July 16, 2005

An Evening with Christopher Hitchens

Book signings are so unpredictable. Sometimes nobody shows up, sometimes everybody shows up. If you want to get a seat, you have to get there early. I arrived at the ramshackle D.G. Wills Books shop on Girard Avenue about fifteen minutes before the 7:00pm start of the program. There were already people seated in rows of white folding chairs out on the sidewalk outside the shop. Like hell I was going to sit outside the store to hear the author speak. I went inside. Most of the white folding chairs were empty, each with a sign marking "RESERVED".

So very La Jolla.

The D.G. Wills shop is a strange place: all the trappings of a dingy old bookstore encrusted with aging photographs, fading letters, and a variety of rusting curios on the walls and hanging from the ceilings. But a half-dozen visits there over the years leave me to think it's more private bar than bookstore. Every time I've shown up, the same group of failed Hemingways have been there, either working on getting drunk or working on staying drunk, yakking about sports or telling crude jokes or some-such. Just drinking and shooting the breeze.

I wondered if tonight would be any different.

I found a seat in the far back down a narrow corridor between two stacks of bookshelves. The seat had no RESERVED sign. I sat down. The sun's full strength was beaming straight into my eyes. No wonder nobody wanted to sit here. I would put up with it. The sun would go down soon.

Behind me I heard that distinctive accent: Christopher Hitchens was in the house. I turned around and there he was, at the far end of the long hallway, standing with D.G. Wills and one or two others. Hitchens wanted a drink. "There's Pepsi, there's Diet Coke," Wills said to Hitchens. Some indistinct mumbling followed, and then Wills bounded down the narrow pathway towards me, squeezing by. He dashed for the front of the store where he grabbed a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label and two glasses. A quick turn around and in a flash he was dashing back to Hitchens.

The drinking had begun.

More people arrived, mostly to sit in the reserved seats. Wills ran back up to the front. "We still have a few minutes before we start," he said. Hitchens, he added, was in the back, "talking about the Russian Revolution, having a cigarette and a whiskey." From somewhere at the store counter came strains of Strauss' Blue Danube.

Minutes went by. People chatted quietly. Wills went to the microphone, test, test, and said, "He's having another cigarette."

I studied the books around me. MC Escher, A life. The Life of Henry Moore. Life with Picasso. Irving Stone's Lust for Life. Fehrlinghetti: Life Studies, Life Stories. Vincent Van Gogh: A life.

The sun's rays revealed how dusty the air in the store was: thick with particles, floating and whirling as people moved here and there. Hitchens is infamous for smoking in non-smoking environments. Dust, smoke, alcohol, old books, older wooden floors: the very opposite of your run-of-the-mill Barnes and Noble.

Wills was back at the microphone, detailing Hitchens preferences for smoke and liquor. "Rothmans Blue King Canadian cigarettes and Johnny Walker Black Label," he said." "Black and blue is your mnemonic."

7:08pm. "Well, I think we're about ready to go." The phone rings. I study more of the books around me. Auguste Rodin, Renoir, Gilbert Stuart. I want to read all of them. While drinking Johnny Walker Black Label. Would that be the life?

"I think we're ready. 7:13. Not too bad," Wills said into the mike.

Hitchens appeared, behind Wills who was still at the mike. Hitchens wore a blue long-sleeve and bluejeans. He carries a potbelly you don't see on television. Years of sitting at a keyboard, writing and drinking, perhaps.

Wills gazed around the room. "I see at least one theologian in the audience," Wills said. "There's one in every fucking town," Hitchens said.

Wills read a long introductory speech about Hitchens. I was intrigued that Hitchens' new book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, was dedicated to none other than Brian Lamb, CEO of C-SPAN and main interviewer for BookTV, one of my favorite TV programs. I noticed there was a BookTV bag hanging on the wall behind the store counter. The convention schwag of book geeks.

Hitchens went before the microphone. Willis began sipping from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon. A Hitchens associate, an old man wearing a loud aloha shirt, sat down in the rocking chair in front of me. He helped himself to the pepsi and whiskey. I had to watch where my feet were lest he crush my toes with the rocker.

