When I arrived at the ground floor of Christopher Hitchens’s apartment building the doorman who greeted me was wearing a maroon jacket stained wet near the collar and he smelled of alcohol. “I’m here to see Mr. Hitchens,” I said. He nodded and pointed to the large stain. “He got in ten minutes ago.” Thirteen minutes ahead of schedule, I hung around and chatted with the kind soiled doorman before making my way Hitchensward.
Standing in front of the door, I knocked four times, mimicking the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, notes employed by the BBC in World War the Second because short-short-short-long was Morse code for “V,” and thus victory. I was sure Hitchens, a collector of historical miscellanies and a board-certified literary genius nourished as a boy on the BBC, would catch the reference and perhaps commend my command of historical bric-a-brac. I was disappointed by my error. “Enter,” came the reply, and so I did. Christopher Hitchens was sitting with a bottle of scotch in each hand at a small wooden table in the center of a large bare room almost entirely bereft of expected furniture and decoration. There was the table at which he sat, some chairs and hundreds of books lining the walls, shelved carefully and stacked haphazardly under the windows. Elsewhere, bottles of booze arranged artfully and stacked many feet high.”Well,” said Hitchens, drawing out and slurring that interjection often used by intelligent men to preface some profound statement. None came. I stood there waiting as Hitchens, hunched over, eyes half closed, sat staring at me in stuporous silence. I thought I noticed a spot of drool beginning to form at the left corner of his mouth. All around the man an archipelago of drying pools of vomit caked the floor, mapping out his drunkenness. Had he no caretaker?
“I’m here for the interview,” I offered, hoping to prod him out of his torpor toward less awkward realms of human interaction. “I’m with The BEAST.”
“Well,” he said again. Not another sound for two minutes. I feared he was having a stroke and would soon be dead and I would somehow be blamed. The situation was perilously close to spiraling out of control. Then: “Please sit down.”
What follows is the near-complete transcript of my interview with Christopher Hitchens, journalist and polemicist extraordinaire, darling of the establishment, anti-theist Debate Champion(tm), sometimes-socialist, scourge of the left, right, center and fringe. For reasons soon to be made appallingly clear, portions of the interview have been necessarily excised for brevity.
CONE: You’ve been publishing effective journalism and skewering public figures since you were five years old, but this is your first memoir. What did you find different about the writing process?
HITCHENS: (surprisingly coherent, his words free from slurring) In his imperishable and brilliant and beautiful treatise on the plight of young Afghans savaged by the abhorrent Soviet invasion of 1980, Midnight’s Children, my dear friend Sir Salman Rushdie has created, it must be said, a framework on which all my work past and present and future would rely. I owe my every manner of success to my dear friends Sir Ian McEwan, the aforementioned Sir Salman Rushdie, and Sir Martin Amis, whose father Sir Kingsley Amis was a mentor of mine at Oxford–
CONE: I don’t think all those people are really knights.
HITCHENS: –the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where I had my first and last experience of journalistic comity. This is not to say, rather, that I was free from all influence thereafter. Only the recorded existence of the supposed Jesus of Nazareth is less true. So, quite the opposite. Sir James Fenton, the noble Nobel poet laureate whom I proudly count among my various friends, initially made my acquaintance at a protest in London, February 1968, not long before the whole world was to erupt in righteous protest. Sir James instructed me in the ways of the radical and in his own inimitable poetical way was successful in bringing about the ruin of capitalism in at least one corner of that great city. We joined a group of radicals in sitting outside a laundromat that would not open its doors on Thursdays to the masses’ unwashed clothing. It was our solemn goal to bar from entering into that degenerated and bigoted establishment every fascist capitalist who wished to further grease the gears of the machinery of oppression. We stood for hours, arms locked and forming an impenetrable heroic human chain, until the tools of what I then believed to be our capitalist slumlords, arrived with batons in hand. We resisted but in the end they arrested all of us. Two hours later, upon exiting jail, I returned to my rooms at Oxford and typed out in three minutes a 2,000 word story on the events of that day. It would later be printed in the New Statesman. To be a soixante-huitard is not a birthright but–
CONE: Did you just say retard?
HITCHENS: –dear departed close chum and sometimes-advisor Sir Sidney Blumenthal, at whose funeral I considered it a privilege to act as pallbearer and eulogist, was fond of remarking upon the unlettered scene of American letters and–
CONE: I’ve heard your relationship with Blumenthal, again not a knight, rather soured after you accused him of perjury. Also, I’m fairly certain he’s still alive.
HITCHENS: –it is Milton, truly, who provides for us the best example. That this example came before us nearly 400 years ago never fails to inspire awe and astonishment in the minds of thinking men and reasoned women. Forgive me any error for I quote this from memory:
Hail holy Light, offspring of Heav’n first-born,
Or of th’ Eternal co-eternal beam
May I express thee unbalanced? Since God is light,
And never but in unapproached light
Dwelt from eternity, dwelt then in thee,
Bright effluence of bright essence increate.
