Hitchens the Angry Drunk

I was waiting for a piece like this (and yes, too many posts on the web about Hitchens anyway), just because there were way too many references to him pulling off being, well, a bit of a drinker and a prolific writer. I just couldn’t buy the romantic version of this–that image we have from Joyce and other writers that says it somehow improves one’s writing. (I find academics tend to hold this myth pretty close to heart.) Most drunks are angry drunks (I, on the other hand, dear reader, tend to get really mellow and effusive with any drinks in me—I was the “I love you, man” drinker). Here’s Katha Pollitt:

So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns). Drinking didn’t make him a better writer either—that’s another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don’t track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliché: that was the booze talking. And so, I’m betting, were the cruder manifestations of his famously pugilistic nature: as F Scott Fitzgerald said of his own alcoholism: “When drunk I make them all pay and pay and pay.” It makes me sad to see young writers cherishing their drinking bouts with him, and even his alcohol-fuelled displays of contempt for them (see Dave Zirin’s fond reminiscence of having Christopher spit at him) as if drink is what makes a great writer, and what makes a great writer a real man.

ADDITION: Here’s Cogburn suggesting it’s too soon. I agree with Cogburn that Hitchens was almost always well worth reading, and also agree with his point that philosophers are too little read in recent literature.

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4 comments

  1. I’m disappointed, Peter. How, exactly, are there “way too many” references to Hitchens’ drinking? He drank copiously, was asked about his indulgence in drink, answered unabashedly, and it was a well-known facet of his personage. Not fit for an obit? He wrote 12 books and has five essay collections. Not prolific?

    The Slate piece you cite does not attribute the drinking and writing image to being promoted by Hitchens. Hitchens believed it helped him, but did not make an objective claim that it makes better writers. The Slate piece also casts doubt on this image.

    Pollitt doesn’t fill in the gaps. She claims it’s a myth that drinking made Hitchens a better writer but never points to where this myth is being spread. She says Hitchens shouldn’t be admired for his drinking, but never says who is doing the admiring. Nor does she tell us what supposedly gin-soaked arguments “don’t track,” simply saying “those arguments.” Which ones?

    Here are some examples of Hitchens obituaries:

    “He also professed to have no regrets for a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking.”-NY Times

    “Strong drink and political argument would remain among his chief pleasures for the rest of his life.”-The Telegraph

    The most detail comes from The Guardian, “Hitchens’s love affairs with alcohol and tobacco were equally constant…he drank daily, on his own admission, enough “to kill or stun the average mule”. Technically, he was probably an alcoholic but, he pointed out, he never missed deadlines or appointments. Regardless of condition, he wrote fast and fluently, if with erratic punctuation. Only rarely did alcohol make him a bore, blunt his wit or cloud his arguments…Inebriated or sober, he could charm almost anybody. He could also, with what the New Yorker’s Ian Parker called “the sudden, cutthroat withdrawal of charm”, wound deeply and unnecessarily.”
    These small segments of larger pieces are the only mentions of Hitchens and alcohol. I don’t see the admiration and myth-making or image-spreading. I do see mentions of good and bad, though. Things that make up most human beings.

    Pollitt does cite one case, a case in which Zirin claims Hitchens “spit at him.” I imagined a rather nasty scene. Go to Google Video or YouTube and type in “spit at.” The revolting result is exactly what I expected, but that doesn’t quite describe what happened. Zirin, approached Hitchens informally at a bar after Zirin had been drinking. He also recognized that Hitchens had been drinking. He introduced himself as working for Hitchens’ old employer, The Nation. Hitchens recognized the name and his article, which supported a position to which Hitchens was vehemently opposed. Zirin knew this. Hitchens said he used Tillmen (the subject of the article, killed by friendly fire in Iraq). Hitchens then walked away, at which point Zirin through in another barb. Hitchens, who had an unlit cigarette in his mouth the whole time and a drink in each hand, spit the cigarette out of his mouth at Zirin.

    Technically, I suppose he “spit at him,” but not in any way the vast majority of people would imagine. It all seems a bit screedy and underhanded. He was flawed and talented, and I doubt any of the “effusive” praise-mongers honestly doubt either aspect (another straw-man-ish “they” that Pollitt does not cite). Hitchens took enough polemical positions-argue against them-don’t give me ad hominem character assassination. If not for the sake of the man, at least out of respect for self.

    1. Nevyn,
      First, happy festivus! Second, I think you misunderstand me: I was saying there was already a crazy amount on the web on Hitchens’ passing, not to his drinking. I was only trying to offer a corrective to this idea that drinking made him (or anyone?) a better writer, which is not to suggest that he himself promoted this. As for character assassination, well, have you read his books? That was his job, when, you know, not supporting actual aerial bombing and actual assassinations…

  2. Happy Festivus to you as well, and a Merry Squidmas. I’m confused by your comment, though. You’re not saying there’s a crazy amount on the web about his drinking, but you’ve been waiting for a piece like Pollitt’s as there were “way too many references” to him being a drinker AND a prolific writer? And my point stands: “this idea that drinking made him a better writer.” Who’s idea is this? Hitchens said he felt it facilitated his writing process, but who’s making this claim that drinking made him (or anyone) a BETTER WRITER, tout court? To whom is your corrective aimed?

    Are you arguing against a vague, general sentiment that some people have? If so, why link it to Hitchens, as the major paper obits I cited say nothing of the sort? Again, as with Pollitt, this straw “they” is troublesome.

    And come now, a tu quoque? Really? He assassinated characters so it’s ok to assassinate his character? Yes, I have read him. In what I’ve read, he has evidenced his claims rather well when “assassinating” these characters. I put the scare quotes there because I’m not sure if it’s character assassination when you provide evidence for so-and-so doing or being such-and-such. If you’re one such ne’er-do-well, it seems you assassinate your own character. But I digress.

    As for his contentious views, as with Pollitt, argue against them-not against the person. It’s simply bad form.

    1. Nevyn,
      I’m not arguing agains the person: I never said “don’t believe anything he ever wrote since he might have a drink now and again.” That’s an ad hominem. Look through all the obits in Slate and his own mention that he continued to drink and smoke because he would do whatever he could to do his writing. I’m not sure it’s clearer than that.

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