The Imperfect Pleasure of Reading Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

THE AUTHOR known chiefly from his 1949 work Nineteen Eighty-Four was by turns a police officer, tramp, gardener and soldier, as well as a broadcaster — his depiction of the Ministry of Truth drawing upon the BBC building in which he broadcast a literary radio program. George Orwell subsisted at poverty’s doorstep, dying at age 46 just as literary acclaim and a general brightening of prospects approached.

This week I had the imperfect pleasure of reading the final work of an author who admired Orwell and who died at age 62 under comparable circumstance. The imperfection of the pleasure with which I greeted the arrival to my mailbox of a new Christopher Hitchens book was a matter of subtraction, a momentary joy diminished by the awareness I’d never experience it again.

A few qualifications are in order. Hitchens did not live so meager a life, materially speaking, as Orwell did. Neither was Hitchens a soldier, except in an attributed manner which he loathed. The cliché of “battling cancer” bored and irritated him, serving only to underscore a lifelong awareness that — unlike both Orwell and Hitchens’ father (the latter of whom also died of esophageal cancer) — he had never confronted his enemies with the sword, but only with the pen:

“Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm […] the image of the soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

“Only” with pen, but in this mode of battle Hitchens confronted few equals. For years, he was a now-and-again guest on Brian Lamb’s C-SPAN show, each time putting his wit and erudition on display. He might well have remained a fringe interest of the political junkie, had the attacks of September 11 not focused his attention on the topics — theocratic totalitarianism and atheism — which would soon bring him fame. Before 2001, he was an obscure Socialist Brit and former columnist at The Nation who’d written unkindly of Mother Teresa.

His promotion of war against Saddam Hussein and the Afghan Taliban, and his publication of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, made of him a notorious media celebrity, as well as the leading representative of religious skeptics and dissenters of all kinds. Life, for a time, was good — but as is invariably the case, only for a time:

“Of course my book [Hitch 22] hit the bestseller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person […] was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: Would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why Me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

Diagnosed with esophageal cancer on June 8, 2010, the long-time heavy drinking and smoking Hitchens died 18 months later, on December 15, 2011. His was a life of burning the candle at both ends, better to yield a “lovely light” — thereby illuminating the feast of reason and the flow of soul transacted in his many friendships, as well as in the public life of polemic he so evidently enjoyed.

This little book, much of which was printed last year by Vanity Fair, in serial essay form, meditates upon illness, prayer, religion, the state of medical science, the etiquette of cancer and the literal and metaphorical loss of voice, all of which became the quotidian business of Hitchens’ “living dyingly.” As is the case in his many other works, this book is rich in wit and insight and what Orwell termed “the power of facing unpleasant facts.”

In his final years, Hitchens was an advocate of skepticism, rational inquiry, science, and the secular state. As he had many times before, he delivered a regular minority report — in this period of his life the minority constituted by atheists, agnostics, and all manner of infidel. On the other side of his ledger were those eager to impose truth upon the enemy, if necessary by means of lethal force. The convention by 2003, at which time Hitchens was known as a proponent of war against the enemies of civilization, was that he had abandoned his political affiliations and become a neoconservative. But the Trotsky Hitchens and the Anti-Jihad Hitchens were one and the same, promoting internationalism and anti-fascism as against what he in the end felt to be the source of all authoritarianism, the god proposition.

Among the few Washington pundits to have suffered the English Public School — in which one was formally trained in debate, rhetoric, and classical literature — Hitchens was a lover of literature and aesthetics. This and his grasp of history set him apart from the great mass of Washington commentators, extracted from the country’s departments of Poly-Sci and most at-home in the horse race approach to political analysis. It wasn’t only what Hitchens thought that made him worth a hearing: it was how he thought and wrote which set him apart. One of the finest passages of Mortality concerns “voice,” and while it is a general observation, it applies to Hitchens himself:

“The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed. Think of your own favorite authors and see if that isn’t precisely one of the things that engages you, often at first without your noticing it. A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful. […] Without our feeling for the idiolect, the stamp on the way an individual actually talks, and therefore writes, we should be deprived of a whole continent of human sympathy, and of its minor-key pleasures such as mimicry and parody.”

With the departure of Christopher Hitchens, we have been deprived precisely of this unique stamp of a singular human voice.

On September 15, 2012, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality will be available in Canada from Signal Books.

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