The response to Christopher Hitchens’ death — in the wee hours of last night, from esophageal cancer — has been, predictably, asinine.
First there was the flurry of tweets insisting that anyone who said God Is Not Great ought to be taken out and shot, mistaking the trending book title for an assertion that needed hasty and eRraticAlly capitalized debunking.
I must confess that the thought of Christopher Hitchens banging about the firmament with a harp is of limited consolation. Nor is the idea of him being fricasseed on some supernal skewer particularly satisfying. But it seems oddly prevalent among online commenters.
Shortly after Christopher Hitchens’ passing in the wee hours of Thursday-into-Friday, the Reverend Rick Warren tweeted, “My friend Christopher Hitchens has died. I loved & prayed for him constantly & grieve his loss. He knows the Truth now.”
Then there was the uncomfortable fact that any writer worth his salt who has picked up a magazine in the past decade has the idea that he has a deep and personal relationship with Hitchens that the world at large will be interested in reading about. Why not try? It’s a trending topic.
When it comes to the penning of lugubrious tributes, he belongs squarely in the category of those who said it themselves and said it better. And if he didn’t, he was best friends with Martin Amis and Christopher Buckley, and I am fairly sure they have it covered. There is little you can say better about someone who has anthologized himself — not once, but five times.
He was, at all times, Christopher Hitchens. Writing for every outlet from Slate to Vanity Fair, he embodied the dream that New Journalism has been wanting so desperately and pulling off so badly — the personal brand, the byline so dominant and promising that you’d read him if he wrote about the telephone directory or the beneficence of foaming hand soap. He said controversial things that were more than merely controversial by virtue of the excellent way he said them.
Wilde (whom he quoted extensively) said that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, but in his peculiar way, Hitchens was intensely consistent. Certainly he began as what Buckley called a “Balliol Bolshevik” and then shifted to espouse the war on “Islamofascism,” but all this was part of the same battle he’d waged all his life — “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression.”
He idolized Wilde and Wodehouse, which, if one can’t bring oneself to believe in God, make very handy substitutes and are both infinitely more quotable, unless your line of work calls for you to talk about smiting a lot.
Without him, atheism has lost some of its cachet. I was on the subway recently and noticed a poster of kempt, well-coiffed, grinning women in Santa hats promoting the American Humanist society. “Don’t believe in a god?” the ad asked. “Join the club.” It might have been a more convincing poster had it included only a picture of Hitchens. He at least looked fun to drink with. Perhaps he left us at the right time. Physicists are on the verge of discovering the God Particle, and who knows where that might lead.
I am not one of the people lucky enough to have known Hitchens. But I read him. Everyone did. And all the accounts of his speaking implied that he was one of the rare breed of writers not plagued by the constant fear that they sound better on paper.
His well-caparisoned sentences had the effect on aspiring writers that Shakespeare said drinking had on lechery — to provoke the desire, but take away the performance. The trouble with reading too much of his work was that you started to develop the idea that you were Christopher Hitchens. Even Hitchens had difficulty overcoming that one, and he was better equipped than any of us.
He had the dubious good fortune of being friends with the entire modern literary establishment, which means there will be no shortage of tributes. He will be praised as a polemicist (it’s been decades since I saw that word show up so often in articles people were actually reading), as a thinker, as a user of italicized, gratuitous French text, as a penseur, as a drinker. “I noticed early in life that some colleagues drank because of the writer’s life, and others had seemingly become scribblers because it gave them a high-toned excuse to drink. Some drank to meet a deadline, and some drank to give themselves an excuse to miss one. The latter crew had a tendency to clock out prematurely.”
Wilde said of himself that he’d put his genius into his life and his talent into his works. By all accounts Hitchens was the opposite. He’d stagger in from a bender and, as Christopher Buckley quipped, write a biography of Orwell.
There is no earthly reason why I should be contributing this wilted arugula of an essay to the already mountainous oeuvre of Christopher Hitchens retrospectives. But so be it. He is like Hamlet — at a certain point, everything that can be said about him has been said. Still, that has never deterred anyone. He did things with words that were awe-inspiring and provocative and frankly unnatural, and if you didn’t hate Christopher Hitchens at some point, you weren’t reading him religiously enough.
One of the questions that one gets in opinion journalism rather frequently is “Why on earth should I listen to you?” and in Hitchens’ case it was not “Because I’m right” but “Because I’m Christopher Hitchens.” That first, for him, went without saying.