Is Christopher Hitchens an Alcoholic?

Can we call highly productive and successful people alcoholics?

Posted Oct 29, 2011

From time to time, I like to ask whether so-and-so is an alcoholic.  It tends to complicate the definition of addiction if so-and-so was -- or continues to be -- a substantial drinker but is quite successful*.  Among the disparate figures I have discussed in this regard are Olympic sky champion Bode Miller and the 20th century's greatest novelist, James Joyce, as well as the greatest biographer in the English Language, James Boswell, and among its greatest filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock. And that's not even counting Spanish, French, Italian and Greek people!

Winston Churchill is, of course, the all-time leader in this category.  A heavy daily tippler whom many would now regard as alcoholic (at least if they're Americans), Churchill saved the entire Western World during WWII by fighting Hitler until the Americans could engage, became Prime Minister a second time and served into his eighties, lived to be more than ninety, wrote a series of distinguished books including his famous four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, later in life became a highly accomplished impressionist painter, had one of the longest and most successful marriages of any public figure (to his beloved Clementine, whom he knew over 60 years) and, well, you get the idea.


*We should note that DSM-IV and successor DSM-V are about the DYSFUNCTIONALITY of addiction -- if there aren't significant negative consequences, substance use ≠ addiction, even if a person was formerly diagnosed as dependent/addicted.


Now comes Christopher Hitchens, the articulate atheist and all-around bad boy.  Hitchens is dying of cancer (he was a long-time smoker).  But discussions of his drinking often arise, since Hitchens is unapologetic about it -- like he is about everything (God, we'll miss him).

Here is how Hitchens describes his drinking in his memoir, Hitch-22.

I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don't. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker's amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No "after dinner drinks"- ​most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. "Nightcaps" depend on how well the day went. . . .

Hitchens is at pains to demonstrate that he's not an alcoholic (ample evidence for many that he is):

There was a time when I could reckon to outperform all but the most hardened imbibers, but I now drink relatively carefully. This ought to be obvious by induction: on average I produce at least a thousand words of printable copy every day, and sometimes more. I have never missed a deadline. I give a class or a lecture or a seminar perhaps four times a month and have never been late for an engagement or shown up the worse for wear. My boyish visage and my mellifluous tones are fairly regularly to be seen and heard on TV and radio, and nothing will amplify the slightest slur more than the studio microphone. (I think I did once appear on the BBC when fractionally whiffled, but those who asked me about it later were not sure whether I was not, a few days after September 11, a bit angry as well as a bit tired.) Anyway, it should be obvious that I couldn't do all of this if I was what the English so bluntly call a "piss-artist."

Of course, perhaps Hitchens' thinking simply indicates that the entire British nation is in denial.

But Hitchens goes beyond his own drinking to laud the benefits of alcohol -- and we're not speaking medically here.

Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing. The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament -​- the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana --​ is a tribute to the persistence of Hellenism in an otherwise austere Judaea. The same applies to the Seder at Passover, which is obviously modeled on the Platonic symposium: questions are asked (especially of the young) while wine is circulated. No better form of sodality has ever been devised: at Oxford one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials. The tongue must be untied. It's not a coincidence that Omar Khayyam, rebuking and ridiculing the stone-faced Iranian mullahs of his time, pointed to the value of the grape as a mockery of their joyless and sterile regime.

So, dear reader -- tell me, is Christopher Hitchens alcoholic?  Or is the answer so obvious it need not even be spoken?

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