Christopher Hitchens has died: Fighter, doubter, provocateur
Christopher Hitchens has died at age 62. From around the Web, notes on the death of Hitchens, essayist, provocateur, American:
A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.
“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club.
No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”
Christopher was never a man to back away from a confrontation on behalf of what he considered basic decency. Yet it would be wrong to remember only the confrontational side.
Christopher was also a man of exquisite sensitivity and courtesy, dispensed without regard to age or station. On one of the last occasions I saw him, my wife and I came to drop some food –- lamb tagine -– to sustain a family with more on its mind than cooking. Christopher, though weary and sick, insisted on painfully lifting himself from his chair to perform the rites of hospitality. He might have cancer, but we were still guests -– and as guests, we must have champagne.
He was a man of insatiable appetites — for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. ...
Christopher was the beau ideal of the public intellectual. You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone. And as a result many readers felt they knew him. Walking with him down the street in New York or through an airplane terminal was like escorting a movie star through the throngs.
I met Christopher (never Chris) in 1997. Perry Anderson, a mutual friend, had invited us to debate the wisdom of American intervention in the Balkans. We were, unsurprisingly, on opposing sides -- a position that all his friends have experienced, formally or informally. Hitch's friends were comrades always; but allies only occasionally -- that was a role impossible to hold consistently.
Hitch, an idealist committed to protecting human rights and to putting thugs in their place, embraced a muscular internationalism consistent with the stand he'd taken on the Falklands war (in 1982, Christopher, a then-uncompromising socialist, was at one with Mrs. Thatcher) and that he would take on the two wars against Saddam Hussein. I held to my usual parsimonious view of the national interest, and so our debate fell into a well-worn groove.
Early on I made a smart-sounding point, using a recondite historical analogy, which the audience -- largely anti-interventionist -- liked. But 10 minutes later, although the argument had moved on, it dawned on me that I'd scored a cheap shot, and I said so, explaining why my facile analogy didn't hold water. Christopher held me in his gaze, touched his right hand to his chest (one of his characteristic gestures), and gave me an almost imperceptible bow. That was it for us. I had passed the only test that mattered to him, one in which he touchingly, anachronistically conflated intellectual honesty with a decidedly masculine, martial sense of honor.
The reactions to Hitchens's illness from his intellectual opponents –- which ranged from undisguised glee to offers of prayers -– testified to his stature as one of the leading voices of secularism since the publication in 2007 of his anti-religious polemic God is Not Great. The reaction from the author himself, who after a lifetime of "burning the candle of both ends" described his illness as "something so predictable and banal that it bores even me", testified to the sharpness of his wit and the clarity of his thinking under fire, as he dissected the discourse of "struggle" that surrounds cancer, paid tribute to the medical staff who looked after him and resolved to "resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice".
As the Iraq War kicked off in 2003, I was holed up in the Kuwait City Hilton — home to unembedded reporters looking to make their way in. While I’d only briefly met Hitchens once before, word had spread through mutual friends that my hotel room was the last cantina in town. Since the border being sealed meant the black market hooch supply had dried up, we smuggled our amber past customs officials in Listerine bottles. So when Hitchens showed up at my door early one morning kitted for battle with nothing more than his black leather jacket, blue jeans, and a half-smoked pack of Rothman’s (he refused to bring Kevlar, saying it made him feel “like a counterfeit”), I offered him a welcome-to-the-war shot of “Listerine,” just to be hospitable.
“I don’t usually start this early,” he said, his glass already gratefully extended, “but holding yourself to a drinking schedule is always the first sign of alcoholism.”
G. K. Chesterton once pointed to the salutary effect that the great agnostics had on him — that effect being that of "arousing doubts deeper than their own." Christopher was an heir of the Enlightenment tradition, and would have felt right at home in the 18th-century salons of Paris. He wanted to carry on the grand tradition of doubting what had been inherited from Christendom, and to take great delight in doubting it. This worked well, or appeared to, for a time. But skepticism is a universal solvent, and once applied, it does not stop just because Christendom is gone. "I think, therefore I am. I think." We pulled out the stopper of faith, and the bathwater of reason appeared undisturbed for a time. But modernism slowly receded and now postmodernism is circling the drain. Our intelligentsia needs to figure out how to do more than sit in an empty tub and reminisce about the days when Voltaire knew how to keep the water hot. ...
We have no indication that Christopher ever called on the Lord before he died, and if he did not, then Scriptures plainly teach that he is lost forever. But we do have every indication that Christ died for sinners, men and women just like Christopher. We know that the Lord has more than once hired workers for his vineyard when the sun was almost down (Matt. 20:6).
There is no question in my mind that Christopher Hitchens was the bravest ideologically driven writer since — well, I’ll say it — my father, Norman Podhoretz. The bravery he displayed was not in taking unyielding positions and holding to them even when the outcome appeared bleak, as was the case with his support for the war in Iraq — contrast Hitchens’s stalwartness with the unutterable cravenness of the self-righteously inconstant Andrew Sullivan, whose salivation at the Pavlov-like bell rung by the website clicks of the the anti-war left when he put his toe in the Bush-lied waters turned into an unslaking yearning for the rewards of that Internet traffic, and you get a sense of how things might have been different for Hitchens.
In our Bohemian days, we were internationalist in politics and quite the opposite of patriotic. I hadn’t realized the need Christopher felt to belong to something. He was far too satirical to show it. But in the fullness of time he revealed that he really belonged in an America of his own choice. Last year, when he first fell ill, I read his little book about Tom Paine and thought how very much at home Christopher was in this subject, that century. I also felt that he hadn’t changed at all in spirit from when I first knew him. I shall miss that spirit dreadfully.
-- Richard Fausset
Photos: Christopher Hitchens. Credit: Christian Witkin TwelveBooks