Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, the brilliant, pugilistic essayist and journalist, died Dec. 15 of cancer at age 62. This is not a personal remembrance of Hitchens; I didn't know him. It's too bad, because from all accounts knowing "Hitch" was a bracing experience, involving arguments and legendary drinking bouts that Hitchens, inevitably, would win. I knew Hitchens only by reading him. To read him was to be deeply impressed — envious, if you were a writer yourself — and at some point to have been deeply pissed off by him. Maybe Hitchens pissed you off with his devastating attacks on religion, or his takedowns of Mother Teresa and the Catholic Church, or his writing on the Middle East, or his endorsement of the war in Iraq, or his damnations of Bill Clinton or Henry Kissinger, or his contention that women were not funny.

And maybe he also impressed you with any combination of those, or his reflections on his impending death. Maybe he impressed you with a lifetime of political writing that, while it zigzagged across the ideological lines that other people assiduously draw, was singularly dedicated to freedom, the rights of the individual and independence of thought.

People always say that writers should think independently, should listen to their inner voices, but it's not so often that someone really practices that over a career, producing a body of work that is faithful only to itself — not to allies, or friends, or one's political side, or even to widely held standards of politeness and tact. He alienated his leftist fans by arguing for war in Iraq, but he also condemned the use of torture in the prosecution of the "war on terror" — and backed it up by having himself waterboarded. Hitchens knew when to care greatly about the larger world, and when, therefore, not to give a rat's ass what the larger world thought of him. That's not to say Hitchens was always right or that he never reversed himself. But when it came to the big subject, the final subject, he was ruthlessly consistent. One of his last great subjects was religion, against which the staunch nonbeliever built a fiery intellectual and moral case. His very last great subject was his own death, about which he wrote thoughtfully and movingly, all the while making clear that it had not changed his beliefs about God or the lack (and perniciousness) thereof. It's one thing for a writer to be principled, and it's one thing for a writer to be a jerk; it's a rare thing to be a principled jerk, and that's what Hitchens was.

A version of this text originally appeared on on Dec. 16, 2011.