisoned friends blinking modestly and honorably into the glare. Eppur si muove — it still moves, all right.

These words present a Christopher Hitchens already prepared for dead. Noticing the continuous flow of political and cultural movements that will shape the world. What follows in PFTW are 400+ pages of pure Hitchens at his finest. Tackling the various topics that he despised most: religion, fascism, unfreedom of expression, Zionism, among others. What you can recall from the pages of PFTW is a young man not willing to die until his last words are obliterated by his mortality. Indeed, his final book before dying, Mortality, finds Hitchens writing incoherently before his final hours.

Christopher Hitchens, watercolor, 2011 by Russel Thomas.

I would argue that the mentality of dying and still writing, even posthumously (which he argued it was obviously impossible), was already in Hitchens' mind when he was barely entering middle age (he was 39 at the time of publication). He always talked about the privileged of leaving a long-lasting legacy through his genes, but deep down, unconsciously, he harbored the same feeling as Gordimer. No long after dying, a “brick-like” collection of essays was published, Arguably (2011), cementing his legacy as one of the best essayists of the XXI century. The desperation and long-time tradition of writing as if there was no tomorrow spurred another collection in 2016, called And Yet… (Simon & Schuster). Followers of Hitchens, even after 8 years of his passing (today, December 14, it's the anniversary of his death), would like to absorb the idea that the Hitch was not stroked by the unpredictability of mortality, he all along knew what that meant and worked arduously to leave a mark in the written word.

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    Emmanuel Rosado

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