Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant, pugilistic essayist and journalist, died Thursday of cancer at age 62. This is not a personal remembrance of Hitchens; I didn’t know him. It’s too bad, because from all accounts knowing “Hitch” was a bracing experience, involving arguments and legendary drinking bouts that Hitchens, inevitably, would win. (There will be plenty of personal accounts of Hitchens from his writer friends; you might start with this Christopher Buckley’s appreciation in the New Yorker online, which addresses both the arguing and the drinking.)
I knew Hitchens only by reading him. To read him was to be deeply impressed–envious, if you were a writer yourself–and at some point to have been deeply pissed off by him. Maybe Hitchens pissed you off with his devastating attacks on religion, or his takedowns of Mother Teresa and the Catholic Church, or his writing on the Middle East, or his endorsement of the war in Iraq, or his damnations of Bill Clinton or Henry Kissinger, or his contention that women were not funny.
And maybe he also impressed you with any combination of those, or his reflections on his impending death. Maybe he impressed you with a lifetime of political writing that, while it zigzagged across the ideological lines that other people assiduously draw, was singularly dedicated to freedom, the rights of the individual and independence of thought.
Whatever your reaction, Hitchens didn’t care whether he pissed you off. Actually, let me strike that. I’m writing here about an author whose body of work was violently opposed to un-thought-through casual assumptions, and the fact is I don’t know Hitchens or his mind. Maybe he did care on some level. I also want to call him “fearless,” but what the hell do I know?—maybe he was possessed by deep fears.
What matters is what I read, which is what he left behind, and so what I really want to say is that Hitchens wrote as if he didn’t care whether he pissed you off. That seems like a banal thing to say about any opinion writer, at a time of ubiquitous punditry and as many button-pushing opinions as there are Twitter accounts. But in practice, it’s not such a common thing at all.
People always say that writers should think independently, should listen to their inner voices, but it’s not so often that someone really practices that over a career, producing a body of work that is faithful only to itself–not to allies, or friends, or one’s political side, or even to widely held standards of politeness and tact. He alienated his leftist fans by arguing for war in Iraq, but he also condemned the use of torture in prosecution the “war on terror”—and backed it up by having himself waterboarded. Hitchens knew when to care greatly about the larger world, and when, therefore, not to give a rat’s ass what the larger world thought of him. It’s one thing for a writer to be principled, and it’s one thing for a writer to be a jerk; it’s a rare thing to be a principled jerk, and that’s what Hitchens was.
That’s not to say Hitchens was always right or that he never reversed himself. But when it came to the big subject, the final subject, he was ruthlessly consistent. One of his last great subjects was religion, against which the staunch nonbeliever built a fiery intellectual and moral case. His very last great subject was his own death, about which he wrote thoughtfully and movingly, all the while making clear that it had not changed his beliefs about God or the lack (and perniciousness) thereof.
This is a TV blog, so I wanted to share a TV clip of Hitchens; above, he talks to Jon Stewart in 2007 about his book God Is Not Great. He’s serious and droll at the same time, remarking at one point that “the more secular a society is, the more amusing it is, and the better the food. And the more to drink.”
Stewart, playing devil’s advocate–which in this case means God’s advocate–asks whether religion isn’t justified as a comfort, because “we are a species that knows we are going to die.” Hitchens rejects that idea, just as he would reject that comfort for himself when he was later diagnosed with terminal cancer–as much as, he wryly confesses here, he wishes that “an exception would be made in my case.” Self-awarely, he acknowledges to Stewart: “But I must look like an asshole to you when I say that.” Indeed. A pugnacious, eloquent, brilliant asshole. RIP.