We all knew it was coming but somehow that didn’t make the news any easier to bear. Christopher Hitchens, the mighty literary provocateur, died yesterday. This is a profound loss to his wife and family, who loved him so much it hurts to think about. And it’s a loss for the Republic of Letters and all those he touched, including the townfolk of Washington, D.C.
Many people have been noting that though they didn’t agree with him on many things, they grieve his death. Well, obviously. Not only did he change his mind rather dramatically on some seminal issues of our day, he was a through-and-through contrarian. If you agreed with him on too much, I’d suggest — in the words of Ed Koch — you seek a psychiatrist. Speaking as an anti-war, libertarian Lutheran … I’m not really sure I agreed with him on anything. But who cares? The man could write. An amazing prose stylist with devastating wit. A master. And it’s been fun to read the obituaries his friends have posted.
I enjoyed Nick Gillespie’s tribute at Reason, but I disagreed a bit with one line — he said “Hitchens was never a cheap-shot artist.” That’s true, but many of his books were full of cheap shots. I found “God Is Not Great” easy to refute with even an introductory course in the religions he trashed.
Vanity Fair had a nice brief tribute to the man and Christopher Buckley wrote a beautiful remembrance at The New Yorker. A sample:
As for the wit … one day we were talking about Stalin. I observed that Stalin, eventual murderer of twenty, thirty—forty?—million, had trained as a priest. Not skipping a beat, Christopher remarked, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?”
I thought—as I did perhaps one thousand times over the course of our three-decade long tutorial—Wow.
A few days later, at a dinner, the subject of Stalin having come up, I ventured to my dinner partner, “Indeed, was he not among the more promising of the Tbilisi ordinands?” The lady to whom I had proferred this thieved aperçu stopped chewing her salmon, repeated the line I had so casually tossed off, and said with frank admiration, “That’s brilliant.” I was tempted, but couldn’t quite bear to continue the imposture, and told her that the author of this nacreous witticism was in fact none other than Christopher. She laughed and said, “Well, everything he says is brilliant.”
Yes, everything he said was brilliant. It was a feast of reason and a flow of soul, and, if the author of “God Is Not Great” did not himself believe in the concept of soul, he sure had one, and it was a great soul.
Another favorite part of the piece:
One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
John Podhoretz noted a particularly Jewish angle in his remembrance at Commentary:
Christopher’s loathing for Israel originated in his days as part of Britain’s neo-Marxist left and its post-1967 decision to treat the Jewish state as an imperialist power (where once it had been considered a great success in the battle against British imperialism). But when he turned from those views, he continued to express an alienation toward Israel even when he came to hold views about the civilizational threat of Islamic radicalism that were remarkably consistent with, say, Natan Sharansky’s. In the end, his feelings toward Israel calmed down but never underwent an evolutionary change, because his problem was not with the notion of a homeland for the dispossessed Jewish tribe so much as it was with the continued existence of the tribe itself—a tribe of which he was astonished to discover in midlife he was a member, on his mother’s side. That tribe survived on this earth through the millennia because of its fidelity to the laws not of man but of God. That fidelity, as I am sure he was honest enough with himself to understand, made his own formidable life possible.
Douglas Wilson’s beautiful obituary in Christianity Today hit on the interesting and respectful relationship Hitchens had with actual believers:
Ironically, the branch of the faith most interested in getting the “cultured despisers” to pay us some respect is really not that effective, and this is a strategy that can frequently be found on the pointed end of its own petard. Respectability depends on not caring too much about respectability. Unbelievers can smell accommodation, and when someone like Christopher meets someone who actually believes all the articles in the Creed, including that part about Jesus coming back from the dead, it delights him. Here is someone actually willing to defend what is being attacked. Militant atheists are often exasperated with opponents whose strategy appears to be “surrender slowly.”
Earlier this year, my husband and I co-hosted a baby shower with Hitch and his wife, and Hitch and another one of my favorite writers — who is a devout Christian — tore through both a bottle of Scotch and the New Testament as they discussed eternal salvation.
But how about the more mainstream media? How did they handle the obituaries? Bill Grimes wrote The New York Times piece, headlined “Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, With Wit.” Grimes is an obituary writer for the Times but he’s also known for his many books on food and drink. I was somewhat surprised the obit didn’t get more into Hitchens’ voracious appetite. But it did mention, in several parts, how Hitchens developed his views on “Islamofascism”:
His support for the Iraq war sprang from a growing conviction that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a mortal danger to Western principles of political liberty and freedom of conscience. The first stirrings of that view came in 1989 with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah against the novelist Salman Rushdie for his supposedly blasphemous words in “The Satanic Verses.” To Mr. Hitchens, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, confirmed the threat.
In a political shift that shocked many of his friends and readers, he cut his ties to The Nation and became an outspoken advocate of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a ferocious critic of what he called “Islamofascism.” Although he denied coining the word, he popularized it. …
He also threw himself into the defense of his friend Mr. Rushdie. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in his memoir. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”
To help rally public support, Mr. Hitchens arranged for Mr. Rushdie to be received at the White House by President Bill Clinton, one of Mr. Hitchens’s least favorite politicians and the subject of his book “No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton” (1999).
He regarded the response of left-wing intellectuals to Mr. Rushdie’s predicament as feeble, and he soon began to question many of his cherished political assumptions.
So much to say about this great man, and much will be said in coming days. Please let us know if you see any particularly insightful essays or tributes. As I’m signing off, I’m just now reading this from Peter, his brother. Oh wow, the part about the roof … just beautiful.