There are many who can write as well as they can speak; this can be, at best, mildly impressive. But there are only a few who can speak as well as they can write; so if one has been granted by his peers ‘a master of the pen’, surely, this ability must be regarded with reverence and esteem. Christopher Hitchens was that, and he had his life to prove every inch of it. Seven years since his passing, Christopher Hitchens — whose name provokes the plenty as fervently as it ignites an equally faithful following — remains an indomitable and influential figure. So, to what deserving can I claim to write about this man, I ask myself as I draft these words. A popular meme about the brilliant economist Daron Acemoglu that often gets passed around on social media spells, “When Daron Acemoglu sits down, it counts as a conference”. Indeed, sometimes, one man’s greatness is remarkable enough to bestow any word of his mention as being noteworthy of care and repost; and the more infamous he has been allowed to, the further you are granted to be pleased—therefore, in our case, an extension to an essay. Herewith.
Gifted with a piercing wit and a mammoth memory, Christopher Hitchens’s more-than-three decade career as a journalist, writer, and polemicist clashed with historical figures and ideologies of the most varied niches and consequences. And you can be assured that this is what will most certainly be echoed, with the same character, even by those with a lukewarm familiarity with the man. But to discover what he was truly about, one must dig deeper, in a manner Hitchens himself would in preparation for an essay he could so commandingly churn out.
If at all one had to break it down, Hitchens’ story can be divided into pairs: his first 30 years in Britain, to the following three decades in America; Hitchens, the rather accommodating (pre-September 2001), to Hitchens, the ferocious (post 9/11); Hitchens, a beneficiary of free speech (before the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie), to Hitchens, a zealous defender of free speech (resulting thereafter in a close, lifelong companionship with the author of the Satanic Verses); Hitchens, the Democratic-socialist liberal (pre Bush), to Hitchens, the ‘somewhat’ conservative pro-Iraq/Afghanistan war (to his death).
Born at the height of the baby boom to parents who met while serving in the Navy during World War II, his early life then followed a few boarding schools, and later a third-class degree in PPE (Politics, Economics, and Philosophy) from the University of Oxford. His journalistic career began at obscure media companies in London, where he reported on events in Greece, and South America, and Israel. It was only in 1988, when Salman Rushdie’s life was in peril, that Hitchens saw himself with more prominence when he went all in with his support for the Booker Prize-winning author and displayed incredulous disdain for those in the western world who shrugged off the threat. Rushdie, in a touching obituary for the American publication Vanity Fair, documents those delirious days by recollecting how Hitchens went as far as to set up a meeting for him with President Clinton, a gesture he believed would signal solidarity from America’s highest office.
A prolific and outstanding writer, he took the position of a contrarian, writing scathing books on renowned figures. Now many wouldn’t disagree with his well-argued polemics against Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. It was only when he arched further with his equally belligerent attacks on revered idols like Mother Teresa and Princess Diana — whom he branded as practitioners of quixotry — that, interestingly, brought him more affection and fandom. It stands with little question, thus, that one of his books was christened, “Letters to a Young Contrarian”.
But what Hitchens was (is) best known for is his fierce contempt and scorn against religion. And most who have stumbled upon (or religiously nodded to) his debates and speeches online will forever tag him along those lines. However, Hitchens with a pen, in the absence of a live audience, writing for his readers, can jolt you, give every cause to scratch your head. Little can one comprehend that the same author who wrote a book titled, “God is not great” in which he ridicules, of many things, the Bible, would produce an essay titled, “When the King Saved God” where he heralds the King James translation of the Bible as one of the greatest events to which Western civilization, language, and culture must pay homage to. He writes, in that particular essay, that at his father’s funeral he chose to read out a passage from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, and further reported on how the King James’ Version triumphed every other version since in its beauty and elegance. He displays, in typical Hitch style, a mastery over Biblical history and theology. Of course, between the lines are snippets of provocation and decry. You think he would let you off that easy?