I know I'm not the only one drawn to the sound of a British accent. There's something about it, particularly when it comes from someone with so fierce a mind as Hitchens. You don't have to agree with him, but he has a force, a charisma that demands attention. The man simply seethes with anger and contempt. Brilliant, learned, from time to time slipping into French or Latin during the evening, well-read. This is a man deeply bitter about humanity's ignorance of its own history.

He had no notes. His talk was brief, but he promised he wouldn't leave until everyone had had a chance to ask a question. Hitchens would stay at the microphone for more than three hours. What follows is a rough summary of some of the many areas he spoke on.

On the Enlightenment. Once you figured out there was no god, and that man was on his own, you could begin to be enlightened, he said. "The Enlightenment is where religion ends, and civilisation begins, approximately."

I could see Wills had gone outside, and was standing with some of his drinking buddies, ones I've seen at the store before. Wills held a full bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label in his hand. He held it to his mouth and swallowed several major gulps. He handed it to the guy next to him who proceeded to do the same thing. I was impressed. I took a picture. The black area on the right is Hitchens' back.

"In the election of 1796, you had the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science running against the president of the American Association of Arts and Letters. Things have shriveled up a bit since then." The audience laughed.

On political correctness: he recounted the recent story about a Berkeley community who had voted to rename the Jefferson Elementary School to be Sequoia Elementary School. Hitchens spoke about how he was trying not to get upset about it. I was reminded of the Elvis Costello line, "Oh, I used to be disgusted / Now I try to be amused".

Hitchens on Lincoln and Darwin: "Abramham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day." He wasn't sure if there was anything to that, but, he added, "I would say that Darwin was the greater emancipator."

Hitchens on Mother Theresa: "A fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud" who thought it was important that humans suffered poverty and disease. The only way to end poverty, Hitchens said, was "if you give women control over their rate of reproduction". "Religion is the enemy," he said at one point. "Faith is not a virtue, but if it was, it would be overrated."

Every now and then Hitchens poured more Johnny Walker into his coffee mug. He had a great supply of beverages before him:

On Hilary Clinton: He considered her candidacy for the 2008 election inevitable. "What else can the Democrats do?" He thought highly of John Edwards, but felt Edwards lacked a certian political ruthlessness; he entered politics for the right reasons, he said, but he doubted Edwards had the ability to "go for the jugular."

On Europe's future: "there's a big difference between the American and European models. The US gets the best high-skilled labor. With Europe, thye come up against entrenched craft unions."

An hour or two had gone by, and Hitchens was chain-smoking. I was thinking about second hand smoke. At one point he coughed whle attempting to speak. "If you don't smoke, you really should take it up," he said. He waited a moment, and added, "before it's too late!" Big laugh from the audience.

Someone asked him if he wanted to be loved. He said he once told an interviewer he didn't want to be loved, but he now realized that was hogwash. "Of course I want to be loved," he said. "I just don't need to be liked," he added.

As the evening wore on, Wills continued to alternate between the whiskey and the Pabst Blue Ribbon. Every now and then he would let out a loud belch. The audience would look at him, and he'd smile, as if to say, "What? You got a problem with that?"

On George W. Bush: "This is what I don't understand. He gave up bourbon for Jesus?" Another line: "This is the irony of history. The success of Bush's foreign policy depends on the success of secularism."

I asked him to comment on the state of the press in the U.S., and what his thoughts were on the rise of blogs and so-called "citizen journalism".

"I became a journalist," he replied, "because I didn't want to rely on the press for information." He added that he didn't watch TV "at all". And yes, he said, "from bloggers and their allies I get what I need to know."

More on religion: "I'm a secularist, an atheist, and I don't believe any of it."

On Lenin, he cited three accomplishments: 1) "He destroyed Russian aristocracy for all time;" 2), "He punished those who started the first world war;" 3) "He completely smashed the Russian Orthodox Church. It's a fantastic thing to have done."

