Devil's Advocate

June 26, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Reporter: I'm having lunch with Christopher Hitchens on Monday.

Friend of Hitchens: Take your Alka-Seltzer.

Reporter: Oh, I won't try to keep up with him.

FOH: There's no question of one's keeping up with him.

Reporter: I probably won't drink at all. I don't when I'm working.

FOH: Then you won't have an authentic Christopher Hitchens experience.

Reporter: Are you saying I should plan on taking the train, so I won't have to worry about driving back?

FOH: I think that would be best. My authentic Christopher Hitchens experience begins in Timberlake's, an unpretentious place in Washington, where he has taught the bartender to make unassailable Tanqueray martinis. "I'm having the breakfast of champions," he says and it seems only polite to join him.

So we sit in this bar and talk about religion. Eventually, this general topic will yield to the specific -- Mother Teresa, who inspired Hitchens to write a film, "Hell's Angel" (original title "Sacred Cow"), and then a book, "Missionary Position." The film brought Hitchens to Baltimore last night for its second screening this month, a screening without the protests that had marked the first.

Hitchens wouldn't have minded a confrontation over the film's content. In fact, the only thing he has ever fretted about is the title, "Hells' Angel," which was chosen by his backers. He wrote in his diary: "I can foresee the use of words such as 'hurtful' and 'offensive'."

His prediction fell short of the mark. "A piece of crap," says Bill Blaul, a spokesman for the Baltimore archdiocese, who also compared the book and the film to "Mein Kampf." Not in content, for Blaul has not read "Mein Kampf," nor has he read all of Hitchens' book. That's the point of the comparison, he says. You don't have to read/see Hitchens' work in order to reject it.

The 1994 film, immensely controversial in England when it was broadcast there, has not gotten many screenings in the United States. As for Hitchens' slender book, not even 100 pages in length -- well, reviews have been rare, although Murray Kempton in the current New York Review of Books notes that it may be Hitchens, in the end, who cares more for religious principles than Mother Teresa.

"[Who] would conjure up an unlikelier apparition than the sight of Christopher Hitchens heaving his cutlass as defender of the faith profaned?" writes Kempton, who then imagines Hitchens at the gates of heaven, where "the Recording Angel opens his book to cry out with holy glee, 'Christopher Hitchens? Bully for you.' "

Hitchens shifts on his stool, unsure of what to say about this. It is praise, yes, but the imagery makes the praise difficult for an atheist to absorb. He takes another sip of his martini, lights another Rothman.

He is far less dissipated-looking in person than he is on the cover of his last book of essays, "For the Sake of Argument," which has the distinction of featuring, perhaps, the most unflattering photo ever taken by Annie Leibovitz. In fact, he is a pleasant-looking man and capable of great charm.

"There's something about Hitchens that seems a little snake-like from afar," says free-lance writer Jim Holt, a friend for 10 years. "But the closer you get to him, the more decent a human being he seems to be. He is deeply moral, and capable of little kindnesses."

Hitchens may have had more exposure to more religions than the average believer. His paternal grandfather was a strict Baptist; his schooling had the traditional Church of England overlay; his first marriage was in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Then, somewhat famously, his maternal grandmother surprised him in 1988 by announcing that his mother had been Jewish. Hitchens wrote an essay on this revelation, "On Not Knowing the Half of It," the only autobiographical piece he has ever written. Friends interviewed for this article all refer to this essay. Required reading, they say, for anyone who is going to interview Hitchens.

Originally published in Grand Street, "On Not Knowing" makes clear that Hitchens is interested in his Jewishness as a cultural identity, not as a religious one. As one of his closest friends, the writer Martin Amis, noted in an interview earlier this year: "Very typically, he hasn't changed any of his views about the Middle East. He says, 'I reached those views intellectually, I wouldn't have to be half-black to be against racial prejudice.' Very anti-Israel, always has been, in that lefty way."

Still, his second marriage was conducted by Rabbi Robert Goldburg, the rabbi who officiated at the marriage of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. "More of a sectarian," Hitchens says now of the late rabbi, whom he admired greatly. The ceremony included the traditional vows, a sonnet and a quote from Albert Einstein.

Physics -- now that's something to believe in, says Hitchens. But "religion is the great subject. No, philosophy is the great subject. But religion is to philosophy as alchemy is to chemistry, as astrology is to astronomy, as mythology is to history."

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