But his fans were (are) not limited to the irreligious. Bishop Barron, a well-spoken and brilliant Catholic thinker, admitted, with little remorse, to subscribing to Vanity Fair for the sole purpose of accessing Hitchens’ writings. Another patron on the other side of the aisle, Dr. Francis Collins, the former head of The Human Genome Project and a devout evangelical Christian with whom Hitchens held a close friendship, wrote in a tribute, “I will miss Christopher; I will miss the brilliant turn of phrase, the good-natured banter, the wry sideways smile when he was about to make a remark that would make me laugh out loud.” Hitchens had, in one of his last articles, written quite fondly of Collins, calling him one of the greatest living Americans, and even appealing to his Christian readers to heed to certain messages from Dr. Collins’s book, “The Language of God”. He did, however, end the article with the words, “Please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.” There was no escaping the Hitch.
He was a devoted fan of George Orwell, having claimed to have read every word written by Orwell that have been made public. And indeed one can observe attempts by him to emulate his hero. Take for instance caring to light a cigarette during interviews and debates, often distressing interviewers and opponents. To him, Orwell did what most did not have the will or intellect to—bringing together the two things Hitchens held closest to his heart: Literature and Human Freedom. Christopher Hitchens, more than any other writer I shall choose to recall, has influenced my writing. A sage advice he passed on to his students (at the New School in New York where he taught for a while) went, “Avoid stock expressions; don’t begin with, as a young boy my grandmother would read to me, unless, of course, she really was a young boy at that stage in her life, in which case you’ve thrown away a much better intro.”
He did not, as a point to make, ever produce a single work of fiction. A rather perplexing reason for this, he claims, bears to the fact that unlike most of his writer friends, he did not play (or cared to play) a musical instrument. Perhaps he, like one of his heroes Susan Sontag, might have attempted so in his 60s. We will never get to know.
He wrote about less serious things too. In one article, he presented his own rules of tea-preparation, though he borrowed (admittingly) a chunky bit from Orwell’s own rules. John Lennon found his way into the article as well, and as your faculties must have acquired by now, he wasn’t spared of Hitchens’s wrath either. In another series of three essays titled, On the limits of self-improvement, he described, with his complete arsenal of wit, prose, and humor the experience of getting a wax, having his teeth whitened, and investing in a gymming equipment that was ultimately handed the task of barricading a part of his office.
The last decade of his life compelled many of his friends to distance themselves from him, while birthing many new foes. On one hand, he threw himself completely in favor of the United State’s occupation of Iraq, a judgment that shocked the Left, and on another, he raised the dial to its limits on his repudiation of religion, a stance no one on the Right wanted to find themselves even thirty-three mountains away from. Well, I believe he was wrong on both. And time and death will prove the ultimate vindication.
Hitchens wanted to be, more than anyone of his stature, a champion for the truth. And he believed in the power of the pen, in the protection of Individual liberties, in the emancipation of societies. In an essay he wrote whilst in the midst of his chemotherapy, he spoke of brushing along the doors of muteness, when he lamented of losing his voice as the cancer had spread to his vocal cord. But the words he crafted to paint the sorrowful experience was emotionally touching, and I was astounded by the softness he displayed while still being acerbic and charming. In it, he ended with a wish, in what he phrased as ‘the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.’ Whenever he emailed his editor an essay he had written, it is said he always accompanied it with his signature remark: Herewith. Hope it serves. As always, Christopher.
But arrogance did follow him, more often than people choose to acknowledge. He once bragged of his superior genes, which, he pompously gushed, enabled him to consume vast quantities of alcohol and cigarettes, well above the average Joe (or Harry). But pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall, as the King James Version of Proverbs declares. He was diagnosed, right before a talk with Salman Rushdie in New York, with Stage IV esophageal cancer. Dr. Francis Collins gave his best, using the latest medical innovations, but the cancer had gotten the best out of Hitch.
At his funeral, his brother, Peter, delivered the eulogy, reading the very same passage Christopher had read at their father’s funeral decades ago, from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians:
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
So with this essay Christopher, Herewith. Hope it serves, As always, a fan.
Author: Resem Makan
Resem Makan is an Economics PhD student at the University of Washington. Before this, he was at the Indian Statistical Institute (Delhi) where he studied Quantitative Economics. He grew up in Nagaland, Aizawl, and Shillong, and thus feels a part of everywhere.