When writing on the death of one of the most towering figures of my life, I resign myself to committing a heinous crime against the memory of the man I wish to honour. How is it possible to do justice?
This sentiment is infinitely more poignant when that hero is a man as gargantuan in intellectual and human stature, as intimidatingly verbose as Christopher Hitchens.
Leafing through the already voluminous works commemorating his life or simply reporting on his death, I note that the authors of such pieces feel precisely the above, grasping for the right words, possibly clutching at their thesauruses.
It is my estimation, from having read Hitchens widely and repeatedly, that he would have relished this idea. Words he described as ‘weapons’ and to know that his passing had precipitated a rekindling of the love for language that many commentators and journalists lose in the scramble for ‘good copy’ would have warmed his heart.
Of course there are already many trite, inaccurate commentaries on Hitchens’ death – born not out of malice, though this will inevitably come to bear – but rather out of a misunderstanding through idolisation.
For example, it must be pronounced that Hitchens was no atheist.
He asserts both forcibly and rationally in my favourite work of his, Letters to a Young Contrarian, “I’m not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.”
In less than fifty words, Christopher Hitchens changed my life.
His ‘one consistency’ in challenging totalitarianism is eruditely affirmed from text to text, including those that he didn’t necessarily construct himself.
Utilising his formidable memory and ability to ‘flit and slip’ as he notes in a recent interview for the New Statesman, Hitchens spends as much time introducing his readers to the works that shaped his worldview, rather than simply acting as a raconteur of his own consciousness. This was literally half his art. I’ll never forget being introduced to Byron and Khayyam through Hitchens. Degenerating into hands like his was a pleasure.
In his staggering and unrelenting defence of the war in Iraq, Hitchens made enemies of many old friends, putting principle above the proclivity to temper one’s tone in the presence of old comrades.
A most memorable statement at the time of the war in Afghanistan offers an insight into how Hitchens could rationalise a controversy, or contextualise morality:
“Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.”
In using the term ‘enemies’, I do a great disservice to the man’s abilities. Hitchens had few enemies, but rather, assailed many criminals. To be thrust in front of a man whose distinction would not be diminished amidst Democritus, Dostoyevsky or Darwin was a fate worse than the hell so many of his detractors imagined.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience at the Methodist Hall in Westminster, London, when Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens saw off challenges from former Conservative Member of Parliament Ann Widdecombe and Archbishop Onaiyekan on the motion, “The Catholic Church is a force for good”. Hitch slayed them.
He debated Tony Blair, Douglas Wilson, George Galloway, Al Sharpton and many more. His style was effortlessly confrontational. One favourite ‘Hitch moment’ of mine was during a television interview on CNN, discussing the Mohammed cartoons, Hitchens incredulously and hilariously throws at his opponent a question on the very basis of his argument. “What is this babble?” he asks.
This description of Hitchens’ bravura may make little sense unless you share at least some of the man’s outlook. For those of us that do, we can only hope to be so biting and yet eminently entertaining. While most trade off on these two seemingly polar techniques, Hitchens made an art form out of amalgamating the two.
His magnum opus, many would argue, is ‘God is not Great’, though no doubt Hitch would have noted that his tome still cannot reach the corners of the Earth that most desperately need it.
The bon vivant’s dissection and dispatch of religion, Abrahamic especially, created an aura around the man of both vitriolic hatred and some might argue, ironic godliness, the kind of which those inept at interpreting sardonic protestation would use against him, claiming ‘atheism is a religion’.
Hitchens noted: “Organised religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
When discussing the Binding of Isaac, Hitchens offers at the same time the most veracious, convincing and gruff repudiation of the matter – speaking with authority as a father, a rationalist and a mischief-maker.
“Not scorning the three delightful children who result, who are everything to me and who are my only chance of even a glimpse of a second life let alone an immortal one, I’ll tell you something. If I was told to sacrifice something to prove my devotion to God, if I was told to do what all monotheists are told to do and admire the man who said ‘Yes I’ll gut my kid to show my love of God’ I’d say ‘No. Fuck you.’”
This morning I was awoken by the same voice from across the Atlantic that called when the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death broke – a man who Hitchens aptly described as ‘scrofulous, quasi-noble and of bogus spirituality’. This morning, in contrast to May 2nd, the news was not welcome.
“Christopher Hitchens died,” I heard.
I lurched, sought confirmation, in case I was in the midst of an awful nightmare. Digesting the information over the course of the morning, I relaxed.
It dawned on me. A great man, though no longer Earth-bound and able to regale and inspire us, suffers no more – and will be infinitely more influential in his death, as is often the case, than in his incalculably influential life.
Thank you, Mr. Hitchens, for all you’ve done – and for all you are about to do.