Wednesday, May 2, 2012

"So when does the tribute start?"

That's what I wanted to ask at the conclusion of Monday night's PEN Tribute to Christopher Hitchens, which frankly felt more like a roast than a tribute--a roast with bitter herbs.  Moderated by Ian Burima, the panel consisted of Katha Pollitt, Victor Navasky, Graydon Carter, and George Packer:  a writer he didn't get along with, an editor he had problems with, an editor who seemed out of his depth, and  a frenemy reporter.

Initial reaction: every one of them had a hobby horse, except for Packer, and each horse was designed to either trample Hitchens or knock him off some presumed pedestal.  Burima kept steering the conversation towards a discussion of Hitchens' personal and political foibles. (Does alcohol overshadow the man?  Do his political views stem from a Trotskyist vision?)  (And I wish someone had defined just what a Trotskyist vision is, besides a bird's eye view of Frida Kahlo while she's painting.)  Navasky's opening remark, when asked for his thoughts on Hitchens:  "Always have a bottle of alcohol on the table when discussing anything of consequence." Pollitt (to nobody's surprise) raked Hitchens over the coals for his misogyny, and then rattled her own Hitchensian over-the-top rhetorical sabers when she called his habit of kissing her hand "demeaning" and "disgusting."  (And then pouted and frowned whenever one of the men on the panel called Hitch courtly.)  Graydon Carter, in retrospect, seemed like one of those politicians who can't speak off the cuff without an assistant whispering bon mots in his ear (and I'm wondering whether a review of my notes will prove me right or wrong on that).  Only Packer  consistently gave tribute to the man, being even-handed enough to acknowledge Hitchens' flaws while at the same time reminding everyone of what made him the kind of man and writer who deserves to be remembered and celebrated.

I took notes, which I'll transcribe and post over the next few days, but for now, here is what Salman Rushdie said towards the end of the evening.  Rushdie sat dead center in the front row through this whole unlove-fest, and then got up at the end during the all-too-brief Q&A to make these remarks:

Can I perhaps just take a moment to pay tribute to Christopher Hitchens, which is what I thought we were doing tonight? 

(Amen, I said to myself.)

I think it’s not right to say that there are not writers who are remembered for non-fiction. 

(Mencken! Talk about Mencken!)

And I think it is right to compare him to writers of the 18th century, like Hazlitt. Like Montesquieu. Writers who were full-time writers. I don’t think it’s right to say that he’s an 18th century libertine--that’s--the word libertine was not used by George; that was added by you, Ian--and I don’t think it’s appropriate. But I think he was an excellent writer in that form--the form of the 18th century essay. And the best of his work--not all of it political--I think, for instance--such as the work you referred to, the piece about the bikini wax and so forth, and some of his funnier pieces that he wrote for Graydon, were masterpieces of style 

And I think that one of the reasons why he was so well loved, in his last years, was that the God book is actually an extraordinary piece of polemic. And I think the word “polemic” hasn’t even been spoken tonight. It’s as if people disapproved of him for having strong opinions. It was his nature to be a polemicist, to be one-sided, to be over-the-top, to be exaggerated. Christopher never did anything twenty-five percent, he did everything a hundred and fifty percent--and you could like that or not like it, but you had to deal with it. You couldn’t ignore it, you had to deal with it. He became somebody that all of us had to deal with. 

I didn’t agree with him on Iraq, I thought he was wrong about Iraq, he said he thought Iraq was going to become a US protectorate and he thought that everybody would live happily ever after there, and that was, to put it mildly, . . . wrong. But you could have that argument with him, and as you said, it didn’t affect your friendship. 

He was a remarkable man, he was one of the most brilliant men that anyone who met him would ever meet. And let’s remember that man.


Jen Blake said...

Thank you Mr Rushdie. I think being kissed on the hand is absolutely charming. If I have had a particularly good dance with a male partner I kiss them on the hand. There should be more of it.

Molly said...

So glad Mr. Rushdie called out the rudesbies on the panel. Thanks for taking notes. I look forward to the rest.

Molly said...

Whatever happened to the transcription? Just wondering....