“I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, upon finishing Moby Dick. Larry Taunton in his memoir The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, has written no Moby Dick, but rather a narrow, self-serving, deceptive little book. Yet, Taunton does feel quite spotless, untroubled by the fact that he has betrayed the confidence of a dying man who trusted him and is now aiming to profit by that betrayal. To the audience of Socrates in the City, his parting words were not “RIP, Christopher Hitchens,” but “Go out and buy truckloads of books.”
So, Larry Taunton has Judas-kissed and told, and the interesting man who is the subject of this petulant tell-all is made to look vain and shabby. In interview after interview, Taunton is quite smug, soothing his conscience that he has disinterred this icon of the Left, so that others might see the real figure, the struggling human being, who was too prideful to believe. Taunton sees himself not as an opportunist capitalizing on the fame of a controversial figure who cannot sue, but as a simple man of the cloth, ministering to Hitchens in his final days, urging him to come to Jesus. But Hitchens, Taunton suggests, was too concerned about his post mortem life in the public imagination and so would not give up his most defining trait: rage at a God who represented his father whom he hated along with the frustrated homosexuality that Taunton implies was part of Hitchens’ character.
The Christopher Hitchens who emerges in Taunton’s account of their relationship is vain, cheap, vulgar, “dogmatic,” “condescending,” “alcoholic, “gigolo”- like, and above all a fraud. Taunton works very hard to prove that the Hitchens one saw debate was not the real man at all. The glorious cut-glass English accent, the Richard Burtonesque voice – these, according to Taunton, were the affectations of a working class boy with an ambitious mother who sent him off to British boarding schools the family could ill afford to learn the manner and style of the upper class. In actual life, according to Taunton, Hitchens was no “champion of the oppressed,” but rather a tyrannical, childish man who railed at the underclass whom he both hated and feared. Hitchens’ legendary skill in debate? This Taunton dismisses as style over substance and crows about his own debate with the dying Hitchens. By the time Hitchens debated Taunton, he was three months from death. Taunton confesses to having prepared for the debate by watching Hitchens on YouTube in a manner that recalls Max Schmelling viewing old films of Joe Louis to “discover” the great fighter’s glass jaw. Taunton states that he went into the debate, calm in his conviction that Hitchens was an “actor”—that he “fake[d] an understanding of Dostoevsky or Pascal,” that he intimidated his opponents by “bluffing them into overestimating his intellectual prowess, ” and that Taunton himself was more knowledgeable about all things theological, so he takes a kind of childish pleasure in besting the lion in winter, who in his youth at the Oxford Union would have crucified an inferior opponent such as Taunton.
But what is most curious and what leaks out without Tauton’s even being aware is his jealousy of and near obsession with demeaning Christopher Hitchens. In psychologizing this man of infinite variety, in attempting to explain away his atheism as a frustrated father complex, Taunton reveals more about himself than he does his subject. After an insufferable demurral in the preface in which he describes undergoing a Gethsemane of conscience before yielding to the moral obligation to tell Hitchens’ story and set matters right, Taunton makes a mad dash to Hitchens’ early years in English boarding schools where he dwells at length on his “smallish,” “slightly built,” “underdeveloped, “and “rather girlish” stature. Hitchens’ homosexual encounters in these schools Taunton contrasts unfavorably with C. S. Lewis’ stated resistance to such temptations. Taunton’s inability to see an incipient heroism in Hitchens who, like Shelley whom he often quoted, endured beating after beating at Eton betrays the provincialism of Taunton’s own life. He appears to know nothing at all of the rudiments of an upper class English education, so can neither understand nor appreciate the threats posed to a boy’s identity by the regimen of boarding school life.
Winning Hitchens’ soul is never what Taunton was after, but something far more primitive: to dishonor a man who represents his father, but one who cannot/could not fight back.
