Christopher Hitchens Best Essay Writing
Christopher Hitchens • Vanity Fair • January 2012
On whether or not whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger:
“Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’
In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier. But does the rhyme suggest a reason? Perhaps it does, or can, in matters of the emotions. I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than ‘There but for the grace of god go I,’ which in turn is to say no more than ‘The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.’”
Christopher Hitchens • New York Times Magazine • May 1991
On the royal family:
"Still, considerable sentiment is generated, especially in times of high unemployment and hardship, by the extravagance of the royal style. The House of Windsor costs the taxpayers $101.5 million each year, almost half of which goes in staffing and maintaining no fewer than five royal palaces. And this hefty sum is a state supplement and subsidy to an astonishing private fortune in land, real estate, stock and art treasures. Fortune magazine recently estimated the private wealth of the Windsors, in everything from picture collections and priceless stamps to shares and jewelry, at $10.73 billion. And on the income of this immense wealth, no income tax is paid: a sore point in a country that very recently saw flaming streets and shattered windows in riots over the hated poll tax.
There's another point, hard to ignore: There are so many of them. Prince Andrew gets $481,000 per annum in expenses for his ‘official duties.’ Prince Edward receives $186,000. Princess Margaret, the Queen's divorced socialite sister, pulls in $423,000. Princess Anne, the Queen's daughter, gets $441,000. And it goes on. And all of these, except for the persistently unmarried and rumor-haunted Prince Edward, have children (one ultraloyalist glossy magazine in London deals only with the subject of royal offspring). As a consequence, given the ravenous appetite of the press and the public for royal trivia, England often seems like some princeling-infested Ruritanian theme park."
Christopher Hitchens • Vanity Fair • August 2008
On being waterboarded:
"You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it ‘simulates’ the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The ‘board’ is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted."
The Medals of His Defeats
Christopher Hitchens • Atlantic • April 2002
On the cult of Winston Churchill and his legacy in the aftermath of 9/11:
“‘We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail,’ President Bush proclaimed as the bombing of Afghanistan began. ‘We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire,’ Churchill said—somewhat more euphoniously—sixty years before. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has outdone even his Churchill-obsessed predecessor Caspar Weinberger, announcing to the staff of the Pentagon on September 12, ‘At the height of peril to his own nation, Winston Churchill spoke of their finest hour. Yesterday, America and the cause of human freedom came under attack.’ Only a week earlier, this time speaking in favor of a missile-defense system, Rumsfeld had informed a Senate committee, ‘Winston Churchill once said, 'I hope I shall never see the day when the forces of right are deprived of the right of force.'’ On September 25, asked whether the Defense Department would be authorized to deceive the press in prosecuting the war, he unhesitatingly responded, ‘This conjures up Winston Churchill's famous phrase when he said ... sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.’ Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, later to be described as an American Churchill, laid the groundwork for his own plaudits by announcing, just after the aggression of September 11 against his city, that he was reading a book about Churchill's wartime premiership "and nothing is more inspirational than the speeches and reflections of Winston Churchill about how to deal with that." Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of Churchill in the Situation Room of the White House soon after taking power; the first President Bush allowed Jack Kemp to compare him to Churchill during the Gulf War; the second President Bush asked the British embassy in Washington to help furnish him with a bronze bust of Churchill, which now holds pride of place in the Oval Office. The legacy-obsessed Bill Clinton can only whimper at the lack of Churchillian analogy to his own tenure, but the rest of us might wish that if the United States is going to stand for something, it (or its overpaid speechwriting class) would try to come up with some mobilizing rhetoric of its own."
Christopher Hitchens • Vanity Fair • November 1994
An early foreign report on the state of the African continent:
"Whoever he was, and whatever happened to him, he will certainly never read this. He was clad in nothing but an oufit of ragged trousers, and he was being pulled across the road by a half-dozen other men. If it hadn't been nighttime I might barely have noticed, but there isn't much street light in Kinshasa after dark, and your headlights make a tableau of anything that's visible. There was a shantytown hunched in blackness on one side of the pitted street, and another shantytown slumped on the other side, and the gang needed or wanted to drag the guy from the first to the seoond. He looked as if he badly didn't desire to cooperate. My driver floored it as soon as he took in the scene, and as the pickup shot past I could register the external details: mouth open in a wordless yell, eyes rolling in the face, muscles and tendons bent in resistance—a man headed for some unnameable appointment.
