Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens

I knew him fairly well in the early eighties, before he really became Christopher Hitchens. He had just arrived from England, smart, left, a little earnest in a New Statesman way, or at least that was the pose, which worked wonderfully well on a University of Toronto political philosophy Ph.D. like myself. He had followed my writing on Israel and the conflict in the New York Review, he said, and so called me to ask (quite boldly, and charmingly, I thought) if I would introduce him around.

I brought him to a meeting of the Dissent Magazine board at Irving Howe's apartment (this is what "around" meant to young, left, earnest, writers) and we kept in touch sporadically the way one did back then, before email and free long-distance. Once I hit my own professional turbulence, after I published The Tragedy of Zionism, and took refuge of a kind at the Harvard Business Review, we pretty much fell out of touch. In 1991, we debated about the first Gulf War at Wellesley College--he was against it, I was for it, neither of us really knew what we were talking about--then went out for a drink and that was pretty much that.

The last time I saw him was most memorable, however.  It was sometime in the mid-nineties and he was hitting his stride. MIT's Phil Khoury invited him to give a public lecture about the Palestinians, about which we knew considerably more.  The talk was simply masterful, fueled by periodic sips from a flask. Not a word was out of place, not a thought was wasted. I confess to being a little dazzled by how carefully he marbled the talk with his wit.

But this presented a problem. How could I trump such a performance with my expression of appreciation. We had been sort-of friends. I didn't want to fawn like a fan. I wanted to receive him as would befit the moment. So when he came down from the podium, I took his hand in the middle of the crush of colleagues and told him, in what I thought a moment of inspiration: "Christopher, when I hear you speak, I become aware of latent homoerotic urges." Without missing a beat, he took my chin in his hands and kissed me passionately on the lips. I simply burst out laughing. He allowed only a little mischievous smile, like that of killer. I told him, "Okay, I give up."

7 comments:

Susan Avishai said...

Weren't we also audience to another of his bits of clever irony, claiming that America was the only place where telling someone they're history was an insult?

A great loss for all his friends and readers, and the English language.

sara said...

You lucky dog. A meeting of the minds...and lips with one of the greats.

Potter said...

What a loss. He might have had more time, but I guess he would not have been who he was. I have been collecting obituaries on Hitchens... the waves he made in slipping away. It's only when we lose someone that we can see and feel the empty space they leave and so feel the loss, feel who he was all the more. ( I felt this way about Tony Judt and of course did not know either of them personally.) Hitchens could be wonderfully outrageous and even I felt wrong but always I need to give what he said some serious thought- and I will continue to do so.

Anonymous said...

As Satan said to Hitchens "Surprise, Surprise! Surprised?"

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