December 16, 2011
Christopher Hitchens Is Dead. Dammit.By James G. Wiles
How can a conservative commentator and an orthodox Catholic like me possibly admire Christopher Hitchens?
He hated the Pope, smeared Mother Teresa viciously. He even published a book four years ago defending his militant atheism called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Then Christopher Hitchens debated around the world on that very topic. Then he co-wrote and edited a book about the debates.
In between those two books, there was a third one, about the war in Iraq and his support of it - which had caused him to break with many of the friends of his youth. All in all, Christopher Hitchens wrote 17 books, including his collected essays, Arguably, which was re-issued this year. He was 61.
I believe Hitchens' good deeds -- and if Hitchens was right, the only thing left of him now are his deeds -- more than compensated for his militant atheism and his occasional bad manners. Usually he was bitingly funny, even coruscating. Sometimes he was a good deal more than that.
Perhaps the best defense might be to say with Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself.
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
First, there was the man's work ethic, already mentioned above. In fact, the book total doesn't do full justice to Christopher Hitchens' output. He was, for many years, a working journalist too. And a weekly columnist. After his move to the United States in 1981 -- and especially after the emergence of cable -- Hitchens also became a TV regular.
Then there's the quality of his stuff.
Christopher Hitchens was, in the best sense, a public intellectual -- but he was also un homme engage. Hitchens took part in the public controversies of his time. As an occasional foreign correspondent, he also went out and got himself shot at. On his last trip to Beirut, he nearly got kidnapped and probably tortured and killed.
At the height of the Bill Clinton impeachment investigation, Christopher Hitchens wrote and walked into the offices of the House Judiciary Committee an evidentiary affidavit supporting the President's impeachment.
After that was all over, of course, he wrote a book about it. The title? No One Left to Lie to: the Values of the Worst Family. Now that Chelsea Clinton has made her debut on network television, you might want to get it out again and re-read it.
One might say the man thought, read, talked, acted, thought and wrote. In that order -- usually while drinking and smoking.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Christopher Hitchens didn't blink at the idea of turning his own final illness into clear, cool prose. As such, rather than Joan Didion's two recent books chronicling, in effect, two deaths (those of her husband and her adult daughter) observed, Hitchens gives us a chronicle of his own death, observed.
The precedent, I suppose, is Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. It was written while that sixth-century Roman politician was in jail, awaiting execution.
At the high mid-point of his career, Christopher Hitchens suddenly found himself in a similar situation. His deeply-moving last essay in the current issue of Vanity Fair has been widely discussed - especially after Hitchens' weekly column for Slate failed to appear last week. It offers an unflinching look at how his spiritual and emotional experience of intense suffering with terminal cancer has disproved the truth of Nietzsche's philosophy.
VF was the venue for Christopher Hitchens' serious journalism for many years, while the books poured forth. His political stuff appeared in the Nation, for Hitchens - son of a British WW II --naval officer -- was also a man of the left from his Oxford University days. He began as a soixante-huitard. By the '70's, he was a full-blown Trotskyite. Along the way he accumulated many arrests. This pattern continued after Hitchens set off as a foreign correspondent to report on fascism in Spain, Portugal and Greece.
Hitch's political odyssey -- carried out in public -- was the third thing I admired. He thought and experienced his way to what I view as the valid side of many important public issues. And he carried more than a few people with him. The course of his personal life may have influenced him too. By the time of the Clinton impeachment, Hitchens had been living and working in the States for many years. He had also married an American and started a second family with her.
Fourth, of course, was the fascinating Hitchens family itself. Christopher Hitchens' brother, Peter, is a columnist for London's Daily Mail . He's likewise a writer of several political books.
The Abolition of Britain is probably the best known in this country.
Enduring public school together, the two brothers thereafter parted political company. Peter is a practicing Anglican and a man of the right. Indeed, Peter Hitchens is to the right of the British Conservative Party, especially as embodied in the current Prime Minister, David Cameron -- whom he reviles, regularly, on Sundays.
