I know the moments near
And there’s nothing we can do
Look through a faithless eye
Are you afraid to die?
It scares the hell out of me
And the end is all I can see
And it scares the hell out of me
And the end is all I can see
Christopher Hitchens is dead!
To which the man in the street replies, ‘Who the hell is Christopher Hitchens?’, likewise for the butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers of the 21st century, the ‘public intellectual’ is indeed a non-entity. A lost art in fact, recently reinvigorated by this late journalist, author and public speaker.
Born after World War II in Portsmouth, Christopher Hitchens graduated from boarding school, then Oxford and made his career in the US providing sharp copy for The Nation and Vanity Fair. As a writer, he was an Englishman in America, a cross-cultural character with the British outrage of Huxley (both of them) and the wit of Wilde on one side, and the stateside blasphemy of Twain and bravado of Hemingway on the other.
This combination made him a fascinating literary beast, never putting his fingers to fiction but relentlessly toppling fools and kings. His targets were famed, (Kissinger, Clinton, Mother Teresa) and for those inclined to the ‘intellectual’, he became a patron saint of contrarian sound-bytes and secular bluster. And with good reason.
The man could recite stanzas of classic verse and swaths of Shakespeare. He wrote from warzones and fierce, forgotten frontlines. In debate, he disarmed with droll humour, Byronic charm or tight-lipped moral indignation. He played by his own rules, interrupting opposing arguments, even berating live audiences for applauding points he did not agree with. Every baritone quip and quote came dripping in irony and whisky. He strutted, hunched over a cigarette, and was exceedingly well read.
However, it was the fury of the fight, in the thick of it, amidst the American culture wars, and also its foreign wars, where he pointed his pen. This is where his lasting and most unpleasant legacies are found: his support of the Iraq invasion and his anti-theism.
The less said about his American militancy the better. He thumped his chest along with the warmongers, then defended the cause as the civilian casualties rose and muted his critique of George W. Bush. The inconsistency confused all but himself.
This late-in-life conversion to the rightwing coincided with his ascendant celebrity built from his anti-theism in a host of public debates and television appearances. As with Dawkins et al, he insulted the sacred and questioned the mental health and moral code of the billions who happened to hold beliefs he did not. Often, it made him appear sour.
In fact, his anti-theist rhetoric was frequently rude, reductive and recalcitrant. He made use of dirty jokes, ignored data and proffered astounding generalisations. However, he was often right, and while he was also often wrong, he was at least entertaining at the same time.
A life of smoking and drinking took its toll as he died from cancer at the age of sixty-two. Over the last waning months, he wrote at length about his scorching treatments and his intimations of mortality. Of course, there was no repentance of any kind, every missive defiantly doubting from the foxhole until the very end.
Quite simply, the candor of his writing over the past eighteen months was raw and arresting, a poignant finish to an epic career. Now, fundamentalists across religious and secular battle lines will interpret his death however they wish, his work remains. Christopher Hitchens was hero or heretic to many and indeed worked very hard to be both. Deservedly, by his disciples, detractors and dear family, he will be missed.
P.P.S. Personally, I do believe that God would allow Christopher Hitchens through the pearly gates, though simply for the pleasure of seeing him finally face G.K. Chesterton, the only saint who’d likely out-think, out-write and out-smoke him.