Although Hitchens insists in his own memoir that it was exposure to the arbitrary cruelty of the Leys School (“beating, bullying, buggery”) that made a lifelong infidel of him, Taunton insists it was his “kind, gentle” (too gentle for Taunton) father, Eric Hitchens, who hurled his son into the devil’s hands. Hitchens should have “honor[ed]” this father, Taunton insists. Recalling a famous moment in The Great Gatsby, Taunton maintains that Hitchens believed to his dying day that he, like Fitzgerald’s hero, had “sprung from the platonic conception of himself,” never realizing that he was not “self-created.” And then, in the most bizarre episode in the book, Taunton launches into a tirade about his own father (“an alcoholic with a mean streak”), who spurned religion, made fun of evangelists, smoked, drank and “loved being pursued” by those seeking to save his soul. As a boy, Taunton recalls “a steady stream of preachers, counselors and amateur evangelists” who came calling and his father’s professed disdain but secret delight at the attention lavished upon him. Then, he confers upon his father a greatness the facts of his life don’t bear out: He was, Taunton declares, “a man not so different from Christopher Hitchens.” And so, one might be tempted to turn the tables on Taunton and suggest that, in this book, winning Hitchens’ soul is never what he was after, but something far more primitive. What he tries to do in this book is to dishonor a man who represents his father, but one who cannot/could not fight back.
Thus, with the mission to destroy, Taunton cannot admit into his narrative anything that would alter the images he has carefully crafted of both himself and his subject. There are no references to Mortality, the memoir that Hitchens wrote as he lay dying. When the esophageal cancer had ravaged him, had almost wrested from him his most distinctive gift, his voice, Hitchens wrote that he felt himself to be in the hands of a “blind, emotionless alien” whose mission it was to “colonize” his lung and render him a eunuch. Cancer’s “banality,” he writes, forced upon him its requisite indignities (“countless minor horrors”) which he chooses not to disclose and makes of him an alien to himself. To questions of “Why me?” Hitchens responds, “Why not?” And yet, although he refuses to don the cultural patois of “fighting” cancer, he proclaims that he will “debate and lecture with the last breath that’s in me.”
Thus, in Mortality, Hitchens looks unblinkingly at this foe, knows he cannot win, and yet in Faulknerian style, refuses to surrender his puny, inexhaustible voice. His closing reference to Philip Larkin’s “Aubade” assails the ridiculous notion that if one does not believe in a God or a Devil, one should not fear to die. Death, Hitchens, claims brings “extinction,” the sense that one never was. And that thought, while we are alive to entertain it, Hitchens insists, must give us pause. As his memoir comes to a close, there is a Greek-like, stark recognition in “hav[ing] come to this sad end.”
But this Hitchens, the man who looked without a shred of self-pity upon his own decaying body, never gets into Taunton’s memoir. The man we meet instead has none of Hitchens’ élan, none of his charm, mischief, or wit. Wit, as Gore Vidal was fond of observing, is unknown to most Americans who prefer the belly laugh and the slip on the banana peel. Wit, which requires both a sense of irony and a heightened responsiveness to language and repartee, is what moved Vidal to baptize Hitchens as his “dauphin.” Taunton with his plodding, literal cast of mind is in no position to appreciate Hitchens’ gifts, and one cannot fault him for not lacking a quality that defined his subject. But one can fault him for suggesting that Hitchens flirted with religious conversion. Like every unreliable narrator, Taunton displays a self that is at once both needy and proud. To claim, as he does, that he almost brought the legendary atheist to Jesus is his misprision. He could not see that Hitchens at the end of his life was terrified of extinction, of annihilation and that his lifelong restless intellectual curiosity allowed him to ponder other possibilities, but never to entertain them seriously.
Much of Hitchens’ life was devoted to attacking the belief in a deity that “reward[s] cowardice and dishonesty.” In this memoir, Taunton exhibits both qualities: he is both craven and dissembling. If the tables were turned, and Hitchens had placed on display the more ignoble moments of Taunton’s own life, he might have realized the truth of that old saw, “No man is a hero to his valet.” The Christopher Hitchens that Taunton constructs—a cheap, fraudulent, snobbish man—is all part of a shrewd marketing strategy to tear down the iconoclast whose final rejection of Taunton’s proffered salvation left the minister, it would seem, with a sense of meaninglessness and lack of purpose, and so in an effort to combat his own self-doubt, he rushed his memoir into print with a catchy title designed to insure the swipe of many credit cards but which was, in fact, a boldfaced lie: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.
About the author
Kathleen J. Schultheis earned her doctoral degree in English literature at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation was on Gore Vidal, who christened Christopher Hitchens, “my delpino,” which is Italian for “dauphin.” Until their disagreement over the Iraq War, Vidal and Hitchens were close friends. Currently, Schultheis is teaching Advanced Placement American literature in Oak Park High School in Oak Park, California. She was a recovering Catholic. Now she is just recovering.