Very Worth Reading

by Belle Waring on December 20, 2011

Katha Pollit on Hitchens (yes, yes, I’ll stop now). She doesn’t hold her fire. Via Lindsay Beyerstein
Update of sorts: there are lots of high-functioning alcoholics in the world. They manage to keep it together for a long time. When do they come to AA? When they’re 65. What was it like for his family to have to deal with him dying as an active alcoholic? I’ve seen it and it isn’t pretty.



The Raven 12.20.11 at 11:14 am

Smoking and drinking are risk factors for the cancer which killed him. (Source: Mayo Clinic web site.) Joy joy joy.


flyingrodent 12.20.11 at 11:57 am

There are several hundred reasons to hold Hitchens in contempt, but “being a bevvy merchant” is low down the list.


Hidari 12.20.11 at 12:22 pm

If you read the article you will find that it’s not about his alcoholism but his misogyny. Strangely Hitchens ‘cared deeply’ (according to Hitchens) about the poor suffering women in Afghanistan and Iraq.

When he met actual women in the flesh in Washington….not so much.


Barry 12.20.11 at 1:03 pm

Hidari 12.20.11 at 12:22 pm

” If you read the article you will find that it’s not about his alcoholism but his misogyny. Strangely Hitchens ‘cared deeply’ (according to Hitchens) about the poor suffering women in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Hitchens cared just as much about those women as the neocons did, which is to say not at all.


Rich Puchalsky 12.20.11 at 1:28 pm

“I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. […] But as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered.”

I don’t mean to get on Katha Pollit’s case … but this is an indictment of her whole world, in which Hitchens was the best they could do for a vivid presence. While the people who liked reading him were all going on about how he quoted high culture, people who hung out with him were all going on about how he drank, and smoked, and said nasty things to people. He simultaneously got to play British intellectual and British punk. It all seems rather pathetic and trivial.

But all right. If anyone except the people who knew him are going to remember him as a viviid presence, what exactly are they going to remember? “Either that wallpaper has to go, or I do” came up yesterday in conversation not about Oscar Wilde… so what is it?


Glen Tomkins 12.20.11 at 4:58 pm

There’s a definite tendency for alcoholics to burn out as their health declines. The spirit may still be willing, but the body just can’t take the abuse any longer. And with alcohol, the purely physiologic aspect of the addiction (the mechancis of which, by the way, we still do not understand) is not so great, so there isn’t the hurdle to quitting of any appreciable and prolonged withdrawal.

For Hitchens’ medical problem, esophageal cancer, in particular, continuing to drink would have been quite difficult. It’s hard to keep up with drinking while in hospital. Most chemo tends to make you nauseated anyway, and alcohol just lowers the vomiting threshold even further. Vomiting is especially unpleasant for people with esophageal cancer. Hitchens described a prolonged period during radiation therapy when his esophagus was burned so raw that passing any food was painful. Any form of alcohol would be among the worst offenders in that respect, and hard liquor would have been right out of the question. He was on tube feedings for quite a bit of his last year, and I can’t say I’ve ever seen a patient who managed to get his tube formula spiked.


Brett 12.20.11 at 6:25 pm

Smoking and drinking are risk factors for the cancer which killed him. (Source: Mayo Clinic web site.) Joy joy joy.

To make matters worse, he had a family history of that specific type of cancer. In the column where he discussed being diagnosed, he mentioned that his father also died of esophageal cancer, albeit at 79 instead of 62.


js. 12.20.11 at 6:26 pm

That Pollitt piece is great. Thanks.

Well, it’s not just about his misogyny—though that’s certainly a part of it. If anything, the unifying theme is what Pollitt calls his lack of self-doubt. Which seems about right.


CJColucci 12.20.11 at 8:24 pm

He had his balls waxed? Why?


Substance McGravitas 12.20.11 at 8:33 pm

He had his balls waxed? Why?

Someone else DIDN’T want their balls waxed. See also waterboarding.


ovaut 12.20.11 at 10:46 pm

hitchens’ big contradiction was in his humanism. no one’s not a humanist on a cold night, but it was hitchens’ trick to co-opt the moral glamour of a democratic humanism while attaching his practical loyalty to an elitist one. what explains how you can sustain a righteous scorn of the religious impulse and at the same time be socialistically suffused with sympathy for the lot of the masses? (indeed, what would you expect of a simple ‘mammal’ but a tendency to totalitarianism?) i think a belief in the improvability of man explains it, but a belief specifically in the desirability of the improvement of man towards the goal it was for hitchens self-evidently just for him to aspire to, that of the condition of hitchens and his friends


Meredith 12.20.11 at 11:27 pm

Also on Hitchens and women (and she links to Pollitt, too):
I cite this here chiefly because, if you scroll down, you can read “The Bald Vulva” for some possible insights into ball-waxing. (Why so shocking? Are we similarly shocked at all the shaving women do?)
Am I strange in thinking Andrew Breitbart when I see pictures of (a still healthy) Hitchens?


ed 12.21.11 at 1:20 am

Has anyone mentioned Neal Pollack’s contribution yet? Because it’s also worth reading.