Thus, as some have remarked, there are actually two Hitches. And as I say, neither of them pull their punches. The Hitchens' boys were a nest of stinging birds.
After his mother's suicide (in the midst of a family scandal which she caused), Hitchens discovered that his mother had been Jewish. That revelation -- and the break with the Clintons and their allies -- started him on a course of self-examination. The ultimate result was the autobiography.
Next, Christopher Hitchens was -- like his brother -- a polemicist. He loved a good fight, especially a public controversy. This, in some ways, made Hitchens akin to an earlier controversialist and journalist, H.L. Mencken -- although Hitchens' range was not so broad. It was of Mencken that Walter Lippman, wrote: "[he] is splendidly and exultantly and contagiously alive. He calls you a swine and an imbecile and it increases your will to live."
Christopher Hitchens appears to have had that effect on many of his targets too. Although certainly not Holy Mother Church or the Clintons (what an odd pairing!). Or the Islamists. Not to mention the Dali Lama.
Finally, and perhaps most shockingly in a former Trotskyite (although, of course, one remembers Whittaker Chambers), Hitchens came to realize that he loved the United States. After we were attacked on 9/11, he became an American citizen. Hitchens also took up the ideological cudgels against the anti-American left. He joined another British émigré who was making a spiritual and political journey -- Andrew Sullivan -- in supporting the American military response to 9/11.
In doing so, he was forced by his former comrades-in-arms on the left -- such as Gore Vidal, who used to call Hitchens "my Dauphin" -- to choose a side.
Hitchens did. Ours -- mostly. Like Michael Kelly -- the Atlantic Magazine editor-in-chief and brilliant columnist who became the first American war correspondent killed in action in Iraq -- Christopher Hitchens believed that regimes who subjected their peoples to living life with their "face under a boot" were worthy targets for American power.
He left the Nation.
It was while on tour in 2010 promoting his autobiography, Hitch-22, that Hitchens first learned he had the most severe form of esophagal cancer. It was a death sentence and he knew it. Hitchens' own father had died of the same thing.
Hitchens publicly vowed to be true to his atheism. A public appeal by his old friend and sometime partner in crime and debauchery, the author Martin Amis, that Hitchens reconsider and become an agnostic went, so far as been reported, unanswered. Instead, Hitchens said to an interviewer that if, after his death, it's reported that the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens experienced a deathbed conversion -- a la Brideshead Revisited -- we are to know that his mind gave way at the end.
I am not one of those who take an interest in a man's last moments. And anyway, of the dead, said the ancient Romans, say nothing but good. Hitchens was a proud bohemian, who loved his booze and cigarettes. They, and his genetic inheritance, killed him too.
Nevertheless, one item about Christopher Hitchens which made the blogs must be told here. I thought of it when I first learned of Hitchens' cancer diagnosis in 2010.
During his 2007 book tour for God Is Not Great, a confrontation occurred between Christopher Hitchens and Fr. George Rutler at the Union League of New York. There were a lot of witnesses and the whole thing was later never really denied by Hitchens. Fr. Rutler is an Oxford graduate himself -- and no coward. He was with Fr. Michal Judge at Ground Zero.
Under verbal attack by Hitchens but still urging his conversion, George Rutler told Hitchens that "he would either die a Catholic or a madman..." It's an ugly story, one which even the fact that there appears to have been drink taken (by Hitchens) can't excuse. So, there you have the militant atheist in full flower. I guess if you can't get by that, you're stuck -- if you want to follow that old Roman maxim -- with saying about Christopher Hitchens that, like the Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth, "nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."
But if you do, you'll have missed my point.
Nothing so became Christopher Hitchens as his life. And his life was writing and reading and talking and arguing. To borrow the epitaph of another Christopher - Sir Christopher Wren, architect of London's St. Paul's Cathedral: for the man whose friends called him Hitch, "if you wish to see his monument, look around you." It'll be in all the bookstores - or on You Tube.
Fitting indeed that Christopher Hitchens' death came on the day America's war in Iraq ended.
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