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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If students were to watch this tape, this partial rendering of your intellectual journey, is there one lesson that you think they might draw from your journey that stands out?

The only ones I would think that would be interested in hearing from me would be those who have writing in mind as a career, I would expect. I do draw students, sometimes, for my class in New York for that reason. And, yes, I do have advice that may sound incredibly tautological, but isn't. You should first ask yourself if you really have to write. In other words, not is it something you'd like to do or have heard could be rewarding or enjoyable or you think might like. Has it ever occurred to you that you have no choice but to write? There's always someone when I say this in a room full of students, who looks at me suddenly with, "How did you know that?" And that's how I do know.

If that's true, then it's fine, it will work, you will get it done. You may not be a howling success at it, but at least you will know you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, and that's a pleasure lots of people don't have. And conversely, if you don't feel that, you might want to try something else, because I doubt you would be able to survive the disappointments that are inevitable.

So it may sound to those who are immune that all of that is too easy to say, but, actually, it took me a long time to work it out. And I found that it works as advice to those who need it.

I also get the sense -- one final point here -- that engagement with the world is very important for you as a writer, and your willingness to follow your thoughts where they lead, and, actually, to change your thinking about particular issues. Is that fair?

Again, if I may say so, it's rather generously phrased. But, look, yes, if I come up against a pile of evidence that makes it seem as if my first assumption was untrue, I would rather change the assumption than try and change the evidence.

Maybe that's why you've never gone to government politics.

It may seem obvious when I say it and flattering when you say it. I do know that for a lot of people, that isn't easy. They would rather continue battering themselves against the pile of evidence, they really would, even if they wear themselves out.

As for going out and having a look for myself, well, I think it's essential, it's part of being an internationalist, is wanting to see how other people in societies are, just are, and how they look and feel. Some of my happiest trips -- as well as some of the most miserable ones that didn't try to do that, from North Korea to the Congo, which are the two places that depressed me most and made me see how miserable human life can be made to be, and by other people, not just by the misfortunes of our nature or Nature, Mother Nature -- the wonderful pleasure of going back, as I have, to countries that I first knew when they were dictatorships or colonies, and friends of mine were in jail or in exile, and going back and finding them out of jail, and sometimes in power, though always aware that they might themselves one day repeat the mistakes; still, being able to have seen that happen a few times has been the highest of the pleasures that go with this kind of life.

Christopher, on that note, I want to thank you, and I hope I'll get you to come back in November, when you're back on the campus. And at that time, I'll have a set of more hostile questions.

I can't wait.

Thank you very much. And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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