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.