Christopher Hitchens Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Dissenting Voice: Conversation with Christopher Hitchens; April 25, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Writing

When did you decide to become a writer?

I hope this doesn't sound solipsistic, but it was sort of decided for me, I think. I believe it's true with anyone who makes it their life. It isn't what you do, it's what you are, in other words, that somehow you've always known. I certainly felt that I had always known, not just that it was always what I wanted to do or felt I had to do, but probably always I could do. I still can't imagine what it would be like doing something else. I mean, I'm sure I could be, say, a lawyer of some kind, but I have no idea what it would be like. If I was doing it, I would feel like a sort of conehead, you know, wondering if all the people around me were noticing that he's almost behaving like one of us, but he's not really one. How do they do it? I have no idea. I only know one thing.

You have a view, almost a political philosophy, a personal philosophy, and I'm curious as to how that relates, or is it totally intertwined with your sense of yourself as a writer? You say, "I think that if the position of the independent mind or writer means anything at all, it means acceptance of individual responsibility." So talk a little bit about that, that the trajectory of your personal evolution is intimately tied with the way you write and what you write.

Sure. Certainly, the form it took with me when I was much younger was that I had hoped to become a voice for a movement, that I would be one of its champions in print. For a while, from between '67 and about '74 or '75, I was a member of a Marxist organization, as I told you, and a rather odd post-Trotskyesque/post-Luxembourgist group, which I'm not sorry I was involved with, I learned a lot from it, but I probably stayed too long in. And one of the things that taught me was that you mustn't become or try to become a party-liner, however good the party may be, As a writer, that's a betrayal. I wrote some good polemics and pamphleteering in that period, but I wouldn't want to reread any of it anymore, and nor, I think, would anyone else.

So that it's been partly an emancipation of myself from politics, as being involved here. I suppose, also, more confidence that people would actually care to read something by me that wasn't just an argument, that was a discussion or a review, or not about public affairs at all.

You wrote somewhere, "I don't think liberals make very good writers. I think liberals are always trying to have it both ways." I think it may have been in the [Isaiah] Berlin critique, maybe, or maybe not.

No, I'm sure, actually, that's from the Letters.

The Letters, okay.

Yes. Yeah, I think it's true. I mean, that's part of my critique of Isaiah Berlin, who is often praised as a great stylist as well as a great thinker. Actually, here is a guy who is not willing to be brave, and not willing to make enemies, but who wants a reputation both for being even-handed and objective, and fair-minded. By the way, those two things do not and never have meant the same, though they're often used interchangeably. That's what I meant; that's what I put rather a bit too casually in this excerpt you mentioned.

So how do you write? Do the words flow easily? Do you get your best ideas in the crowd, or do you like the solitude and the drink and the quiet?

I like all of the above. I need all of the above. And I hope it doesn't sound glib to say, but I don't find the production of words very difficult, either when I'm talking or writing. Indeed, the only thing I find difficult is not doing it, is keeping quiet or not writing. I'm not really happy when I'm not doing it. So I'm very lucky, aren't I, to be doing the only thing I'm able to do? Or something that isn't really even an ability, I mean, it's more like a knack. I didn't have to qualify for it. So that's luck, if you like. What more can I say?

So how do you envision your audience as you write? Do you think about that person out there? I mentioned that you write book coverfor both The Nation and Vanity Fair. At one level, that sounds like two very different audiences, maybe not.

Well, with The Nation, I have a very good idea of the sort of people who are reading me, and, indeed, have met -- I have been doing the column for twenty years -- I've probably met quite a lot of them, quite a fair proportion.

Not that many readers.

And I know exactly what a Nation reader is like. Writing a column of about a thousand words every other week, which is what I've been doing for two decades, is no more demanding than writing a letter to an intelligent and humorous friend would be, of a thousand words or so. If you can do that, you can be a columnist. And you can spare chunks of explanation because you know the person knows the point you're trying to make.

With Vanity Fair the readership is so enormous, so it's very important that I don't try to think who the audience is. But, again, I try and write for everyone to read, as if I was addressing an intelligent and humorous friend. Though, this time, I wouldn't have to stipulate, as I would with The Nation, that that person is probably quite political and fairly firmly to the left. You don't have to make that stipulation. All you have to do is to talk to everybody as you would talk to your smartest or wittiest pal.

The great discovery you make is that that's how people quite like to be talked to. If they suspect for a moment that you're thinking, "Well, wait a minute, there are lots of trailer park readers of Vanity Fair, I better put in something for them," they will sniff you out in a second, as they should. They will know right away if you are being in the least bit condescending. And so that's how I write.

