Timothy Noah

Hitch, 1949-2011

By

I could never bring myself to call him "Hitch." It felt presumptuous, and though I knew him a long time we were never more than friendly acquaintances. He was insanely good company, but you don't have to have met him to know that, and I knew it mainly as a reader. He was brilliant and often exasperating, even before 9/11 made him an unrepentant Iraq hawk; I won't say "conservative" because even in his lefty days Hitchens had a conservative streak, especially in his literary taste, and even after he started writing for the Weekly Standard he remained in many ways a man of the left. 

As a writer, he made intuitive leaps that occasionally got him into serious trouble. In Hitchens's evidentiary arithmetic, 2 + 2 might equal 4 or it might equal 573. But he was never dull, and he never failed to teach you something you didn't know, even on topics you thought you knew fairly well. He was astonishingly well-read, so much so that when I heard him confide, in the early 1990s, that he had never read any novels by the Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison (she was sitting in his living room at the time; somebody famous was always sitting in his living room) I had difficulty absorbing the news that there was anything Christopher hadn't read. He was also a writer of surpassing elegance--remarkably so for a writer so prolific.

Above, all, Christopher hated bullies. Nobody likes them, of course, but Hitchens really hated them. Most of the bullies he wrote about deployed the apparatus of the military or the state to achieve their ends, but his best bully story--really, the best bully story I've ever heard from anyone--was about the British public- (i.e., private-) school kind. It can be found in his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22: 

"I was cornered in some chilly recreation room by a would-be bully named E.A.M. Smith, a brainless and cruel lad a year or so my senior. This tough and tasty dunce excelled at games and was a member of a highly exclusive Christian crackpot sect named the Glanton Brethren, which in its own disordered mind constituted an elect of god's anointed. 'Hitchens is being gassy,' he said, using the school's argot for people like me who talked too much. 'The cure for being gassy is a bit of a beating.'"

The beating in this instance is averted, but the story's punch line is relegated to a footnote.

"In an excellent instance of the 'revenge is sour' rule, I was to meet Smith again many years later. It was on the London underground one morning. He was an abject tramp, carrying two heavy bags of rotting old newspapers and declaiming aloud to the unheeding world around him. He chose to sit down just next to me. I pondered for a moment and couldn't resist: 'E.A.M. Smith!' I said into his ear. He jumped like a pea on a hot shovel. 'How do you know my name?' Cruelly I replied: 'We've had our eye on you for some time.'"

Smith's face, Hitchens reports, "betrayed the animal fear of the hopeless paranoid, and so I couldn't bear to continue. 'It's all right. I just remember you from school. It's Hitchens here.' He said dully: 'I remember you. You were a sinner. I used to pray for you.' That seemed about right."

To E.A.M. Smith, if you're still out there, you miserable bastard (in every sense): Light a candle for your old schoolmate. It won't make anything right, as Hitchens would be the first to point out, either for you or for him. But show a little respect. You tormented a gifted journalist and essayist who will be remembered long after you're gone. Rest in peace, Hitch.

Update, Dec. 19: It appears Hitchens related the Smith anecdote at greater length in a July 2010 interview with Hugh Hewitt, providing additional detail (or, possibly, additional embellishment) and acknowledging in a slightly more serious vein the dangerous temptation to be cruel to one's tormentors. Since a few commentators took me to task for being unfeeling toward an obvious paranoid schizophrenic, perhaps this will appease them. Anyway, I found it interesting.

(I happened upon the interview after I got curious as to where Christopher could have gotten the wonderful archaism, "jumped like a pea on a hot shovel." I guessed P.G. Wodehouse, and evidence supports this, though the coinage predates Wodehouse. Judging from a quick Google, its origins appear to be American rather than British. I have no idea what it actually means. But I digress.)

Here's the relevant excerpt:

Q: There is one episode of cruelty in the memoir. It’s in a note. It’s buried on Page 68 – E.A.M. Smith…

A: Yes.

Q: …a brainless and cruel lad that you somewhat torment, actually. You can tell the story, but I’m curious as to why you included it, and whether you regretted doing it.

A: Well, because there’s a famous story by George Orwell called Revenge…and it’s not a story. It’s an account of an episode in post-war Germany called "Revenge Is Sour." But when the boot is really on the other foot, actually, you get no satisfaction. You’ve often dreamed of what it would be like, but there’s no satisfaction in putting the leather in. And this boy had been a bully to me at school. He was a horrible, uneducated, resentful kid who tried to take it out on me when I was small. It wasn’t hell, but I mean I remembered it. I had to learn how to avoid him. And much later in life, I was going to work in London at my magazine on the subway, and he came into the subway car carrying, wearing a smelly, old overcoat and carrying bags of rubbish, and talking at the top of his voice, and looking around him wildly. And I thought good grief. And there was only one seat in the whole damned car, and he took it. It was next to me. And I thought shall I do nothing? I thought I can’t do nothing. So I lent over and said E.A.M. Smith, right? And he jumped like a pea on a hot shovel. And he said how did you know? And I said, I decided to be nasty, and I said well, we’ve had our eye on you for some time.

Q: (laughing) That’s so horrible.

A: And he looked wildly around him, and said, begged me, and I said no, you know, and we don’t like what we see, either. You’re not getting good reports. And I rubbed it into him. It was getting to the point where I was going to get off, it was my stop to change, and I thought of just leaving him there babbling, and I realized I couldn’t do it. I actually was rather pleased to find I hadn’t got it in me quite to do that. So I said no, it’s all right, I remember you from school, and I gave him my name. And a flicker of recognition came in his face, and he said well, yes, that’s right, I remember you. I used to pray for you. And I said well, carry on.

Q: Now is that seed of cruelty the same thing that blossoms in other people unchecked into your General Videla, and into the tortures about whom we learn more when you get to Iraq? I mean, is it always the same thing, but it’s got to be nipped off? Is it in everyone?

A: I don’t think many people are immune to it, especially those who’ve been…Auden says in his wonderful poem, 1st of September, 1939, the greatest poem every written in New York City, about the opening of the Second World War, he’s reflecting on what’s happened in Germany, and he says I and the public know what all schoolchildren learn – those to whom evil is done, do evil in return. It isn’t always true. I actually slightly stopped the cycle. I could have been much nastier to him than I was. In the end, I just gave him an unpleasant surprise, and then let him off with a warning. But I could have relished. I know I had it in me. And I admire people who can get over it. 

 

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