From the Preface

“Do not aspire to immortal life but exhaust the limits of the possible.”  Pindar:  Pythian iii

“One always knows that there is a term-limit to the lifespan, just as one always knows that illness or accident or incapacity, physical and mental, are never more than a single breath away.”

“Another element of my memoir – the stupendous importance of love, friendship, and solidarity…”

“If there is anybody known to you who might benefit from a letter or a visit, do not on any account postpone the writing or the making of it.  The difference made will almost certainly be more than you have calculated.”

“The irruption of death into my life has enabled me to express a trifle more concretely my contempt for the false consolation of religion, and belief in the centrality of science and reason.”


[His mother] “And I still have a rather sharp pang whenever I come to that corner of Shaftesbury Avenue where I kissed her goodbye, because she had been everything to me in her way and because I was never ever going to see her again.”

“The same monotheistic religions that condemn suicide by individuals have a tendency to exalt and overpraise self-destruction by those who kill themselves (and others) with a hymn or a prayer on their lips.”

[public school]  “The only rule of thumb was:  whatever is not compulsory is forbidden.”

“The fact that the headmaster held the prayerbook and the Bible during the services also drove home to me the obvious fact that religion is an excellent reinforcement of shaky temporal authority.”

“…I learned that to be amusing was not to be frivolous and that language – always the language – was the magic key as much to prose as to poetry…”

“It can be good to start with a shipwreck.  Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous experience, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”

“Much of the full-employment surge that had followed 1945 and made the Great Depression seem so far away was based on a sort of militarized Keynesianism:  an “arms economy” that kept the assembly lines going and the wage-packets full but exposed us all to an unelected and uniformed authority and ultimately to the sheer barbarism that would follow a nuclear “exchange.”

“Soon all humane people would understand the need for a revolution from below, where those who worked and struggled and produced would be the ruling class.”

“I began to discern one of the elements of an education:  get as near to the supposed masters and commanders as you can and see what stuff they are really made of…and be amazed once again at how ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country.”

“Even as I tried to convince myself, I realized what I have often had to accept since, that if you have to try and persuade yourself of something, you are probably already very much inclined to doubt or distrust it.”

“So there it was:  Cuban socialism was too much like a boarding school in one way and too much like a church in another.”

“Ah, please never forget how useful the obvious can be.  And how right it is that the image of the undraped emperor is such a keystone of our folklore.”

“I will have to say this much for the old “hard” Left:  we earned our claim to speak and intervene by right of experience and sacrifice and work.  It would never have done for any of us to stand up and say that our sex or sexuality or pigmentation or disability were qualifications in themselves.”

“Friends, somebody said, are “god’s apology for relations.”

“Thus for me the three most important episodes from this epoch are the stirrings of revolution in Portugal and in Poland, and the experience of counter-revolution in Argentina.”

“But Portugal had broken the mainspring for me, because it had caused me to understand that I thought democracy and pluralism were good things in themselves, and ends in themselves at that, rather than means to another end.”

“It was, to put in another way, quite astonishing to see how much, and to what an extent, the party-state depended on lies.  Small lies and big lies.  Petty lies hardly worth telling, that would shame a nose-picking, whining, guilty child, and huge lies that would cause a hardened blackmailer and perjurer to blush a bit.”

“One of the juiciest pleasures of life is to be able to salute and embrace, as elected leaders and honored representatives, people whom you first met when they were on the run or in exile or (like Adam [Michnik]) in and out of jail.”

“I have often noticed that nationalism is at its strongest at the periphery.”

“…perhaps you notice how the denial is often the preface to the justification.”

“America seemed either too modern, with no castles or cathedrals and no sense of history, or simply too premodern with too much wilderness and unpolished conduct.”

“…How is the United States at once the most conservative and commercial AND the most revolutionary society on Earth?”

“It can be just as useful to expose the laughable as it is important to unmake the hateful…”

“I distinguish remorse from regret in that remorse is sorrow for what one did do whereas regret is misery for what one did not do.”

“Gore Vidal, for instance, once languidly told me that one should never miss a chance either to have sex or to appear on television.”

“A friend of mine named John Rickatson-Hatt used to say that he would try anything once “except incest and Scottish dancing.”

“Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks call entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.”

“…you only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already.”

“Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction.”

“We live only a few conscious decades, and we fret ourselves enough for several lifetimes.”

“But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories.  It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.”

“It is exactly the fear of revenge that motivates the deepest crimes, from the killing of the enemy’s children lest they grow up to play their own part, to the erasure of the enemy’s graveyards and holy places so that his hated name can be forgotten.”

“Leo Strauss was right.  The Jews will not be “saved” or “redeemed.”  (Cheer up:  neither will anyone else.)”

“I sometimes feel that I should carry around some sort of rectal thermometer, with which to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart.”

“I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified.  With some part of myself, I still “feel,” but no longer really think, that humanity would be the poorer without this fantastically potent illusion.  “A map of the world that did not show Utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not be worth consulting.”  I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.”

“It is not so much that there are ironies of history, it is that history itself is ironic.  It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties.  It is not only true that the test of knowledge is an acute and cultivated awareness of how little one knows (as Socrates knew so well), it is true that the unbounded areas and fields of one’s ignorance are now expanding in such a way, and at such a velocity, as to make the contemplation of them almost fantastically beautiful.”

“The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time, and I feel absurdly honored to be grouped in the public mind with great teachers and scholars such as Richard Dawkins (a true Balliol man if ever there was one), Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris.  To be an unbeliever is not to be merely “open-minded.  It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.  But that’s my Hitch-22.”


Copyright 2010 by Christopher Hitchens/Preface copyright 2011 by Christopher Hitchens
author bio:
photo:  Twelve – Hachette Book Group
(his many fine essays and public addresses can be easily found thru a simple internet search)