Jonathan 12.21.11 at 1:59 am

I have never understood the adulation directed toward the writing of Christopher Hitchens. I found him to be a callow thinker who was overly fond of simple oppositions and categories. And he liked to categorize. Sometimes his categories were about historical events, but most of the time his categories were a-historical certainties with which to cudgel others. He was neither amusing nor insightful, and while I extend to him the honor due any person at the moment of death, I find the post-mortems on his influence more revealing of the thin gruel that passes for policy discussion.


Raghav 12.21.11 at 2:24 am

That was a good piece by Pollit — which spurred me to look up the 1989 article on abortion she mentions, since I vaguely remembered Hitchens mocking pro-lifers in God is Not Great. Here’s a longer excerpt:

The leading element in the “right to life” movement is indeed composed of hypocrites, who are either indifferent to the suffering of others or in some cases positively enthusiastic about it; who are marketers of religious cretinism; and who have been thoroughly and revealingly unsettled by one of the century’s most positive developments, the sexual autonomy of women. As has been said before, the “lifers” pretend concern for humanity before it is born and after it is dead, and contribute mightily to the
preventable bits of misery in between. …

It is because I actually do mind about this that I am appalled by the exploitation of the subject by religious and political demagogues. Still, most of them have the excuse of ignorance or depravity. The left should not. If you care to spend a few minutes talking with the people who attend “right to life” events, the active majority of them working-class women, you will encounter all kinds of what I am still arrogant or confident enough to call illusions. But you will also encounter a genuine, impressive, unforced revulsion at
the idea of the disposable fetus. This revulsion would deserve respect even if it were “only” emotional. But anyone who has ever seen a sonogram or has spent even an hour
with a textbooko n embryology knows that the emotions are not the deciding factor. In order to terminate a pregnancy, you have to still a heartbeat, switch off a developing brain and, whatever the method, break some bones and rupture
some organs. As to whether this involves pain on the “Silent Scream” scale, I have no idea. The “right to life” leadership, again, has cheapened everything it touches.


Rich Puchalsky 12.21.11 at 3:04 am

Neal Pollack’s contribution is so worth reading that little else on Hitchens is worth reading, except that paradoxically his wouldn’t be worth reading if so many other people hadn’t written so much.


Antonio Conselheiro 12.21.11 at 3:10 am

12, 14: “In the annals of history, only Orwell, Voltaire and maybe a half-dozen other guys could match’s Hitch ideological bravery and breadth of political knowledge. ”

Is there a punch line later on? Because that’s stupid.


Antonio Conselheiro 12.21.11 at 3:11 am

Whew. There is.

Never can tell these days. Poe’s law.


Rich Puchalsky 12.21.11 at 3:26 am

Poe’s Law is strong enough so that they had to plaster a big “Satire” at the top of the thing. Too bad, really.


ed 12.21.11 at 3:29 am

No one loved ideas more than Hitch.


Ralph Hitchens 12.21.11 at 2:48 pm

Thanks, Belle. Certainly the best of the obits of my namesake that I’ve read during the past week or so. Courage in a narrow sphere, all too true of many men.


SamInMpls 12.22.11 at 8:10 am

I must be missing something here. Let me see if I am able to follow you:

Functional alcoholics hit the wall when they retire and spend more time around their families and this is what eventually forces the alcoholic into treatment.

Fair enough.

Hitchens, a functional alcoholic, is forced to at the very least go long stretches without alcohol due to, as #6 points out, the physical limitations of throat cancer treatment and the practical limitations of drinking in a hospital or clinic environment. To be fair though, there were certainly at least a few opportunities for him to drink in the last year or so, just no way for us to know how much, often or long into his treatment.

But the writing didn’t stop.

Hitchens doesn’t retire; continues to write the the year following his diagnosis and publishes his last piece less than a month before his death.

And your point is that his family suffered because living with a functional alcoholic is no picnic after they have retired?

Clearly, my reading comprehension skills are lacking.

Would you like take another swing?


James 12.22.11 at 1:56 pm

I love when foot soldiers worship at the feet of lieutenants who could never hold a water bottle for a four-star general. Be that as it may, as you were.


bert 12.22.11 at 3:18 pm


Eli Rabett 12.24.11 at 3:57 am

Hitchens was the prototypical Oxbridge Hooray Henry.


Gray 12.24.11 at 3:10 pm

I found Pollit’s piece to be the best of the non-hagiographies of Hitchens I’ve read so far. Her criticisms are substantive and ring true to me. Gender seems to be one issue where like his hero Orwell, he is not going to wear very well.
Still he’ll last better than many on here sniff about. His defense of modern secular society in the face of theocratic terrorism was a clarion call.


Rich Puchalsky 12.24.11 at 4:24 pm

Somehow they missed the “Satire” tag on Eagleton’s piece. But it must have surely been there. No one could have written that seriously.


tomslee 12.24.11 at 5:42 pm


I thought it was pretty good.


Rich Puchalsky 12.24.11 at 5:51 pm

“Of a later president, George W. Bush, Hitchens observes that his eyes are set close enough together for him to use a monocle rather than a pair of glasses. […] All this is the kind of scabrous wit that readers of the Great Contrarian have come to relish.”

This answers many of the questions I’ve had about people who like Hitchens’ style, at any rate. The problem with Bush was that *his eyes were set close together* — in fact, it’s scabrous wit to bring that up. Wait till these people hear my fart jokes!


spyder 12.25.11 at 11:36 am

I’d raise a glass for Hitchen’s; albeit i’d raise a glass just because i can still raise a glass.

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