Last Thursday, the free world lost one of its fiercest warriors in the battle against totalitarianism. Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens died of pneumonia in Houston, Texas, where he had been receiving treatment for stage IV esophageal cancer. It is a loss that has been keenly felt by his friends, those in the journalistic profession, as well as for his allies who found his words a fearsome salvo against the forces of depravity. His words, a source of comfort and inspiration (and occasionally, anger, when he wrote something truly dreadful, which did happen) will be a loss felt each time we do not see his byline in our important publications.
A heavy smoker (up to three packs of Rothmans Blue a day) and drinker (Johnnie Walker Black Label) Hitchens battled the malignancy that took his life for eighteen months. Although he was best known in his final years for his excoriating critiques of monotheism, Hitchens’ journalistic career spanned over four decades, and took him around the world as he penned columns on everything from oral sex to international relations.
His career began in Britain, where he was a student at Balliol College at Oxford, and a militant “soixante-huitard.” His time was divided between the demonstrations of any good Sixties radical, and the smoking lounges of Britain’s literary elite. In the late Eighties, Hitchens crossed the pond, settling in the United States, of which he became a citizen following 9/11. Here, he wrote a column called “Minority Report” for The Nation, finally departing messily from the American Left in the early 21st century. Since then, his work appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New York Review of Books, among others. In addition to his essays and book reviews, Hitchens also wrote a number of books, most notably No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton and The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice and god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Hitchens announced his diagnosis in June 2010, writing that on that day: “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.” He was in the middle of a book tour to promote his bestselling memoir, Hitch-22. His final column, entitled “Trial of the Will” and published in the January issue of Vanity Fair pointed out that his recent radiation treatments were either boom or bust; no more could be done to combat his cancer. Throughout his treatments, Hitchens gave his readers a glimpse into his life in “Tumorville,” and consistently remained optimistic about the power of modern medical science to prolong his life, although he admitted he would probably die with cancer, if not of it.
Shortly after his diagnosis, I made the effort to get to an event to see Mr. Hitchens speak, and I managed to secure tickets to his highly anticipated and sold-out debate against former UK prime minister Tony Blair, with whom he mopped the floor. The entire affair necessitated a grueling red eye flight out to Toronto, and a few nights spent in suspect hostels awaiting the show. However, the most haunting thing of all was that I was, quite literally, within speaking distance of Hitchens, and never had the chance to say something.
This was a couple hours after the show, and as I was walking with my friend to try and find a train station, Hitchens was pulling out of Roy Thomson hall with his motorcade. A couple of young guys (clearly far cleverer than us) had been camped out by the loading doors waiting for him to leave, and had managed to get a few autographs. As we walked in front of his Escalade, I pulled out my notebook and pen, only to watch Mr. Hitchens roll up his window and pull out onto the street. It is haunting, especially so now that he’s gone, but I at least have had the satisfaction of seeing him speak in person.
Now that he is gone, Hitchens has left his readers a rich literary legacy. Indeed, and the obituaries written by his close friends suggest that a few more columns might be published posthumously, and it has been announced that a final memoir, entitled Mortality, is forthcoming. I hope that this final volume will contain a decent amount of unpublished work and will give faithful readers an unprecedented glimpse into the trials of an atheist facing his death.
But until then, and until his miscellaneous papers are collected and published (as that always seems to be the case), we are left with his previous work. Most recently, he published Arguably, a monstrously hefty volume that covers a massive amount of subject matter. It is to his collected works that we must look to discern what sort of legacy Hitchens has left.
Unfortunately, many of his critics are already remembering him chiefly for his defense of the Iraq War and the Bush Administration (though never on its domestic or torture policies). Whether one agrees with him or not, Hitchens gave a spirited defense of the war, and it is hard to shrug off the moral arguments that compel us to act against tyranny. In particular, watching him and British politician George Galloway duke it out is great entertainment, somehow capturing the best qualities of both highbrow politics and bloodsports. Regardless, it is an inane attempt to pigeonhole Mr. Hitchens in this way, as Arguably show us, his work is far more diverse, and there is much to love, despite the occasional stumble along the way.
Though Hitchens will most likely be remembered as a literary critic – and I suspect this is how he would have wanted it – this always struck me as slightly tedious. However, it has received a decent amount of critical acclaim, and not being a huge fan of literary discussion, I’m not much in a position to judge Mr. Hitchens’ work on the subject. However, what I do think Arguably illuminates are Hitchens’ abilities as a cultural critic. This work is significantly less serious than his literary criticism, or his political polemics, but it is nonetheless highly engaging, and quite often uproariously funny.
