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Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011) is the author of Letters to a Young Contrarian and No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family. A regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Atlantic Monthly and Slate, he also wrote for The Weekly Standard, The National Review, and The Independent.

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"In this widely acclaimed biographical essay, Christopher Hitchens assesses the life, the achievements, and the myth of the great political writer and participant George Orwell. . . . Combining the best of Hitchens's polemical punch and intellectual elegance in a tightly woven and subtle argument, this book addresses not only why Orwell matters today, but how he will continue to matter in a future, uncertain world."

– Basic Books

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Why Hitchens Matters (To Me)

12/16/11

I met Christopher Hitchens sometime in the fall of 1994. I was on the crew of what was soon to become the relentlessly obnoxious monster that is Hardball with Chris Matthews, now still piercing its way into your afternoons on MSNBC. At that time I was the audio guy, and I had to clip Hitch’s lavalier mic on set, as I always had to do with both host and guests on the show. I noticed this man stank of gin and cigarettes, and had a horrific and unfortunate case of dandruff as evidenced by his snow-dusted shoulders. And so I hooked up the lav, straightened out his dinner jacket (remember Broadcast News? For perfect lines and no wrinkles, SIT on the tail of your jacket), and instinctively (disgustingly?) dusted off his dandruff thinking: Jesus help you, mate . . . because when Chris is through yelling at you, you’ll be sporting the biggest bloody migraine you’ve ever encountered.

I confess my ignorance of who exactly Hitchens was, despite the fact that even then he was an established heavyweight and deemed “our George Orwell,” and despite my young-ish age (24), I should’ve at least heard of this man. But, like Fredo, I was weak and stupid. And so what went on for the next two segments on the show astounded me. I don’t recall exactly what the particular subject was, but Hitchens put on a display of lucidity and intellectual prowess coupled with an intimidating, gargantuan, Wikipedia-like genius for referencing, cross referencing, and tangential connections that left even Chris Matthews — himself no lightweight when it came to political history — at times shaking his head and smiling in amazement of Hitch’s concrete, logical arguments. I recall during that particular show that twice Chris Matthews was left speechless. Twice!

During the next six years I was lucky enough to be bumped to a substitute Director / Technical Director position, so I continued my professional contact with Hitchens, who had become quite a sought-after guest on the political talking head TV circuit. He took an interest in my experience having been born and lived in Ceausescu-era Romania, and his curiosity was particularly piqued by my mother’s stint as translator to Ceausescu during Henry Kissinger’s visit to Bucharest in the early ’70s. Off air, in the green room, or in between segments, Hitch and I developed a strange, fractious relationship — a type of fellowship that blossomed between cocktail hour and dinnertime in a first-floor television studio on 18th and K Street in Washington, D.C.

On Hitchens’s recommendation, I picked up George Orwell’s essays (I had already read 1984, Animal Farm, and Down and Out in Paris and London), which subsequently changed my life and my political and social inclinations. Hitch also introduced me to the writings of Diarmaid MacCulloch, Atul Gawande, Arthur Koestler, Martin Amis, and highly recommended, nay, made me swear I’d read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. (I did.)

Although I never got to know Hitch as intimately as some lucky souls can claim, he and I shared this weird, connected rapport — a  relationship interrupted by television. I didn’t delve into his own writings until after I left the “business” in early 2000, and our on-again- / off-till-next-show fellowship ended. For some innate reason I figured if I’d educate myself via his writing, something between us would have changed. And I was right. After plowing through his collected works at The Nation, his scathing account of Mother Teresa’s life in The Missionary Position, and ferocious criticism of Kissinger’s career in The Trial of Henry Kissinger within the span of 30 days, I was terrified of Hitchens’s intellect. My instinct had been right; had I armed myself with prior information about this man, I wouldn’t have been able to open my mouth and utter a single word to him, like I brazenly did that day in ’94 in the green room of Chris Matthews’s show. Yes, yes . . . I am sometimes a feeble, wimpy, star-struck, groupie of a man. I am secure with that.

Today we lost one of the few remaining great minds. On the heels of the sad news, someone I follow on Twitter shot out into the universe the contemptuous: “Why in hell are atheists sad that another atheist has died?” And I answered: “Because he is one fewer cerebral human being who defended our unpopular position with the utmost elegance and logic.”

This afternoon I will mix and pour a giant martini in Christopher Hitchens’s honor. And if I happen to get lucky and find myself a wrinkly, ill-shapen, orphaned Pall Mall between the cushions of my couch, I will gleefully light it up and pollute my family with its odoriferous chemicals. Just this once.

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11 Comments

  1. Rodger Jacobs said on 12/16/11 at 1:47 pm Reply

    Very nice, Alex, very nice indeed.

    Reply

  2. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 12/16/11 at 2:09 pm Reply

    Hey Rodger! Thanks, and…great to “see you” again.

    Reply

  3. Gay Degani said on 12/16/11 at 2:20 pm Reply

    Much of what I knew about Christopher Hitchens was learned reading “God is Not Great.” I was stunned to find someone actually able to write down coherently the thoughts that have buzzed around the periphery of my mind for years. I knew of him through the Vanity Fair connection, but hadn’t realized what a keen mind he possessed. He was our George Orwell, a throwback to the intellectuals of the 20th century: Mortimer Adler, Huxley, Hannah Arendt. I’ve got to get reading more.

    Reply

  4. Sara Habein said on 12/16/11 at 2:27 pm Reply

    A lovely tribute. Well done.

    Reply

  5. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 12/16/11 at 2:43 pm Reply

    Gay, try “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” It’s a quick, small, but brilliant book on the virtues of intelligent argument and dissent. Sara, thank you.

    Reply

  6. Deni said on 12/16/11 at 3:35 pm Reply

    Great tribute Alex. You’re a good writer and intellectual yourself.

    Reply

  7. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 12/16/11 at 4:02 pm Reply

    Deni, thanks. But easy on the “i” word; some people in America will come looking to draw and quarter me. Thanks for reading this. We lost a great one. Not many left.

    Reply

  8. Jordan Blum said on 12/25/11 at 12:48 pm Reply

    Great post. I like how you began with the small and even unflattering memories of what you first noticed about him – it makes it more honest and touching. And I’ve also felt this weird aversion to knowing an acquaintance’s work (in case it changes my perception and reaction to them). It’s like “okay, we were just talking about _____ as two friends on Facebook and now I’m in my car, blasting your music, singing along out of key and confessing my admiration for your genius.” It’s an odd relationship for sure.

    Reply

  9. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 12/27/11 at 12:41 pm Reply

    Thanks Jordan. Agree…feel the same about musicians or up and coming musicians. Would like to connect one on one before hearing/seeing the art. I’m weird like that. I get influenced by things and begin to form opinions too early. Weak side.

    Reply

  10. Marcus Speh said on 05/28/12 at 1:03 pm Reply

    I remember reading this a while ago not knowing much about Hitchens at the time. I’m reading WHY ORWELL MATTERS now and I’m fascinated. Fascinated also as an intellectual because Hitchens, unlike so many other journalists and commentators, never lets you off the hook; there’s no laziness here, not of the heart nor of the mind. Thanks for writing this.

    Reply

  11. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 11/03/12 at 2:52 pm Reply

    Thanks Marcus, Hitch was relentless. He was a hard worker.

    Reply

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