It is December 16, 2011, just after 8 a.m., as I write this. The first thing that comes up when I scan through the online edition of the New York Times is that Christopher Hitchens has died the night before. The first emotion I feel is absolute, overwhelming sadness, as though one of my closest friends has just died. Reading through the cold, digital print of the Times website, it felt almost cruel to read through the obituary there and obituaries on other sites. No obituary can sum up such a complex figure, one of the greatest and clearest moralists who was willing to go to any extreme and take all of the heat (deserved or undeserved) for his positions.
The best writer on the death of Christopher Hitchens was, ironically, Hitchens himself. He had many months to contemplate his death as esophageal cancer, and the treatment for it, wracked his body. Every devoted Hitchens fan (and detractor) knew that there was a very slim chance for him to survive more than two years, given the odds—he was very open about what his doctors had told him. In the interviews after the diagnosis, Hitchens was somewhat sentimental, but never blubbering. He did not want people to feel sorry for him, only to listen to what he had to say. He wrote nakedly and honestly about his treatments, his illnesses, his “bad days” as a result of chemotherapy, while, at the same time, critiquing foreign policy, GOP political candidates, reviewing new memoirs and reassessing older works, and writing essays about anything that caught his attention. Magazines such as Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Atlantic and Slate.com published his last pieces, just as they had routinely published him for years. I was always amazed by the speed at which Hitchens wrote, especially after his diagnosis, and the clarity that he was able to obtain even when an article was rushed-off to meet a deadline. His prolifigacy could be met by few (only his fellow Brit, Anthony Burgess, seems to have had even greater capacity for turning out good copy). Legends sprang up about Hitchens’ output—“…he would drink a bottle of whiskey when I manage two glasses of wine,” Labor MP Denis McShane said on an interview with the BBC, “and then be up in the morning writing a thousand perfect words.”
To the very end, he kept on writing. His last book (billed as what would probably be his last book, a claim that we desperately wished would be untrue), a collection of essays entitled Arguably, is a wrist-breaker of a volume at just over 800 pages, gathering the best of his criticism over the last seven years. god Is Not Great, (with the “g” in God intentionally lower-case), published in 2007, brought him international fame (and an appearance in a New Yorker cartoon). The polemical, well-reasoned argument against all religion earned Hitchens a place among the “new atheists”—with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Hitch-22, a tongue-in-cheek memoir was published just before his cancer diagnosis. It reads as if he knew his time was limited, and he had to get cracking on his memoirs before someone else beat him to the punch.
The thing that I admired most about Hitchens is the thing that irritated many people about him—he would not follow the party line. We all know of his famous support for the War in Iraq, his hatred of anything having to do with William Jefferson Clinton, and his support, early-on, for Margaret Thatcher, as well as a few other positions that made the left-wing irritated with him. If, in these matters, he irritated the left, that’s understating his reception by the right. Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham all took him on when he appeared on their various programs. They assumed he could be made to play the fool of the left, yet, unlike so many of their other guests, he refused to talk only about that which was under the headline of their agenda, refused to fall in-line with the others, and refused to fall into their glib categorizations that they usually use to pin-point their guests. Appearing as a guest on the O’Reilly Factor, with Laura Ingraham subbing for O’Reilly, Hitchens earned her praise for saying that the Iraq War was morally just, and earned her ire for endorsing Barack Obama over John McCain. He had earlier aggravated O’Reilly himself by saying that water-boarding (a process he famously underwent for an article published in Vanity Fair) was morally unjust in any situation. He refused to identify as Democrat or Republican, particularly liberal or particularly conservative, or any other primary school of modern American political philosophy.
As much as he could irritate on either side of the aisle, he could entertain. I recall seeing him in debates on television, finding both Republicans and Democrats in the audience laughing and clearly enjoying debating with him and (most importantly) listening to what he had to say. I enjoyed seeing the people that he argued with concede that, even though they disagreed, and their disagreements could be brutal, Hitchens was always a gentleman both on and off of the debating floor. He was someone who you could argue bitterly with for several hours, and then meet later in the hotel bar for some good whiskey and a chummy conversation about P. G. Wodehouse.
Such people appear only rarely. When they depart, they leave behind them families, friends, enemies and detractors. Most importantly, they leave works which will remain as the highest examples of expertise in their field. Hitchens was one of the greatest journalists of our time, one who was willing to go anywhere and do anything. He went where no one else was able to gain access. He went above and beyond the norm. He will be missed by many people for many years to come.
May he rest in peace.