Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Yesterday morning (December 16, 2011), I drew in a sharp breath; I had lackadaisically logged on to Slate at breakfast, and there were the words: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.

How many people are there, outside of your own circle of family and friends, whose death would cause you to gasp?

In tribute to him, I shall attempt to, not parody exactly, but certainly emulate his offhanded-learnedness-mixed-with-pop-culture-accessibility-but-not-dumbed-down style.

But my real tribute to him was made that morning: a sharp, surprised, saddened intake of breath.  On behalf of a stranger whom I was never in the same room with.

All else is exegesis.

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Percy Shelley said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world; Hitchens showed that prose stylists could be the unacknowledged coup leaders.

Christopher Hitchens was a writer, a journalist, and an essayist.  He went to Afghanistan in the 1980s when Osama bin Laden and the CIA were making common cause.  He was in Bosnia when artillery shells were being lobbed.  He was also a lover of novels and poetry, and he showed that both the physical life and the mental life were vitally important.

Thoreau wrote: "How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."  Not standing up to live was one of the few types of vanity Hitchens could not be accused of.  Indeed, one wonders if he would have signed on with a magazine called Humility Fair.

Although he was witty, he is best not experienced as a collection of epigrams.  Indeed, Vanity Fair magazine, the morning after the night he died, put out a video tribute which I found notable for its blandness.  Hitchens was about his ideas, and a few sound bites could not express them.

Rather, his metier was the full-throated paragraph; typically laying out the case against (fill in the blank with a worthy opponent), lay out the case against that opponent with a recounting of its misdeeds (framed in deliciously unfair invective), and followed by a killing blow.  You might have said he was setting up and knocking down straw men, except that his targets were either powerful institutions (organized religions, governments) or sacred cows (Mother Teresa, notably).

His range of topics was so wide, one might think of him as a dilettante, speaking of matters he knew little of.  But, 'It ain't braggin' if you can do it.'  He was a polymath, much like that other prolific author, Isaac Asimov (although certainly with a vastly different personality!).

When musician Warren Zevon (cue "Werewolf of London") discovered he had cancer, one of the songs he wrote for what he knew would be his last album included the lines:

I don't want your pity or your fifty dollar words,
I don't share your need to discuss the absurd.
--"Rub Me Raw" The Wind

With that same grit, Hitchens went on the record saying that, if he did supposedly recant his atheism on his deathbed, "it won't be me," just a cancer-riddled, delusional brain.

His personal life was as chaotic as his prose was elegant.  His mother committed suicide when he was in early adulthood (a biographical fact he shared with that other mordant author, Kurt Vonnegut).  He made no secret of his fondness for alcohol.  His brother Peter became a conservative and a Christian; they debated in public a couple of times, but (admirably for both men) didn't turn it into a gimmick.  He knew his cigarette habit had given the genetic predisposition to esophageal cancer inherited from his father the push it needed to start growing in him.

Inevitably, with such a prodigious output, and with such savoring eagerness to jump into a fight, he ended up on the wrong side of some issues.  (By which, of course, I mean that he disagreed with me.)  His essay "Why Women Aren't Funny", generated predictable outrage among the column-writing class; it was a nothing of a piece that generated a nothing of a controversy.  His longstanding support of the Iraq war, on the other hand, which caused such discomfort in his many longtime admirers (including myself), was deadly serious.

But one of the risks of putting yourself and your ideas out there is the risk of being wrong.  And if he was wrong about Iraq (and, oh, he was!), he was at least not a chickenhawk; as a correspondent, he had been in more combat zones than some people who serve in uniform.  If he was wrong, he was at least a wrong adult, rather than the overgrown frat boys and technocrats (in America and England) who blundered in without a second thought.

I would have liked to close this post with a shout out to the man himself, but his own belief was that he would not hear such a shout post-mortem.  He agreed with early American poet Philip Freneau:

In spite of all the learned have said.
I still my old opinion keep;
The posture, that we give our dead,
Points out the soul's eternal sleep.
--from "The Indian Burying Ground"

Sleep well, Hitch.

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