The Republicans’ final debate preceding the Iowa caucuses is suddenly uncompelling. There is nothing to do but write about Christopher Hitchens, whose death has made the world immeasurably less interesting.
A regular reader of this column shot me an e-mail Friday morning: “Your thoughts about Hitchens? Was he a great writer?”
The question makes me weep with pity for the fellow who has not known Hitchens’s writing. My appetite for his prose was and remains as insatiable as Hitchens’s own was for expression. Few are the writers whose work I actively seek and devour, but he was at the top of the list. Not surprisingly, others include the several close friends who have written tributes to him, none more beautifully than The Other Christopher (Buckley).
Like so many who have found themselves staring at keyboards the morning after, I feel the need to say something and yet also feel presumptuous. I felt similarly presumptuous a year and a half ago when I wrote Hitchens to say how sorry I was that he was sick. Characteristically, he was appreciative and responded accordingly.
To say I was a friend of Hitchens would be an exaggeration, though I did enjoy the pleasure of his company on several occasions. But one needn’t have known a writer to mourn his passing or to feel profound sadness about all the silent days to come. No matter what the topic, I always wanted to know what Hitchens thought about it, and, lucky for the world, he seemed always willing to end the suspense.
Although I had read him for years — and had in fact been influenced by him on wide-ranging subjects — I didn’t meet him until 2008, when we were both consigned to the leper colony reserved for any who questioned John McCain’s selection of a running mate. Precisely, we met “in makeup” at NBC. This is not the bonding experience of the foxhole, but the objectifying ritual of having one’s countenance applied in the presence of another’s conveys a sort of detached intimacy.
“At last we meet,” he said, as though this were the one thing missing from his otherwise rich life.
If one knew only Hitchens’s acerbic wit or his passionate attacks on such untouchables as Mother Teresa, not to mention God, then one might be surprised by his humility in personal encounters. Notwithstanding his deserved reputation for (often-rude) belligerence in the heat of intellectual debate, he was as polished as a silver service in the parlor. If he didn’t kiss my hand upon parting, he left me with the impression that he had.
He did most certainly invite me to a dinner at the home of David Frum and Danielle Crittenden, where a few of us benighted objectors to Sarah Palin feasted on Alaskan salmon, Baked Alaska and other ironic dishes indigenous to our own little Siberia. I confess to being raptly attentive to every Hitchens syllable, not least because of his remarkable lucidity well past the point where others had forgotten the first part of their own sentences.
The last time I saw him, about a week before his diagnosis of esophageal cancer, was at a book party (at the same home), where a small group of us were smoking and talking by candlelight under a tree. It was one of those magical times when you want to freeze time and preserve the moment. (Though I quit smoking 28 years ago, I still find smokers to be the most interesting people at a party and often join in solidarity.) I have no idea what we were discussing, but I do remember that Hitchens declined to share a pink, gold-filtered Nat Sherman he wanted to try, saying he’d inhale the whole thing in a single drag. He did.
Among the many things that made Hitchens unique was his precision of thought and expression. What made him rare were his courage and tenacity. He was fearless in the field and relentless in his defense of the defenseless with that mightiest of swords — his pen. Judging from his final essays, he was also fearless in the face of death. Terrified that he might lose his ability to write and therefore his being? Well, that was something else.
In his last article for Vanity Fair, Hitchens said he wanted to be fully present at death so that he might experience it actively rather than passively. How perfect that a man who was never passive about living would go un-gentle (but surely gentlemanly) into that dark night and dare death to have the last word.