The news that Christopher Hitchens has died may have come as many things to many people, but the one description one may not ascribe to it is that it has come as a ‘shock’. He had, after all, been telling us quite plainly that it was going to happen any day now. This was of course characteristic of a man who preferred to deal in unwelcome truths than soothing falsehoods.
Not since the demise of Steve Jobs in October has a death been so immediately and fervently talked about. Facebook and Twitter contacts whom I had no idea were even aware of Hitchens have deluged the internet with messages of bereavement. “Only yesterday”, a friend of mine from London just informed me on WhatsApp, “I was explaining his theory on drinking at lunch – half a bottle of red, not always more, never less”. I myself had been showing a video clip of him on Jesus to a Christian friend over drinks last night. But speaking of unwelcome truths, it occurs to me that since Hitchens had to die some time, it may be for the best that it was sooner rather than later. As he revealed in his magnificent series of Vanity Fair articles, his cancer had already taken away his voice – that gorgeous, Burtonian double bass that could once “stop a New York cab at 30 paces” – without which he would never again appear at the podium. And he wrote repeatedly of his awful fear that he would go on to lose the ability to write, which he believed would render him as good as dead to all but his friends and family. On BBC radio this morning, Ian McEwan, his friend and the dedicatee of God Is Not Great, described a piercing example of his determination to keep writing literally to the very end:
Right at the very end when he was at his most feeble, and his cancer began to overwhelm him, he insisted on a desk by the window away from his bed in the ICU – it took myself and his son to get him into that chair with a pole and eight lines going into his body – and there he was, a man with only a few days to live, turning out three thousand words to meet a deadline. And then finishing it and thinking, Well I’ve got maybe an hour or two, I’ll write something on memorial day and English poetry. And he was dozing off between sentences; the morphine would overwhelm him; and then I’d watch him just jerk himself awake and get down another sentence. He would never give up.
As far as the debates on religion are concerned, there isn’t much to say except that he was the very best; the ‘champion’ of atheism in every sense of the word, who made everyone on stage alongside him look laughable; friends as much as foes. Martin Amis wrote of him that, “In debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes”, and indeed, I defy anyone to show me an instance of his losing an argument with a religious man.
But religion, of course, was only one of the causes that agitated him. He had been, ever since his teens, a political animal to the core. ‘Late’ Hitchens, as it were, is somewhat divorced from ‘early’ Hitchens, as an aged whisky takes on qualities unavailable to its younger counterpart (for the details of this – as well as learned advice on drinking whisky – see his memoir, Hitch-22). I have had my political disagreements with him (see e.g. here and here). But let’s just say that a dogged commitment to the freedom of abused peoples was for him a constant and an absolute. His opposition to ‘Vietnam’ was of course shared by millions at the time, but far fewer of his supposed comrades were able to muster quite the same outrage when it came to the Balkans, where Hitchens was among the first to call for international intervention to prevent the Christian Serbian fascists from committing a genocide against the mainly Muslim Bosnians. His later advocacy for the use of force in Iraq was in large part with the emancipation of Iraqi Kurds in mind, some 180,000 of whom had been murdered by Saddam, and whose quasi-national flag he would often wear pinned to his lapel in public. And while he never made it his raison d’être, his dedication to a sovereign (and secular) Palestine was total, going as far as to say in his memoirs that if the Palestinians wanted a state from the Jordan to the Mediterranean, “then I have to concede that that is their right”1. Accepting the Richard Dawkins award earlier this year, he made a point of denouncing “the millennial settlers in Palestine who believe that by bringing in as many fanatics of Jewish origin as they can, and forcing out as many Palestinian Arabs as they can, they may bring on the messiah, and indeed the Apocalypse, and look forward to the common destruction of our species with relish” – rightly drawing attention to what is arguably the most alarming manifestation of religious faith today (a distinction challenged only by the coterminous rise of its militant Islamic counterpart).
I never knew him or so much as corresponded with him – the one email address I managed to get hold of had been deactivated – so, for me, the loss is not personal. And yet, the man’s death will change my life. As someone for whom reading is as precious as breathing, the pleasure with which I open my laptop in the morning will be marginally but permanently diminished. Never again will that ‘Daily Hitchens’ button on my browser bring new words of his to my attention. He has written everything he is ever going to write, and every event henceforth will have to be faced without the advantage of his ‘take’ on it.
But in a crucial respect, this may be how he would have wanted it. Surely, few things would have more displeased this titanic adversary of the blindly worshipped and deified leader than the prospect of his becoming one himself. As he tirelessly emphasised, the point is not what to think, but how to think, and how to think for oneself. In his extraordinary body of work and his no less extraordinary life, Hitchens has offered us a masterclass in this art. The challenge will lie in remembering this education, and attempting to live up to the standard he has set.
1 Hitchens, C., Hitch-22 (2010), p. 396