Now, the rest of the time, I write to please myself, actually, and I don't care if anyone else likes it or not. You know, I think, if I like it, who knows? I try it on the others. But I'm not trying to write to win them over, please them, or sell them anything.

You quote Orwell as saying, "The prime responsibility lays in being able to tell people what they did not wish to hear."

Yes, that was Orwell's ... Orwell made two or three rather cryptic, but very memorable statements about what it means to be a writer who has any oppositional character or intention, or any impatience with the reigning eras at the time. One was, he said he knew when he was quite small that he had a certain literary ability and what he called "a power of facing unpleasant facts." I wanted to call my book on him, "A Power of Facing." The publishers, again, wouldn't hear of it. I'm always quarreling with publishers about this kind of thing. Because if it was nicely phrased, he could have said, "an ability to face," or "the power to ...." "A power of facing" caught my attention. " ... unpleasant facts." He found that he could look them in the face. And he thought, "If I can, why do other people let themselves off this elementary task? Maybe I could help them to do it." Yes, for me, anyway, it's very enjoyable to find that I've noticed something usually staring you in the face. Another thing that Orwell said is the hardest thing to see is what's right in front of your nose, and pointing out to people, and see the contortions they will go through not to see a point.

We will talk about that in a minute because ...

Especially intellectuals.

Yeah. Yeah. Who are good at self-deception, also.

They're either good at fooling others or themselves. Although, if they're not good at it, they're very wedded to it.

In your other book, which is called Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere,book cover in the foreword you talk about the purpose of the book and of a course you are teaching at the New School, and you say, "I sought to show how often, when all parties in the state were agreed on a matter, it was individual pens which created the moral space for a true argument." So this relates to what you've just said about showing things that appear not to be there.

Yes, the name of the book, as you just kindly mentioned, is also the name of the course I teach in the New School in New York. Originally it was specifically about the American writers, and their contributions as public figures, as ethical figures, because this country is a written country, it's based on documents, it's the only republic that is. It's composed, and therefore, it's subject to rewrites and updates and revisions. It's a work in progress. And that can be inscribed on its history. One example I gave is this: Thomas Paine and Benjamin Rush and a few other pamphleteers and polemicists, did complain about slavery and proposed that it be banned in the Declaration of Independence, or failing that, by the Constitution. They lost. Between then and the rise of the anti-slavery movement of Benjamin Lloyd Garrison and others, there is a lapse of about forty to forty-five years. The years can vary, but there's a whole, amazing chunk of time when millions of slaves were born and died on American soil, and nobody mentions it, because everyone's agreed: that argument is over. We had a quarrel about that; it was settled. As people would now say, "We put that behind us and moved on." At the time, the main imperatives were domestic consensus and national security against outside threats, so no one was interested to bring it up. And then, suddenly, a couple of writers decided, "Wait a minute, this is a subject we can't be leaving out." Garrison is one, a couple of obscure Quakers, and then, of course, Frederick Douglass, who is one of the great original American authors. But between the parties and the vested interests in the society, there was a complete agreement that there was nothing worth talking about.

So there's that. Then there's Mark Twain having a one-man, more or less one-man pen campaign against American empire in 1898, the Spanish-American War -- very popular, agreed to by all parties. Twain satirizes it, very bitterly, very brilliantly. A number of other such cases.

Let's talk a little about the relationship between truth and power. A lot of your writing is shining a light on power, the statements of power and so on. That's a central struggle in your work, is it not?

Well, you put that rather flatteringly, I must say. I mean, it's not absent from what I say, no. I think power has to be ready to justify itself, it has to be forced to do so at all times. We shouldn't ever make any assumption of anyone's right to rule, and we certainly mustn't let them make such an assumption, for sure.

As for truth in power, someone whom I have quarreled with quite often, Noam Chomsky, especially recently, makes a very good point that speaking truth to power may be too flabby a statement; indeed, it must be pretty flabby because almost everyone uses it now in a rather approving way. That's always a bad sign, that everyone can say it. And he said, "Why do we think that power doesn't know the truth? Why not make the assumption it does know the truth? It doesn't need to be told, it just interprets and processes it differently." I think that's a perfectly good point.

Truth spoken by power would be nice to see every now and then. Truth opted by power would be good. In fact, that's probably what one tries to wring out of them, is some admission or some clarity.

Next page: Taking on the Icons

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See the Conversations with History interview with Noam Chomsky: Activism, Anarchism, and Power (March 2002)