On North Korea: He said he swore he wouldn't write about parallels with Orwell's 1984 after visiting North Korea, but he found he couldn't resist. "It's much worse," he said. Words "can't possibly evoke" how bad it is there, he said. "The worst life ... in human history." He described it as a slave state, where the people are owned from dawn to dusk. He complained that there were no petitions signed by American actors and intellectuals decrying North Korea.

On the American Left: "The American Left only wants a quiet life."

On U.S. foreign policy: "We must make best friends with India," he said. "They are our friends. India is the great potential ally, but we don't have a single statesman who understands it."

On Westminster Abbey: "They should reorient the Abbey to show children and schoolteachers the poets" and not the tombs of royalty.

On China's policy of a single child per family: "In a few years, the words brother and sister will be gone from the language."

On today's youth: "The hell with the young. May they get old, may they get real. The young are scum." It used to be, he said, that each year when he teaches his class at the New School in New York, he could count on everyone in the class having read some of the canon of great books -- Twain, Fitzgerald. Now, he says, nobody's read them, and they don't even know what era Twain or Fitzgerald wrote in. "The Columbians, the Cubans, the Vietnamese students know," he added. But the American students don't read and don't spell.

One woman late in the evening asked a simple question: "What drives you?"

Hitchens' reply: "Hate."

The woman had a follow-up question. "Is there any hope?"

Hitchens: "No, not really."

He added that if you begin with pessimism, "you can really cheer up," but if you start as an optimist, you're doomed.

Question: Why was he planning on becoming a U.S. citizen?
Hitchens: "As an act of solidarity."

Question: What fiction is he reading these days?
Hitchens: Just finished Rushdie's new novel about Kashmir. "It's not going to be a clash of civilisations," he added, "but a clash about civilisation."

Somehow the subject of Robert Ludlum came up. What if Ludlum had given the titles to Shakespeare's work? He recalled a discussion he'd once had with someone who had a ready list of Ludlumesque titles. Titles included (I may have transcribed these poorly): The Dolomite Deforestation, The Kerchief Implication, The Capulet Capitulation, etc.

On Marx and Engels: "Marx and Engels' greatest writing was on the U.S. Civil War." He lamented that most Americans had no idea of this and schools didn't teach it.

On Gore Vidal: he was saddened by what he viewed as a great drop in the quality of Vidal's writing and thinking. He utterly dismissed Vidal's conspiracy theories.

On hanging out with Hunter S. Thompson: yes, he'd done that. Went target shooting at 4am using high-velocity weapons. For Thompson, the target bottles would have to be empty. "Don't trust anyone who drinks Chivas Regal," he said. "It's a fake Scotch," adding that "it's what CIA men give each other for Christmas." As for Hunter's recent suicide: Hunter was "crucially bored," he said. "Boredom is a physical threat to some people." Hunter hadn't written anything good in ten years. He was all dried up, burned out, full of alienation and anomie. "If that ever happens to me, call me and tell me and I promise I would shoot myself," he declared, with utter seriousness.

Hitchens ended the evening with a long quotation from what Auden's poem September 1, 1939, which he considered "the greatest poem ever written on American soil." (Upon hearing this, Wills, who was by this time seemed noticeably buzzed from the liquor and beer, promptly stated out loud, "Shit! I've gotta read it!"). Total book geek.

Here are the final lines of that poem:

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

"Show an affirming flame," he said again, his last command to the audience. Everyone stood and applauded, and the book-signing began. It was 10:22pm. I took a couple more pictures and left.

Posted by brian at July 16, 2005 12:31 PM


Really enjoyed this account. Thanks for the post!

Posted by: Bryan at July 16, 2005 05:32 PM

Excellent post.

Posted by: Derek at July 18, 2005 09:18 AM

Figures I'd be N thousand miles from San Diego when Hitchens comes to do a book-signing.

Posted by: Ted at July 19, 2005 12:52 PM

Best narrative and surprisingly potent subject matter that I havent thought of in a long while. Thanks.

Posted by: Alan at July 27, 2005 09:40 PM

sweet account. dg wills has a knack for getting brilliant bulldogs like hitchens.

Posted by: drake mulgrew at October 25, 2005 08:06 PM

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