Or hear’st though rather pure ethereal stream,
Whose fountain who shall tell? Before the sun,
Before the heavens thou wert, and at the voice
Of God, as with a mantle didst invest
The rising world of waters dark and deep,
Won from the void and formless infinite.
Thee I revisit now with bolder wing,
Escaped the Stygian pool, though long detained
In that obscure sojourn, while in my flight
Through utter and through middle darkness borne
So spake the Seraph Abdiel found,
Among the faithless, faithful only he,
Among unnumerable false, unmoved,
Unshaken, unseduced, unterrified,
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;
Nor number, nor example with him wrought
To serve from truth, or change his constant mind
Though single. From amidst them forth he passed,
Long way through hostile scorn, which he sustained
Superior, nor of violence feared aught
And with retorted scorn his back he turned
On whose proud tow’rs to swift destruction doomed.
That is Paradise Lost, books eye-eye-eye and eye-vee.
HITCHENS: –be said that, in a fight, he was the man you would want by your side. Once, on a gray and rainy and dour day some time after the terrible events of September the 11th, 2001 I was walking from the hotel room of my friend and confidante Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz toward my office in the New School, where I am a visiting professor. (Indeed, it was to a fictional Student X I addressed my correspondence in my 2001 book Letters to a Young Contrarian, a slim volume universally praised and winner of the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.)
CONE: That is a lie.
HITCHENS: –journeys and escapades with the Peshmerga, warriors from Kurdistan, the people for whom I wear on my lapel the Kurdish flag. I have worn it for many years, and in fact I have many such pins, all of which are attached to every garment I own. This, you see, is to avoid disgrace. I do not wish to appear ungallant, and the studious and observant and intelligent reader will agree that I have taken the proper precautions in this regard. De te fabula narratur. This lapel pin has landed me in hot water not a few times, most recently when, in the company of my dear friend and lover Sir Martin Amis, I traveled to Peshawar–
CONE: Not a knight.
HITCHENS: –in a terrible scrap; everyone except the two of us were armed. I had only my pen for protection. When the barbarian third-world Islamofascist crowd of thugs charged us, I with my pen and Sir Martin Amis holding a sack filled with his father’s novels, we did what could be expected from two proud defenders of civilization. I stabbed out with my pen, and Martin crushed heads with his sack of novels, and after not a long while we were covered in the blood of the intolerant, our vanquished al-Qaeda enemies lay perforated all around us. We had gored our enemies; we, quite rightly I think, snorted like bulls and made strange movements of celebration. Forgive me my rude solipsism. It was then I decided to pen my next book using their blood for ink–
CONE: This is deeply disturbing.
HITCHENS: –malodorous Clintons, the pair of them interested only in the acquiring and the exercise of political power. It was with great pleasure that I savaged that fraudulent team, guilty of spewing so much piffle, President Clinton especially, in the pages of The Nation and the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times and Dissent and the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair and the London Review of Books and all those other distinguished publications whom I allow to pay me for my cherished words, throughout the 1990s. The credulity of the American public can never be understated, as Huneker said, or was it Mencken, or perhaps Eliot — T.S. or George, that intoxicating radical Mary Ann Evans? — and I aim to foster a national culture of enlightenment with its basis in The Enlightenment. There are walking among us today many Thomas Paines and Diderots and Humes and Kants, do not be fooled. It is a matter of drawing them into society. I believe, with some necessary assistance, I am capable of so doing. Indeed, my efforts have borne fruit. After the tragic morning of September the 11th, 2001 a previously unheralded President, thought by many petulant and stupid and cross, made America’s mission, quite correctly I should say, to rid the world of terrorism and tyranny forever. My former comrades on the Left, servile cowards to the end, denounced this heroic decision. I savaged them with a fury they will not soon forget. I recall fondly that President Bush and his team were watching with trepidation these unfolding events, and I am reliably told that Vice President Richard Cheney and my honorable friend Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz would thumb through issues of The Nation, debating with each other who would emerge victorious from the battle ongoing in those pages, myself or Noam Chomsky. I am pleased to say that both Vice President Richard Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz — men rather near to my heart — came down on my side. I remember Vice President Richard Cheney’s congratulatory phone call one winter morning, describing how pleased he was with my thrashing of Chomsky, and would I please join him the following week to discuss the long-term strategy of the emerging Global War on Terror? ‘It will be my honor, sir,’ I replied, and I remember well his grunting response before hanging up. It was the grunt of approval. The details of those–
CONE: I have been here nearly two hours and you have not answered my only question.
HITCHENS: (warily) Who are you?
CONE: As I said before I’m with The BEAST. You granted this interview in an effort to promote your memoir, and you graciously invited me to your home so that we might talk face-to-face.
HITCHENS: Did Sir Salman Rushdie send you?
CONE: (hesitantly) Yes.
HITCHENS: In his imperishable and brilliant and beautiful treatise…
I left without speaking another word. As I closed the door behind me he was still blathering about Rushdie, sprinkling over his monologue a few words borrowed from the French, used wrongly I think, and something about his “dear friends” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Isaiah Berlin.