When Christopher Hitchens died last week of esophageal cancer at the age of 62, the world lost one of its most venomous thinkers. Hitchens was most likely the last of the old-style public intellectuals whose opinions and comments could make us think beyond the ordinary, now standard, sound bite model. Hitchens was anything but ordinary. A notoriously heavy drinker and smoker, he burned the candle at both ends. Although I never got to meet him, I do feel as if I know him through his writing.
The last book he published while alive is the nearly 800-page collection of “recent” essays entitled, Arguably. For the last two months I have been reading bits and pieces of this collection and I think I have experienced every emotion from giddiness to full-blown rage. Hitchens does exactly what a writer and public intellectual ought to do: that is, spur us into feeling something! Every college freshmen should be given a copy of Arguably so that he or she can learn exactly what it means to think in a world that no longer privileges thinking as such. At a time when the intellectual left seems to have become complacent, even neutered, Hitchens remained one of perhaps half a dozen western intellectuals who remained unafraid and unapologetic. For that I admire him immensely.
Consider the following first line from his essay “Old Enough to Die:” “The United States of America executes its own children.” If that is not a sentence to spur one into debate then I don’t know what is. The reader can head toward a thousand and one different directions with that sentence, yet Hitchens always has ample enough focus to not allow the reader to stray too far from the path. Three paragraphs later Hitchens claims that “Since 1990, indeed, only six countries have executed juvenile offenders: Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and the United States of America.” Well, so much for the moral core of the leader of world democracy and freedom. Yet Hitchens was a citizen of the United States, and for all intents and purposes, loved his adopted country. The essential quality of the intellectual, as Edward Said instructs us, is to speak the truth to power and to never act as the cheerleader. Hitchens spent his entire life writing and arguing about what he thought needed arguing about.
Several years ago I found myself reading his book Why Orwell Matters. The book is not only well written; it’s a powerful statement of one man’s love for another’s work. In fact, Orwell may very well be the model Hitchens was following. I loved the book right up until the last chapter. From almost out of nowhere Hitchens begins to attach the French Nobel Prize winning author Claude Simon on his views of the Spanish Civil War. Both Orwell and Simon fought in the war, and both write about it. Yet, I find Simon’s account much more appealing and interesting than Orwell’s. The emotion I felt at the time was of such disgust that I stopped reading Hitchens for almost two years. What brought me back? His sheer intelligence and power with the written word.
Then there is Hitchens’s much talked about and self-proclaimed atheism. In fact, he preferred the term “antitheist” to atheist. A subtle difference that only a true thinker can make something out of. His enormously successful book, God is Not Great seemed to place a serious questioning of God from a non-scientific standpoint back into the public arena. Once he was diagnosed with cancer believers came out of the woodwork proclaiming that now we would see the famous atheist turn to God. But that never happened, at least not publically. Hitchens stood his ground to the end.
I did not always agree with Hitchens, especially on his views of the war in Iraq and on Claude Simon. However, he never once failed to make me feel some kind of emotion. It’s far too easy to say that this or that writer raised the level of conversation, but Christopher Hitchens actually did raise the bar. Now that he is gone, the world is a lot less intelligent than it was just days ago.