Tribute to the Polemicist


Twenty-one years ago, I left boarding school to go to work on the stock market; at a commodities desk at a bank in Boston, to be precise. I took the bus downtown every day from Allston and ignored the Wall Street Journal. Instead, I read Hitchens’ book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, several times. I hated working at that bank, spending most of my days running paper for the traders and sneaking cigarettes on the roof with the administrative gals.

I hail from a staunchly conservative Catholic family with just enough guns and Marine Corps to be stifling as all hell.  I grew up hamstrung between the WASP culture of Andover, my hometown, and the rough-and-tumble of my Italo-America roots. Hitchens was, literally, a savior. (He would detest that word, by the way.) It was that book and Hitchens’s voice in it speaking to me, another young contrarian, that got me out of the bank and into a literature and philosophy program. Later on in London, I met Mr. Hitchens at a reception for his Jefferson book. As I recall, the meeting went something like this:

I am rarely nervous, but getting the gumption together to approach him had made me so. I elbowed my way around into the room, got a drink and a place in line. I finally found myself face to face with him. “Sir,” I said, “I find your work to be a huge inspiration.” He gave me a good English look up and down.

“You are an American, studying here?"

“Yes, over in New Cross.”

“Goldsmiths! Good on you. What are you reading?”

“Polemics, mostly. A lot of Nietzsche right now.”

“You write then, obviously?”

I recall distinctly that he was very polite as I struggled with his last question. Noticing this, he asked me if I wanted to ask something specific. People were clamoring behind me to get to him. Several were literally leaning against me, pushing me into Hitchens, who then glared over my shoulder at the irritant.

"It's a lonely, tough racket, the writing. I don't envy anyone interested in it."

He said this succinctly, and then “Look. Just keep writing. Forget about all of this bullshit. It’s not about the writing per se; that's torture. It’s about thinking originally. Be yourself.” He smiled and handed me my book again.

Yesterday, my back was aching from moving a friend’s apartment around the day before yesterday. I took a break from writing around noon, and went to take a sauna and read a bit. I stretched and steamed, and then took to reading Hitchens’s latest piece on Jacqueline Kennedy in Vanity Fair. I smiled when I found that not even she, the grande dame of elites, was off-limits to the British polemicist. This was what I enjoyed most about Hitchens: his utter disregard for the sacrosanct, especially those things sacred to elites and religious types. I revel in that disregard.

When I learned of his death this morning, I stayed in bed. I opened the windows and let the sunlight and cold ocean air flood my bedroom. My tongue was still dry from the ten-year old Talisker I had imbibed in the night before at a local pub. (A coincidental—and unintended—tribute of sorts.)

In some ways, I have styled myself a bit like several writers. I, like many men my age, admire Hemingway for the most obvious of reasons: he is simple. Henry Miller liberated me in many ways, and no one else I know writes with such feverish abandon. David Mamet, though I despise his politics of late, is simply a brilliant playwright. I could name Twain, Cervantes, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Ginsberg, Michael Oondajte, and Rumi as well as a dozen others. But Christopher Hitchens is in a category of his own; because to be honest, I am not unlike him.

Hitchens is my scotch-soaked Prometheus. He is the most gracious of the giant thinkers whose works I have read. His touch, no matter what the topic, is adroit. His words are so Goddamned “on”.  I must admit, however, that his influence on me was so much more than what he wrote. Hitchens’s influence came from what he conveyed to me, speaking as one writer and polemicist to another. Keep in mind that there are many people who think of Hitchens in this way, and even more people, especially in Los Angeles, who haven’t a clue who he is. Believe me when I say that he has been an invaluable resource, especially since I moved here from the East Coast. Those readers who live here will admit that L.A. is not an intellectual place. It is replete with all sorts of thoroughly irrational ways of thinking.

This is not a pessimistic observation. I am frequently confronted with a plethora of “suggestions” like, “Have you tried Kabbalah?  Karaoke?  Shaking the shaman's rattle? Going to Burning Man to find yourself and (god)?” And then there’s the dreaded question, “Are you a believer?” In those moments I think of the sober-minded, (but never sober), Brit, and retire from the conversation immediately. Thus I have saved not only my own breath, but perhaps the head of the poor soul at which I would have otherwise readily swung at, metaphorically speaking.

Christopher Hitchens, above everything else, was impolite, and he was right about an awful lot. I appreciate those things about him.

So, to Mr. Hitchens I say, “Thank you,” one last time.

Reposted from December, 2011. 

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