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Books

Christopher Hitchens Embraced and Devoured with Equal Passion

Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview and Other Conversations is a tantalizing, brief appetizer of the breadth, scope, and urgency of this legendary contrarian's thoughts on such topics as religion, war, literature, and media.

Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations
Christopher Hitchens

Melville House

Dec 2017

Other

The strengths of a good slim compendium have usually included more than just their portability. The twist that makes Melville House's The Last Interview series is one that also makes it somewhat deceptive yet always interesting: all the subjects are dead. From those who chose their own ways out (Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace) old lions on their last legs (Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut), and slain martyrs (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), the series has aimed to collect a variety of interview material and profiles meant to portray their subject's life views. The actual final interview is included, but the reader leaves with a mixed bag. The best thing such a collection can do is serve as a bridge mix sampling of their subject's canon.

Adding an entry in the Last Interview series to one's library by no means should serve as the beginning and end of their subject's legacy, and that's one of the major problems with Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. This is by no means the fault of its subject. Anybody familiar with the life and times of Hitchens (1949-2011) will surely be informed about his core subject matter, and it was immense. Hitchens was one of those brooding, steely-eyed talking heads who came to fame in the mid-'80s as an erudite British intellectual. He could (and certainly would) speak at length about everything from the sham that was Mother Teresa and organized religion of all sorts (more on that later) to his eventual transformation from life as a young Socialist to (for the sake of labels) a libertarian. Like many other pontificators at the time, he was profoundly affected by the events of 9/11. He supported the Independent Party US Presidential candidacy of Ralph Nader while also supporting the US Invasion of Iraq. He despised the Clintons while begrudgingly aligning himself with George W. Bush and in 2008 he favored Barack Obama.

This is what can be complicated about any collection aiming to serve as a primer to the life and times of Hitchens. Granted, this doesn't seem to be the mission of Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview. On the other hand, the measure of success in each of the eight selections is decidedly mixed. The book definitely benefits from a loving and appreciative introduction by Hitchens's friend Stephen Fry:

"From his perspective recent history represented not a triumph of the right but a failure of the left. This is why his absence is felt so keenly today by all who value intelligent, informed, passionate public discourse."

Certainly the notion that any public discourse in 2018 could reach the erudite and razor-sharp intelligence Hitchens provided in most all of his public appearances is long gone. There are no modern-day Christopher Hitchens-like writers working today. Nobody speaks as he did, not just the clipped cultivated British Cambridge University accent but also his command of immediate debate techniques and responses. He spoke, but he also listened. He was also a striking visual presence; corpulent without being obese, a lock of hair usually falling into his face, his dress shirt always unbuttoned at the first button, and a tuft of chest hair coming out for air. He was like a British Hemingway without the beard, or the fiction tendencies, or the suicidal ending, but nevertheless a prototypical "man's man". That's why some of the transcripts in Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview are not as strong as the editors probably think they are. Fry continues in his observations on Hitchens:

"The visceral distrust of unwarranted authority and instinctive feel for the exploited that took him as a student from the killing fields of Indochina to the barrios of San Salvador also fired his contempt for popes and horoscopes… Brahmas and lamas… to whom Truth and The Way had been revealed… the hard core of Hitchens was leavened by a fizzing yeast of humor."

The reader leaves Fry's reminiscences and appreciations of his late friend wishing they had been expanded from their mere six pages. The blurbs on the back are written by Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie, a trio of literary giants who seemed to be in a gang with Hitchens during the man's lifetime, and they have since written at length about what he meant to them. While the intention of this book was not to eulogize so much as compile a selection of interviews and profiles, more from Fry would have made it stronger.

In this volume's earliest selection, a 10 February 1987 transcript of a C-Span interview with Carl Rutan, the reader gets a sense that nothing has changed in the media landscape. It's the same as it ever was, with "…the level now of TV discussion of ideas and politics… humiliatingly low…" For Hitchens, "…what looks like competition between the three networks is in fact a competition to please and to be bland…" The problem with this piece, and some of the others, is the direction (or lack thereof) provided by the interviewer. It's not there, and more often than not Hitchens can't help but overwhelm his inquisitor. The inside scoop on how The McLaughlin Group was a heavily rehearsed political chat show (from Hitchens's perspective) makes the reader wish for more. Hitchens was not above being in it because he knew the greatest pleasure was in pulling back the curtain to expose the Wizard behind the controls.

In a Fall 1996 interview with Matt Cherry of Free Inquiry, Hitchens comes off as stronger and more focused, probably because it's a profile/interview and definitely because of the subject matter. It's Mother Teresa, and Hitchens will certainly be best known and (in some circles) decried for his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. In it, he eviscerated what he saw as the calculated image and good sales instincts of the famous nun known for her work with lepers and others.

"Why is it never mentioned that her stated motive for the work is that of proselytization for religious fundamentalism…?"

Methodically and carefully, Hitchens breaks down the problems he saw in this woman, who died a year later. No matter one's personal predilections towards faith and that woman in general, this piece nicely examines the brilliance of Hitchens's analysis, particularly in the world of organized religion. "I'm an atheist," he notes. "I'm not neutral about religion, I'm hostile to it… I mean not just organized religion, but religious belief itself."

In "Questions of Faith: In Conversation with Marilyn Sewell, Interview by Randy Gragg, Portland Monthly, January 2010," Hitchens expounds more on how his political views were and perhaps had always been informed by religion. It's a respectful conversation in that Sewell is a person of faith and Hitchens sees the direction of her inquiry:

Sewell: "…I believe that some of your impulses... are religious in the way I am religious…"

Hitchens: "I'm touched that you say, as some people have… that I've missed my vocation."

The interview concludes and resolves rather than ends. Earlier, he speaks of the Berrigan Brothers, who he saw as "…fanatical… pacifists who believe in the non-resistance to evil, which is in itself an evil doctrine." Later, he notes rather conclusively, "…any good action by a religious person could be duplicated or matched, if not surpassed, by someone who didn't believe in God."

In the actual final interview, conducted by fellow atheist Richard Dawkins for the December 2011 issue of New Statesman, Hitchens expounds on Nazism and the Catholic Church, on the duplicity of Mother Teresa, on his insistence that one "…must never be afraid of stridency." He wants to question Mitt Romney about problematic Mormon doctrine. He believes, in this final interview, that fundamentalism "… may be the most overrated threat in the country." Hitchens' foundation against religious faith of any kind was based on his readings and understandings of it, from Thomas Jefferson to C.S. Lewis. He expounds on Ecclesiastes and the book of Job, what he sees as the least religious books in the Bible. Dawkins notes what he said the day after this interview with his friend when he was presenting an award to Hitchens that became a tribute to his dying comrade in thoughts and letters:

"Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty, and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster."

Hitchens died the month this interview was published. With his passing one could argue went a style of insouciant brilliance, tossing off references to his hero George Orwell, passages from Homer, the eternal cynicism of Kurt Vonnegut, and barbs at eventual sanctioned saints like Mother Teresa. He embraced and devoured with equal passion. To his dying days at the far too young age of 61, there were factions who wanted to pray for his soul. He would have none of it. Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview suffers only under the burden of a subject whose immense understanding of how empires controlled and crumbled meant a compendium would naturally have great highs and gaping absences of coherency or interest. The stronger pieces here (on religion and literature) make the weaker ones (trying to contextualize his views on politics) forgivable. Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview is a worthy appetizer to an endless exploration of this prolific writer's essays, books, and reflections.

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