I find myself immensely and unexpectedly saddened today at the passing of Christopher Hitchens. We sat up late last night watching video clips on C-Span and Youtube, and downed a surprisingly tearful Lagavullin (neat) in his honor. It seemed the thing to do.
In the light of day, I am trying to understand my intense emotional reaction to the news, reminiscent of what I felt when Tony Judt, another great thinker and writer I did not know, died too soon. And yet, like so many others, I felt as if I knew him. He was always essential reading, even when he infuriated me, as he did often. More than once, I let him have it in these pages, to what point I was never certain – a mouse roaring, surely.
He could be maddening; his writing, at times, hobbled by excess self-regard; a rigidity approaching the sort of fanaticism he decried; and a brilliant rhetoric that sometimes masked weak underpinnings. The last two traits were most prominently on display in his support of the Iraq War, which alienated many, including myself. I was disappointed, but not surprised – his stance seemed utterly consistent with his absolute loathing for the thought police, be they on the left or right.
And yet. These were the same traits that made me love him. Although I share his atheism, I felt his anti-God arguments lacked a certain nuance. Yet I deeply admired his refusal to seek the consolation of a deathbed conversion. I also loved his refusal to renounce his louche ways, his devotion to pleasures both high and low, despite their ultimate cost. And I was in awe of his brilliance, his learning, his instant (it seemed) recall, his stunning wit. I don’t, as a rule, talk much about non-fiction, but I was effusive in my praise for Hitch-22 when I recommended it on NPR’s On Point.
But of the many Hitches (how many of us claimed the right to call him that, the unearned familiarity?), the polemicist, the political commentator, the contrarian, I think my favorite was the literary critic. Of his all books, my favorite, the one I return to time and again, is Unacknowledged Legislation: writers in the public sphere. If you’ve never heard of it, do yourself favor and add it to your shelves. People will probably remember him for Vanity Fair, but I preferred the remarkable book criticism he wrote for The Atlantic. When the political baggage was left at the door, he was as incisive and insightful a book reviewer as we had. Here he is on Philip Larkin, earlier this year.
Finally, though, I think the reason for my sorrow, for my tears, is simply this: There was great comfort in the fact that his voice was always there. Reliably combative, occasionally wrongheaded, always bracing, issuing a challenge that it was up to us to take up. I don’t believe one life is necessarily more worthy than any other, but he was a man who clearly made the absolute most of his time here, squeezed out every bit of experience. He never disengaged. It seems grotesquely unfair that he is gone, that silence remains. That is, I think, worthy of tears.
His friend Andrew Sullivan has been heroically posting tributes all day. They are worth a look.
Cheers, Hitch. Perhaps you and Yahweh are sharing a final chuckle together. Either way, I drink to you.