An Israelite Without Guile
Farewell to Hitchens, Mighty Goat Among Sheep
Any man who compares near-muteness to "an attack of impotence" is above anything like childish, stiff-necked pride. He's likewise above mere exhibitionistic displays of self-pity. In meditating on the degradation of his voice, Hitchens displays a scientist's concern for accuracy and a poet's sense of wonder. "I 'was' my voice," he writes, and admits living for the pleasures that come from human speech, among them the refinement of the written word. But though Hitchens wishes for "most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech," he recognizes that in its absence he can "do the listening for free" when visited by friends whose speeches normally sell out houses.
In the 15th-century Ars Moriendi, the devil fishes for the dying with five temptations, among them impatience. Hitchens faced the paradox I was my voice; my voice is gone, and yet I am, along with the possibility of worse, without bitterness or bravado. This is the work of a man who has grappled with impatience and finally tamed it. Even if the taming brought Hitchens no closer to communion with the faithful in formal terms, it's an act the faithful might do well to emulate.
Oscar Wilde, another of Hitchens' favorites, did convert at the eleventh hour, with the help of Robbie Ross, who ordered up a Passionist priest to the Hotel Alsace like a hock and seltzer. But the pull Wilde felt toward Catholicism dated back decades—to his years at Trinity College. While on a term break from Oxford, he made a pilgrimage to Rome and enjoyed a private audience with Pope Leo XIII. The experience filled Wilde with such enthusiasm that he wrote of the city's new rulers—the house of Piedmont-Sardinia and its bureaucracy—as barbarian occupiers. However, he ducked out of a scheduled re-baptism and remained, as he put it, "an Irish Protestant" with "no religion" until his final minutes.
Wilde's life and work, then, challenge Christians to pinpoint and work out the underlying tensions between belief and doubt, attraction and repulsion. To borrow from another world religion, he's neither entirely kosher nor entirely un-kosher. An about-face from the polemical Hitchens would have presented critics with an even more monumental task. Unlike Wilde, he showed no interest in the sacraments for their own sake. What could have brought him around?
Judging by Hitchens' record, it would have been a conversion on utilitarian grounds. Only a conviction that Christianity was the surest path to freedom, dignity and prosperity for the greatest number would have done the trick. Given the enormous distance separating Hitchens' definition of these concepts from the Church's, it's understandable no bridge was built. Nevertheless, whatever Hitchens himself might have had to say on the subject, I maintain he possessed all the raw material to be an excellent Christian. Anyone who condemned racism and anti-Semitism so relentlessly, yet maintained the warmest appreciation for authors, like Larkin and T.S. Eliot, who seemed attached to one or the other, knew everything about loving the sinner while hating the sin.
Wherever Hitchens is now—whether or not he has, to his own surprise, found things to love and link with—his work remains, for us to love and link with as we please. Me, I'll relish it as a constant challenge to my faith, and admire it as the horns of a goat among sheep, one who made a good bid for king of the mountain.
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon. His Open Salon blog is here.