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On Hitchens

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We all love Christopher Hitchens. And that love is heightened every time he mocks and contemns, whenever he disdains to ridicule what we most cherish. He is unrelenting, if inconsistent. He's no-holds-barred, if a little unscrupulous. He's the great media personage of our day.

With last year's publication of Christopher Hitchens' memoir, Hitch-22, it seems that everything that could be said about the sardonic journalist and author has now been said. It's not because Hitchens' book is necessarily exhaustive or premonitory (I haven't read it so I can't say), but the media spray -- giddy, vengeful, adulatory, dismissive, etc. -- following the book seems to have covered it all.

Taking a quick dip into his body of work, it seems that that is exactly what Mr. Hitchens wanted from the memoir's publication. By now it's no secret that he revels in the apparent contradiction of his beliefs. But in embracing the notion of the contradiction (which is expressed already in the title of his memoir) he has cleverly obscured the fact that there is no real contradiction. There is just a man whose ideas, like those of other men, are a product of his emotional world, rooted in the unfolded circumstances of his life.

It's this that explains Hitchens' recent binge on intellectual, but nevertheless sentimental, nostalgia. Over the decades, Hitchens has never succeeded in reconciling all those disparate views of his; he was never able to bring all the biting criticism under the roof of one house. Instead, he's erected a kind of tent, using contrarianism to shelter his work under an appealing stretch of personality.

Even today, when grappling with the most serious critical question of all, Hitchens' focus is on other people's responses to his illness. He speaks of those wishing him well and ill, and the lunacy, absurdity, and stupidity latent in both sentiments. He talks of having entered an alien land of illness which the rest of us don't have access to. His account is dazzling and, in a way, inspiring. But it's not generative: it doesn't provide us a clearer, closer window to the hidden landscapes of life we all yearn, and fear, to see.

So, Christopher Hitchens looms large as a personality in today's media - -but not in the minds of men. For what idea of Hitchens' could a man possibly grapple with? What new perspective has he introduced that can be pondered, analyzed, defeated or accepted? There is none; there is just the disheveled geometry of his persona, a kind of human bird's nest that is interesting to see but only offers value to its inhabitant.

A recent spate of writing by Hitchens is a testament, and a buttress, to all this. In a piece for Vanity Fair called "Martin, Maggie, and Me," Hitchens recalls the days of his intellectual maturation in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. It was then that he rubbed elbow patches with the likes of Robert Conquest, Kingsley Amis, Salman Rushdie, Clive James, James Fenton and -- the apple of Hitchens' eye -- Martin Amis.

In the Vanity Fair piece, he speaks about the varieties of leftist ideology that dominated the ideascape of London at the time. There was Marx and Engels harrumphing in the background; the legacy of the Six Day War; the Falklands; Rhodesia/Zimbabwe to be discussed; and, eventually, the rise of Big Bad Maggie Thatcher and Britain's brief conservative interlude.

But in Hitchens' recounting of the period the ideas are a mere melody, a kind of intellectual soundtrack to the truly important subject of focus: Hitchens and his buddies. In the Vanity Fair piece and in other articles following (and, of course, preceding) the publication of Hitch-22, the spotlight is on Hitchens' sexual persona, which gets most clearly expressed in his passion for Amis. While it might have been disavowed -- "I find now that I can more or less acquit myself on any charge of having desired Martin carnally" -- the fact remains that after all the heady talk of Amis, all the heaps of praise and the retold stories, Hitchens' passion demands a disclaimer, even if the disclaimer is self-negating

It points to the greater problem of Hitchens -- that he is his admiration and his criticism. One might wonder after reading years worth of his punishing criticism alongside his bountiful praise what Hitchens, as a thinker, could be in a world without others? Reading about the fuggy alcoholic blurs (always so lucidly expressed) of experiences with the literary and intellectual luminaries of his day, one might wonder whether Hitchens is the dreamer or the dreamed, the purveyor of an intellectual fantasy or the product of other peoples' ideas.

In his Vanity Fair Proust Questionnaire, Hitchens, after reminding us of Proust's own answer to the first question, gives a wince-inducing answer to the question about what is his proudest achievement. He justifies his decision to not name his children as his greatest achievement by saying they're not solely his (and thereby avoids missing a prime opportunity to snap yet another posterity-photo of himself and his luminous crew), and instead responds that his greatest achievement is "being the dedicatee of books by Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, and poems by James Fenton and Robert Conquest."

It's eminence by association, a temptation to anyone who's been around brilliant or powerful people. But it's dangerous because it's easy and, in the end, means very little. In spite of this shortcoming, no one can deny that Hitchens is not, in his own right, a first-rate literary critic, maybe one of the four or five top English-language critics in the world. And there's no doubt that he's got a hawk's vision for the prey of his journalistic commentary. But looking up to believe so fervently in the soaring ability of others, he has by necessity kept himself below.

Given this, we have to wonder how great the great men of Hitchens' life really are. Looking back to a photo of him, Fenton and Amis standing at the balustrade of Sacre-Coeur, you can't help but smile at the self-seriousness, the self-consciousness, and the gloss of cool emanating off the trio. You can't help but notice that standing there in full pomp, Hitchens and his friends are obscuring the most breathtaking view of one of the world's most beautiful cities, which is modestly lying there behind them.

Ashley Rindsberg is the author of Tel Aviv Stories.