Remembering Christopher Hitchens, Who Died Three Years Ago Today
Christopher Hitchens died three years ago today. His life spanned 62 immensely productive years. One presumes his words and ideas shall endure for a considerably longer time. Even after his death, Hitchens remains a giant force of intellect worth reacquainting ourselves with regularly, and not just by those who share(d) his views.
As prolific Hitchens was, both as a writer and lecturer who never shied away from the toughest questions nor conflicts, his most valuable gift was not in telling us what we should think and believe. Rather, it seemed his real purpose was inspiring us to think, and more important – to grow.
Sadly, I’m convinced far too many people embrace a certain philosophy that seems to provide comfort, and then blindly stick with it despite evidence to the contrary. It’s like marrying the first girl we kiss and then sticking it out for the rest of our lives. We insulate ourselves from dissent by surrounding ourselves with pundits who might as well be clones. We read the same newspapers and visit non-threatening websites. We watch one cable news channel. In short, many of us fail to challenge the most basic assumptions of what we know and believe. Maybe that’s because at the root of it all there is fear. But philosophy isn’t an end game. It’s a perpetual pursuit. Part of evolution.
The duration of Hitchens’ adult life embodied the notion that awareness comes not from biology nor birthright, but rather from curiosity and persistence. Indeed, we evolve into who and what were are, and what we believe. Of course, some people change more noticeably than others during their lives. And some hardly change their belief systems at all. But Hitchens was very different, especially as he became a public figure and his notoriety increased. He wasn’t afraid to share his beliefs, even when there were doubts and insecurities. He wasn’t too proud to change his mind later when the preponderance of evidence warranted taking a different position on an issue.
I think we need more of that. A lot more. Sadly, society views changes of opinion and intellectual evolution — not as a virtue as it should be — but a character flaw. Look at those running for public office who sway from their political base, or change their minds on an important issue. Coming to a different position later is almost always held against them.
Consider what was arguably Hitchens’ most divisive position, his support of two long wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hard to imagine the former self-described Socialist who doesn’t believe in god and thought George W. Bush was an idiot actually turned out to be one of the war’s strongest hawks. Hitchens didn’t care that his defense of war outraged his pals in Leftist circles. Whatever your position, you have to admire a man who doesn’t take his marching orders out of the usual playbook. Indeed, Hitchens had no playbook, other than a directional arrow to expand his knowledge and try and learn as much as possible.
My tribute to Hitchens is that I would be more like him. Not necessarily in thought, although we share lots of common ground. But in a relentless pursuit to learn and know more, and hopefully to understand what it all means. Hitchens wouldn’t like the comparison, but such pursuit is divine.
* * * * *
Hitchens penned 15 books (not including those released posthumously) over the course a bombastically bountiful career that spanned nearly three decades — the first half spent in the U.K., the nation of his birth, and the latter half in the U.S., the country to which he eventually attached himself as a naturalized citizen. But his real citizenry was to free thought, to ideas, and to debate. In fact, he was the emperor of that nation.
His writings which later morphed into hundreds of speeches and lectures weren’t merely words and phrases, they have carefully calculated steamrollers that flattened an accumulation of myths, trouncing the idolatry attached to those he so deservedly disdained, including most famously — Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa.
Love him or hate him, you had to respect the man everyone who was fortunate enough to be included his inner circle of Vanity Fair elite lovingly called “Hitch.” He was unquestionably the bravest writer of our generation, almost recklessly unafraid of the fallout he would inevitably encounter for expressing what would both literally and figuratively be blasphemous to all aspects of our popular culture. I mean, you may not like to hear the things he said or read the things he wrote, and might not agree with the man, but one must admit — it takes balls to tear down Mother Teresa. Henry Kissinger, less so.
Consider the answer he once gave to a question as to what’s the most overrated virtue. Without any hesitation or ambiguity, Hitchens roared — “Faith, closely followed – in the overall shortage of time – by patience.”
There would indeed be a sad irony to Hitchens’ answer here, which would in a sense be prophetic. No doubt, Hitchens’ life did finally run out of time, at a far less than complete 62 years. During the later stages of his life, he expressed his greatest regret at not being able to go another twenty more years, continuing to wage the war against intellectual servitude, where ever he saw it. And yet, faced with his own impending death and awareness thereof, Hitchens never once wavered from his own faith, a faith cast not towards some imaginary heaven, but the faith-focused inward to the self. Hitchens never compromised his beliefs nor wavered in his consistency. One had to admire that.
During the final excruciatingly painful year of his life, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, and as he became increasingly aware of the fate awaiting him which would have no happy ending in spite of all the best doctors and alternative therapies, many who followed his career were eager to see the final fateful chapter played out. Instigated by his ceaseless bashing of religion with such veracity, some wondered if he might actually undergo a sort of “foxhole conversion.”
That final melancholic year of his life, while being perhaps the most poignant era of his writing and speaking career, was also the most gripping. It was a car crash, a rubber-necking voyeuristic exercise for many driving by on life’s congested highway, particularly for those who may have relished in the twisted irony of seeing a man put the ultimate test of his own “faith.” And that is the faith in one’s own constitution and belief set. Which, no matter what one’s views, are not always easy things to stand by.
“Mortality” was the final book written by Hitchens. It’s a far more personal narrative than anything previously written by the Oxford-educated iconoclast who made a career of arguing with the cozy intellectual comfort zone of conventional wisdom and hazing hook, line, and sinker belief systems.
To those unfamiliar with Hitchens – the man and his writings – the biggest surprise might be the absence of metaphorical violins in the narrative. Alas, there are no strings attached to these words, though if you admired the man as I did, his brave personal toil ultimately does pull at the heartstrings. To those more familiar with the man, remaining steadfastly convinced and comfortable with his position on matters of the spirit was hardly a surprise at all. It was, in fact, to be expected. It’s a walk to the gallows with a head held high, even defiantly so.
At only 104 pages long, this is by far the shortest book of the author’s career. One plainly sees this as an incomplete work, just as it should be. There’s really no way to wrap it all up and put a pretty bow on top, as other memoirs of famous dying people often do, and Hitchens’ previous release “Hitch-22” pretty much already covered all the bases of a career from A to Z. This is a closer examination of the “X-Y-Z” period of a man’s existence, embellished with far more personal revelations that previously released. We all know how this book is going to end, and the engrossment comes not from some 24th-hour surprise or late conversion, but rather from Hitchens’ poignant honesty, his refusal to airbrush his own angst which ultimately becomes the acquiescence of fate.
Indeed, while all of Hitchens’s other masterful works challenged us to think and taught us how to live, “Mortality” teaches us how to die, with honesty and dignity, while remaining true to ourselves. And that might be Hitchens’ most poignant parting gift to us all.