Two things come to mind. The first is an essay in Vanity Fair entitled “American as Apple Pie,” which traces the popularity of the blowjob through American history. His conclusion, essentially, is that:
The United States is par excellence the country of beautiful dentistry. As one who was stretched on the grim rack of British “National Health” practice, with its gray-and-yellow fangs, its steely-wire “braces,” its dark and crumbly fillings, and its shriveled and bleeding gums, I can remember barely daring to smile when I first set foot in the New World. Whereas when any sweet American girl smiled at me, I was at once bewitched and slain by the warm, moist cave of her mouth, lined with faultless white teeth and immaculate pink gums and organized around a tenderly coiled yet innocent tongue. Good grief! What else was there to think about? In order to stay respectable here, I shall just say that it’s not always so enticing when the young ladies of Albania (say) shoot you a cheeky grin that puts you in mind of Deliverance.
This essay includes trademarks of Mr. Hitchens’ writing, such as the allusions to previously unheard of books and essays (one wonders how he managed to find as much as he did on the subject). Indeed, there also seems to be a mildly childish perverse pleasure that comes from discussing…sensitive topics in a public forum, the same fleeting sense of the unconventional that accompanies the inappropriate anecdote in a bar. Such is the musing: ““No, darling. Suck it. ‘Blow’ is a mere figure of speech.” Imagine the stress that gave rise to that gag.”
Imagine the stress indeed.
Secondly, his piece (also in Vanity Fair) on the limits of self-improvement is ridiculously funny, culminating with the waxing of “back, sack and crack.” Not much more needs to be said. But the point is, there is a legacy here for Hitchens fans that should be given more than a cursory look. Merely a snippet on yoga nearly brings one to stitches:
Not to be outdone by some tempestuous and tawny Californian, I attempted to balance and extend myself in the same way, only to find that I was seized by the sensation that I might die or go mad at any moment.
This work is impressively insightful, and perhaps more importantly, impressively funny – one of the great measures of intelligence. Some of his critics have suggested that these works are indicative of a base mind, that Hitchens, all along, was merely a poseur intellectual. But of course, this is simply ridiculous, as is demonstrated by the political and philosophical essays in his collected works.
This is where Hitchens is at his intellectual finest, at the absolute peak of his game. So not a whole lot needs to be said about them by me; this work is almost universally appreciated. His religious opponents have acknowledged his precision here, and his political ones cannot seriously dismiss his foreign affairs reportage. Mr. Hitchens lived and wrote through the three most important events of the last fifty years for Western civilization: 1968 (perfectly named by Mark Kurlansky as “the year that rocked the world“), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the events of September 11, 2001. This is, if I might make a contribution to understanding Hitchens’ politics, writing and philosophy, the main thing to keep in mind as you attempt to understand why and how Christopher Hitchens thought.
The bigger question, and the most important aspect of his legacy is what has Hitchens left us, as his readers, his comrades, and ideological affiliates. The biggest thing is that he has mobilized young people. In a recent interview, Ian McEwan noted that at the “Christopher Hitchens Night” hosted by Stephen Fry, the audience seemed packed full of young people. This absolutely must give us hope, especially in the fight against totalitarianism and theocracy.
For at least a couple years now, there has been talk of an evangelical revival in the West, and a revival of fundamentalist religion in general. At this juncture in time, it is not up to the old guard of atheism to fight this battle. It is not up to the Four Horsemen to continue to meet these people head on in debate. Indeed, there is no “new atheism,” even as the media insists on using such an imprecise descriptor. Atheism can be traced, with certainty, through our written word back to Socrates. And so, we are left with the historical legacy of men and women who took up the standard, and went, time and time again into the breach, in order to ensure that our generation has what it does today.
If Hitchens has managed to mobilize a generation of young people and kept them away from the meager consolations of religion, then perhaps, the future victory over the forces of the Stone Age, will be his most important legacy.
Five Must Read Articles by Christopher Hitchens (in addition to the ones already linked above).
Believe Me, It’s Torture, Vanity Fair, August 2008
The author undergoes waterboarding to dismiss Bush Administration claims that waterboarding is not torture.
I Fought the Law, Vanity Fair, February 2004
Breaking Mayor Bloomberg’s silly nanny state laws in New York City.
Is the Smoking Ban a Good Idea?, The Guardian, May 17, 2007
Hitchens defends smoking, and opposes smoking bans.
The Vietnam Syndrome, Vanity Fair, August 2006
On the still prevalent horrors of Agent Orange.
The Author Who Played With Fire, Vanity Fair, December 2009
A review of Stieg Larsson’s series, and a rather refreshingly critical one at that.