In the capital city of Mr. Mobutu's Zaire, whom was I going to call? The police? Even if the rugged-looking crew didn't turn out to be the police, the telephones have been out these many years. And no Zairean, such as the pickup driver from whom I'd hitched the ride, would think of intervening in such a macabre but routine sideshow.”
Christopher Hitchens • Slate • June 2010
An excerpt from his memoir Hitch-22, about his dreadful years at boarding school:
“There was nowhere to hide. The lavatory doors sometimes had no bolts. One was always subject to invigilation, waking and sleeping. Collective punishment was something I learned about swiftly: ‘Until the offender confesses in public,’ a giant voice would intone, ‘all your 'privileges' will be withdrawn.’ There were curfews, where we were kept at our desks or in our dormitories under a cloud of threats while officialdom prowled the corridors in search of unspecified crimes and criminals. Again I stress the matter of sheer scale: the teachers were enormous compared to us and this lent a Brobdingnagian aspect to the scene. In seeming contrast, but in fact as reinforcement, there would be long and ‘jolly’ periods where masters and boys would join in scenes of compulsory enthusiasm—usually over the achievements of a sports team—and would celebrate great moments of victory over lesser and smaller schools. I remember years later reading about Stalin that the intimates of his inner circle were always at their most nervous when he was in a ‘good’ mood, and understanding instantly what was meant by that.”
He Knew He Was Right
Ian Parker • The New Yorker • October 2006
The definitive profile of Hitchens:
"Hitchens has the life that a spirited thirteen-year-old boy might hope adulthood to be: he wakes up when he likes, works from home, is married to someone who wears leopard-skin high heels, and conducts heady, serious discussions late into the night. I arrived just after midday, and Hitchens said that it was ’time for a cocktail’; he poured a large drink. His hair flopped over his forehead, and he pushed it back using just the tips of his fingers, his hand as unbending as a mannequin’s.
He noted that he never likes going to bed. ‘I’m not that keen on the idea of being unconscious,’ he said. ‘There’s plenty of time to be unconscious coming up.’ In Washington, his socializing usually takes place at home. ‘I can have some sort of control over who comes, what gets talked about, what gets eaten, what gets drunk, and the ashtrays,’ he said. ‘Call me set in my ways’ (Hitchens’s predominant tone is quietly self-parodying. Even his farewells are ironic: ‘It’s been real,’ ‘Stay cool.’) Guests at the Hitchens salon include people he first knew in London, who call him ‘Hitch,’ including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and his great friend Martin Amis (‘The only blond I have ever really loved,’ Hitchens once said); long-standing American friends like Christopher Buckley and Graydon Carter; an international network of dissidents and intellectuals; and, these days, such figures as David Frum, the former Bush Administration speechwriter, and Grover Norquist, the conservative activist. In September, he hosted Barham Salih, a Kurd who is a Deputy Prime Minister of the new Iraqi government. Many guests can report seeing Hitchens step out of the room after dinner, write a column, then step back almost before the topic of conversation has changed.”
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See Slate’s full tribute to the life of Christopher Hitchens. Read Slate’s complete collection of Christopher Hitchens' columns.
I've been reading a lot of Christopher Hitchens lately -- and not just in anticipation of his death. As a writer and a public scholar, Hitchens scared me. I tried to imagine what would happen if I had the opportunity to debate him on some issue of politics and language, and I always came out of the exchange battered and bloody. The quickness of his wit, his intellectual range, his livid mean streak -- all these I found discouraging, a writer both envious and cowed by the brilliance of another.
Over the last year or so I've read three of his books, all of which I recommend: "Why Orwell Matters," "The Quotable Hitchens," and the doorstop-worthy collection of his essays "Arguably." In a foreword to that second book, subtitled "From Alcohol to Zionism," Martin Amis tries to capture the essence of his friend's brilliance:
In his speech, it is the terse witticism that we remember; in his prose, what we thrill to is his magisterial expansiveness...The extracts that follow aren't jokes or jibes. They are more like crystallizations -- insights that lead the reader to a recurring questions: If this is so obviously true, and it is, why did we have to wait for Christopher to point it out to us?
But isn't that the essential nature of wisdom literature, from the biblical Book of Proverbs to collections of Hitchens' sharpest thoughts? Such as:
- What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
- A Holocaust denier is a Holocaust affirmer.
- A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can't make old friends.
