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Excerpt from Christopher Hitchens’ new memoir, Hitch-22

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Posted on June 3 2010 8:17 am
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by Christopher Hitchens

An ancient piece of Judaic commentary holds that the liver is the organ that best represents the relationship between parents and child: it is the heaviest of all the viscera and accordingly the most appropriate bit of one’s guts. Only two of the six hundred and thirteen Jewish commandments, or prohibitions, offer any reward for compliance and both are parental: the first is in the original Decalogue when those who “honor thy father and thy mother” are assured that this will increase their days in the promised or stolen Canaanite land that is about to be given them, and the second involves some convoluted piece of quasi-reasoning whereby a bird’s egg can be taken by a hungry Jew as long as the poor mother bird isn’t there to witness the depredation. How to discern whether it’s a mother or father bird is not confided by the sages.

Commander Eric Ernest Hitchens of the Royal Navy (my middle name is Eric and I have sometimes idly wondered how things might have been different if either of us had been called Ernest) was a man of relatively few words, would have had little patience for Talmudic convolutions, and was not one of those whom nature had designed to be a nest-builder. But his liver—​to borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal—​was “that of a hero,” and I must have inherited from him my fondness, if not my tolerance, for strong waters. I can remember perhaps three or four things of the rather laconic and diffident sort that he said to me. One—​also biblically derived—​was that my early socialist conviction was “founded on sand.” Another was that while one ought to beware of women with thin lips (this was the nearest we ever approached to a male-on-male conversation), those with widely spaced eyes were to be sought out and appreciated: excellent advice both times and no doubt dearly bought. Out of nowhere in particular, but on some unusually bleak West Country day he pronounced: “I sometimes think that the Gulf Stream is beginning to weaken,” thereby anticipating either the warming or else the cooling that seemingly awaits us all. When my firstborn child, his first grandson, arrived, I got a one-line card: “glad it’s a boy.” Perhaps you are by now getting an impression. But the remark that most summed him up was the flat statement that the war of 1939 to 1945 had been “the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing.”

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