It was with great sadness I heard last night that Christopher Hitchens had died.

I idolized Hitchens less for his politics than his prose and his rigor and his principles. Known in America for his virulent stance against religion, Hitchens was so much more than a guy to include in a list of prominent atheists: he was a prolific writer who could make an essay on pushy hosts invigorating; he was someone who wrote for three periodicals — Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, and Slate — to the very end; he was a citizen of the United States whose own politics were more diverse than any politicians: liberal (almost) across the board, but so neoconservative when it came to Iraq that he actually resigned a long-standing post at The Nation; he so abhorred religious fundamentalism that his obituary of Jerry Falwell actually started with this:

The discovery of the carcass of Jerry Falwell on the floor of an obscure office in Virginia has almost zero significance, except perhaps for two categories of the species labeled “credulous idiot.”

Hitchens was not a perfect man, and history will not look kindly on him for so vigorously supporting the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he was a man who recognized his own mammalian fallibility. He was the special sort of thinker who not only recognized the possibility that he might be wrong, but appreciated it.

So this weekend, I’ll be reading the steady stream of emotionally charged obituaries about Hitchens — positive and negative. I’m most interested in those penned by his close friends: one could say that in the wake of a loved one’s passing, only the positive is seen. Adulterers become loving husbands, tax cheats become ethical citizens, dog-kickers become animal lovers. But if Hitchens’ friends want to follow an example, want to pay proper tribute to the man’s legacy, they ought to speak with the sort of hirsute honesty Hitch would have wanted. I have little doubt they will.

Edit (4:52 on the East Coast): Some amazing tributes to Hitchens have rolled in today, and I’m especially touched by Ian McEwan’s effort in The Guardian.

This is beautiful:

The next morning, at Christopher’s request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton. Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review.

His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame”. Right to the end.


4 thoughts on “#fridayreads

  1. Chris says:

    Very belatedly commenting on this–

    I’m sure Hitchens, like everybody else in the world, admitted the possibility of his being wrong about something, but I can’t recall a specific instance where he ever said he actually was. For example, he never stopped defending the Iraq War, long after it became obvious even to almost everyone that it had been a horrible tragic mistake. He was not capable of anything resembling clear thinking when it came to the Islamic world. And while he can hardly be blamed for that war (which would have happened if he’d fought it tooth and nail), the fact remains that radical Islam became stronger, not weaker, because of it, and hundreds of thousands of innocent people lost their lives, and millions had their lives ruined, and he expressed not the slightest remorse over that. Serves them right for being fuzzy-wuzzies, wot?

    His most bizarre opinions were not on the subject of neoconservative politics or religion, but rather on women. You will recall that he said they were basically born with a limited or nonexistent sense of humor, and with rare exceptions (sports of nature, one supposed) incapable of being funny like men? He explained this in evolutionary terms by saying men have to be funny in order to woo these humorless creatures, which made no sense whatsoever. Why is it that so many people who worship Darwin have absolutely no understanding of evolution?

    He was also rather homophobic, and more than a little racist–particularly when non-white and/or gay people dared to challenge him.

    Bright he was, talented he was, but one of the most overrated writers of his generation. Brilliant at self-promotion, but I simply don’t think his work is going to hold up to the light of posterity–he was no Orwell, and in my opinion, Orwell would have found him despicable. And please note, a few months later, most of the talk about him has died away completely. And we’re still talking about Michael Jackson. And now Whitney Houston. Even Andrew Breitbart’s death has aroused far more passion. What you witnessed late last year was the end of something, not a new beginning.

    And before you say “Don’t speak ill of the dead”, might I just remind you–Hitch never did.

    • dbcreads says:

      Absolutely fair. I have a hard time nodding along with the idea that Hitchens was homophobic (I’m remembering his wonderful debate performance for Intelligence Squared, where he and Stephen Fry demolished Archbishop Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe, in particular the moments when he stood up for Fry’s very “nature”), but I won’t contest the idea that he had some very strange, indefensible opinions—defense of the Iraq War foremost.

      It’s a matter of taste re: whether or not he was an “average” writer. And as for that bullshit about Andrew Breitbart, we are, what, 96 hours removed? I’d say the odds are pretty high that Hitchens is remembered more than some greasy media critic whose most famous moment was “taking down” the Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the United States Department of Agriculture. What a man!

  2. Chris says:

    Always did, sorry. 🙂

  3. Chris says:

    I’m sure Hitchens’ literary rep will endure longer than Breitbart’s, but damning with faint praise hardly says it there, does it now?

    I’ve no doubt he had many good friends who were gay. So do many in the conservative movement (after all, many prominent conservatives ARE gay).

    When I think about it, I realize all his various comments that could be interpreted as anti-gay are actually anti-lesbian. So it may have been his female problem, cropping up again. He told Andrew Sullivan to stop being such a lesbian, called Wanda Sykes a ‘black dyke’, and in both cases he probably would have stopped himself if he hadn’t been–well, in vino veritas, eh?

    In the circles Hitchens typically moved, it simply isn’t fashionable to be homophobic. It’s easy to defend this or that minority group when you stand to lose absolutely nothing by it.

    I’m moved to remember a quote from Somerset Maugham–

    “When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most
    part they deceive themselves. Generally they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the utmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours. It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger.”

    So in a sense, the bravest thing Hitchens ever did was to support the Iraq War–but even there, he simply cultivated a new set of friends and allies (including, let’s recall, the Prime Minister of Great Britain). He could have supported it without going on Fox News, which in all other respects, stood for everything he spent his life fighting against. And once it had been proven to be a mistake, he could have said as much. He could have said 9/11 had been a huge shock to him, and it had overwhelmed his better instincts for a time–millions could say the same, myself included, though I sobered up fast when I realized what Bush and Cheney were up to.

    But what does it say that this man who identified himself more and more with anti-religious sentiment allied himself with those forces in western society that are most fervently devoted to imposing religion on every aspect of public and private life? He was so horribly afraid of one group of fundamentalists that he ran straight into the arms of another, far more influential group of fundamentalists.

    I just can’t respect the man. And for all his renowned egotism, it’s not hard to see that underneath all the bluster, he didn’t have much in the way of self-respect. It’s sad, but not nearly as sad as what happened to the Iraqis.

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