Great short writing has the ability to make the writer sound like both a wiseguy and a wise guy. The form of expression to turn that trick rests on the distinction between the epigram and the aphorism.
Nothing quite clarifies the mind – with the exception of a gun pointed at one’s head, or a bout with esophageal cancer – more than a good distinction.
Epigrams vs. Aphorisms
In 1962, W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger published an anthology of more than 3,000 wise sayings drawn from the work of more than 400 authors. The title of the anthology is "Aphorisms," defined by the "American Heritage Dictionary" as “a tersely phrased statement of truth or opinion; an adage.”
But wait – isn’t that also the definition of an epigram? Not quite. The AHD defines the epigram in part as “a concise, clever, often paradoxical statement.” We need examples.
Typical of the always helpfulAHD, we are directed to a list of synonyms under the word saying. There I found distinctions drawn and examples given for eight words: saying, maxim, adage, saw, motto, epigram, proverb, and aphorism. Since each of these is a miniature form of wisdom literature, it makes sense to summarize the differences described in the dictionary.
- Saying: an often repeated and familiar expression: “America is a land of opportunity.”
- Maxim: an expression of general truth or rule of conduct: “Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus.”
- Adage: a saying that gains strength from long use: “Good things come in small packages.”
- Saw: a saying that has become trite from overuse: “You can’t take it with you.”
- Motto: a phrase that describes the guiding principles of a person, profession, or institution: “Semper fidelis” (The Marines, “Always Faithful”)
- Epigram: a witty expression, often paradoxical, and brilliantly phrased, as when Samuel Johnson called remarriage “a triumph of hope over experience.”
- Proverb: an old and popular saying that offers practical wisdom or advice: “Slow and steady wins the race.”
- Aphorism: a concise expression of truth, deep in content, and well expressed. “Social media are severely anti-social,” wrote Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
It is obvious that these distinctions are sliced pretty thin, and it would be a matter of debate as to which category deserves a phrase like: “The fleas come with the dog.”
The distinction between epigram and aphorism is important enough that Auden and Kronenberger draw it on the first page of their anthology:
An epigram need only be true of a single case, for example, Coolidge opened his mouth and a moth flew out; or effective only in a particular polemical context, for example, Foxhunting is the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable ... An aphorism, on the other hand, must convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.
It is that second mini-genre, the aphorism, that best describes Hitchens at his best. Here he is on America:
- In America, something deemed unsayable is, sooner or later, bound to be said. And it may be said rather more heatedly as a result of its having been a taboo.
- It's the only place in history where patriotism can be divorced from its evil twins of chauvinism and xenophobia.
- The United States is simultaneously the most conservative and the most radicalizing force on the planet.
Auden and Kronenberger draw a finer distinction: “An epigram must be amusing and brief, but an aphorism, though it should not be boring and must be succinct in style, need not make the reader laugh and can extend itself to several sentences.”
And then this: “Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and complicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers."
Yet I've never thought of Hitchens work as aristocratic, no more than I would think of the work of George Orwell that way. Perhaps "morally and intellectually superior" without the poison of condescension.
Contrast Hitchens, for example, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, popular author of "The Black Swan" and a book of aphorisms, "The Bed of Procrustes."
Here are three aphorisms from a chapter on literature:
- No author should be considered as having failed until he starts teaching others about writing.
- You are alive in inverse proportion to the density of clichés in your writing.
- For pleasure read one chapter of Nabokov. For punishment, two.
And one more for good measure: “Literature comes alive with covering up vices, defects, weaknesses, and confusions; it dies with every trace of preaching.”
If I had to create an aphorism in response to these it might read something like: “One whose writing preaches to readers in almost every sentence should not attack preachiness in the writings of others.”
In the last several months, I find myself thinking, speaking, and writing more aphoristically, but I hope not more aristocratically. In one interview, I declared that "Time is the co-author of good judgment," my explanation for why reporters who are first are not always best.
My answer to almost any question about the economy has been that "all boats sink on a low tide."
Speeches about writing or language in America often end with, "What good is freedom of expression if we lack the means to express ourselves?"
And at lunch today, before I learned of Hitchens' death, I thought of the many journalists who have lost their jobs in recent times, and it inspired an inversion of Gene Patterson's saying "Don't just make a living, make a mark."
My take? "It's hard to make a mark when you can't make a living."
I dedicate this essay to Christopher Hitchens. May he rest in peace in the arms of the angels he didn't believe in. I think that's an epigram.