An answer to Ruarai’s question on Christopher Hitchens?

There’s been a number of gems in the after flow of the gush that followed the death of Christopher Hitchens… not least this ascerbic ‘complement’ from his former comrade in arms at The Nation, Katha Pollett…

But the gem of gems so far has to be this erudite and subtle take on Hitchens’ late discovery that both his mother and his grandmother (and therefore, he) were Jewish from Marc Tracey…

It’s long but very much worth a thorough read, taking in, as it does, James Joyce’s Ulysses as a seminal and influential text upon the man and the polemicist, if you want to dig beneath his prodigious talent as an ‘intellectual skywriter’

At its core it argues that Hitchens, unlike other notorious crossers of the floor, never quite gave up his faith in Marx, even if he parted ways with dogmatic Marxism.. And Tracey dates his crossing of that floor not to 9/11, but to the Fatwah on Salman Rushdie twelve years earlier and the fall of the wall when (to use the jargon) his crude cold war dialectic (‘a plague on both their houses’) gave rise to a new synthesis:

The dialectic—the ability of opposites to feed off of each other and eventually produce a synthesis that assimilates the best aspects of both into an overpowering Truth—is the answer to the riddle of Hitchens’ career, particularly of what many saw as his rightward turn later in life. If he did not quite add up, perhaps that is because Marx is not “right” but rather “rightest,” and Hitchens achieved not “synthesis” but rather “Hitch-22,” his personal variation on Joseph Heller’s famed construct wherein two mutually exclusive premises are bound to co-exist. Belief in unbelief, certainty in uncertainty: These are the Scylla and Charybdis through which Hitchens skillfully steered his ship.

But Hitchens speaks most movingly and with the most tactile feel for the magic of the dialectic not while discussing what could be termed his faith, Marxism, but while discussing his mother’s faith. “Judaism is dialectical,” he argues. “Even pre-enlightenment Judaism forces its adherents to study and think, it reluctantly teaches them what others think, and it may even teach them how to think also.” Yvonne gave him “two sides to his head” not by virtue of being Jewish as well as English; the two sides, instead, are contained totally within his Jewishness.

See also: Did Christopher Hitchens have a Big Idea?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Any chance anyone will ever recognise the distinction between


    A proponent of Karl Marx’s theories concerning the historical development of economic systems and their influence on politics; esp. a supporter of a political movement with international affiliations, based on an ideology derived from these theories.



    Of or belonging to the political and economic theories of Karl Marx; influenced by Marx’s theories and methods.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks for that Malc. Be good to hear your views when you get down the piece itself?

  • lover not a fighter

    Hitchens was perhaps a slightly more interesting drunk than your average.

    Was there much more to him than this.

    Its probably just me but, I am not so sure.

  • Mick Fealty

    Do people miss Hugo Young? Yes, those in the trade when they’re looking for a reliable witness in a rough trade.

    He was no Joyce, no Orwell, but if nothing else Hitch’s sozzled biography told an important tale of the shifting sands of the politics in our time.

    Not least a decisive break with grim cold war certainty.

  • Since we’re in the business of recommending post-Hitchean mortal anxieties, allow me to propose George Packer in The New Yorker.

    My “views”, Mick Fealty @ 11:24 am? Hitchens was a competent writer, and a superb self-publicist. Meanwhile …

    Monty Python, 18th January, 1973:

    Prince: My congratulations, Wilde. Your latest play is a great success. The whole of London’s talking about you.
    Oscar: There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
    [There follows fifteen seconds of restrained and sycophantic laughter.]
    Prince: Very, very witty … very, very witty.
    Whistler: There is only one thing in the world worse than being witty, and that is not being witty.
    [Fifteen more seconds of the same.]
    Oscar: I wish I had said that.
    Whistler: You will, Oscar, you will. [more laughter]

  • Banjaxed

    It may be worth reading the US webzine ‘Counterpunch’ for one Anglo-American viewpoint on another Anglo-American – Alexander Cockburn on Hitchens. Very interesting take on the onetime ‘Marxist’.

  • Jimmy Sands

    “It may be worth reading the US webzine ‘Counterpunch’”

    One day perhaps, one day.

  • RepublicanStones

    In the chapter in his memoir – ‘Thinking thrice about the jewish question’ – Hitch begins by quoting from an earlier essay of his

    In the early days of the December that my father was to die, my younger brother brought me the news that i was a Jew. i was then a transplanted Englishman in America, married, with one son, and, though unconsoled by any religion, a nonbelieving member of two Christian churches. on hearing the tidings, i was pleased to find i was pleased.

    Perhaps part of Hitchens make-up was that he was destined never to be content, or happy in his own skin. From youthful agitator of the radical left in Britain through to propagandist (for that is what he became) for an awful right wing reactionary US administration. His pleasure at finding another facet of his character to draw on and explore may be part of this.

    At its core it argues that Hitchens, unlike other notorious crossers of the floor, never quite gave up his faith in Marx, even if he parted ways with dogmatic Marxism

    Hitch might help explain that…

    “Die judenfrage,” it used to be called, even by Jews. “The jewish Question”. I find i quite like this interrogative formulation, since the question…. may be more absorbing than the answer. Of course one is flirting with calamity in phrasing things this way, as i learned in school when the Irish question was discussed by some masters as the irish “problem.” …. But it could be that search for any “solution” is in itself potentially lethal or absurd. The Jewish quest for some ultimate answer to the “question” has taken insanely religious and nationalist forms as well as, in more recent times, the identification of huge numbers of Jews with Marxism.

    He continues after quoting Rosa Luxemburg writing from prison to a friend, thus…

    An inordinate proportion of the Marxists I have known would probably have formulated their own views in much the same way. It was almost a point of honor not to engage in “thinking with the blood”…and to immerse Jewishness in other and wider struggles.’

  • CommentOnStats

    I have read the Nation article about Mr Hitchens and the comments section of that article indicates that Mr Hitchens was neither the undisputed anti-feminist nor as conservative right as sometimes claimed. This appears to be the case even on fairly recent debates available on youtube where Mr Hitchens has reiterated criticsms of people like Kissinger and Ronald Reagan.

    From is this:

    “She [Mother Teresa] spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”