Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
Melville House, 2017
The thriving “Last Interview” series from Melville House features slim volumes collecting the final public comments made by a wide variety of public figures – geniuses, charlatans, comedians, artists, successful frauds, and the occasional transcendent intellectuals. Here we get reflections in winter (whether they knew it or not) from such people as David Foster Wallace, James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Hannah Arendt, Philip K. Dick, and Kurt Vonnegut, and this month the series takes in the late Christopher Hitchens, political commentator, outspoken atheist, and author of the bestselling God is Not Great.
Hitchens is an exceptional case even for a series as wide-ranging as this one, because thanks to the phenomenon of the Internet, he can never actually give a last interview. At any moment, somewhere in the world, someone online has recently discovered the trove of Hitchens videos available on YouTube, and for that person, Hitchens' voice isn't ending – it's just begun. For that person, for all the people who've come to know his thoughts and style in such a way since his death in 2011, the idea of this book – transcriptions of eight interviews Hitchens gave from 1987 to late 2011 – is the continuation of a conversation, not the end of one.
It can be presumed that those people are this book's target audience, and yet paradoxically, they're the ones who'll be able to recite most of its contents from memory. Hitchens very often did his various hosts and his paying audiences the grave discourtesy of appearing before them visibly drunk (and, on more than one occasion, continuing to drink on stage), and he sustained his performance at such times by letting his phonograph needle drop onto some very well-worn tracks. These isolated chunks of discourse he could produce virtually verbatim in any state of mental déshabillé, and they crop up often in the course of these transcripts. The myth of Hitchens the omni-competent titanic drinker is laid bare in these pages, as it is in any trip down what's been informally dubbed YouTube's “Hitchens rabbit hole” – but it's both the curse and the charm of the man that the interest level remains fairly high drunk or sober.
The range of the subject matters is matched the range of presentability. For some unaccountable reason (or perhaps not – it's one of the most popular of those YouTube clips), the book includes a transcript of the guest shtick – hardly an interview – Hitchens did on Jon Stewart's TV show in 2005, in which there's hardly a cogent sentence, much less a cogent line of thought. But the book also contains, for instance, a very thoughtful talk Hitchens had with Marilyn Sewell for Portland Monthly in 2010, in which, at one point, she confesses to him that her faith “is that I put all that I am and all that I have on the line for that which I do not know” and draws a stirring response from Hitchens:
Hitchens: Fine. But I think that's a slight waste of what could honestly be in your case very valuable time. I don't want you to go away with the impression that I'm just a vulgar materialist. I do know that humans are also so made even though we are an evolved species whose closest cousins are chimpanzees. I know it's not enough for us to eat and so forth. We know how to think. We know how to laugh. We know we are going to die, which gives us a lot to think about, and we have a need for what I would call “the transcendent,” or “the numinous,” or even “the ecstatic” that comes out in love and music, poetry and landscape. I wouldn't trust anyone who didn't respond to things of that sort. But I think the cultural task is to separate those impulses and those needs and desires from the supernatural and, above all, from the superstitious.
Likewise the book's most poignant section, the genuine last-ever interview Hitchens did with Richard Dawkins in late 2011 in the New Statesman, tends to show both men in a thoughtful, even aphoristic light that their combative public personae often omit. The book's highlight, perhaps tellingly, is the one piece not structured in a They-Asked/He-Answered; the 2010 The Guardian piece by Andrew Anthony is written as a narrative and easily brings the human Hitchens before the reader more clearly and vividly than all the other sections combined.
In fact, the transcribed interview is a lousy way to commemorate just about anybody, since the listening ear elides the vocal placeholders that look so unflattering on the written page. An interview Hitchens gave to C-SPAN's Carl Rutan in 1987 (oddly included here, and doubtless to be reprinted again in some future volume called The Complete Hitchens Interviews) is a typically off-putting example:
I, um, I wrote a piece about it recently for Harper's Magazine saying that the, really the level now of TV discussion of ideas and politics has become humiliatingly low, that it's the province of various, well what I call, repertory company of pundits, who take themselves far too seriously, who take each other far too seriously, and are taken by too many viewers more seriously than they deserve because these programs are very light minded, very frivolous … The president didn't have a really tough press conference until he was six years into his, uh, presidency …
“He teaches us that reason, learning, engagement and commitment can turn tides” Stephen Fry writes about his friend in the book's heartfelt Introduction, adding, “The Hitchens manner can never die.” And that last statement is almost certainly true – but not because of books like this. Rather in spite of them, well-intentioned though they are.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.