Feeling Sad About Hitch
I was staring out a plane window en route to Sydney a few hours ago when my thoughts drifted to Christopher Hitchens, and how he has only just earned enough air-miles with United to secure a lifetime of unlimited flight upgrades. Since Hitchens is almost certainly dying — and quite soon — he describes this coveted milestone as “bittersweet”. My own feelings about the seemingly imminent death of the most gifted polemicist in the English language – he would lap whomever comes second in a canter — are less ambivalent. I am utterly devastated.
Over the past few years, I have read everything I can find that Hitchens has written — from his frontal assaults on Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger to his relatively sedate literary criticism and longer-form reporting, not to mention his seemingly endless and still-growing back catalogue of opinion pieces. He is probably most widely known for God is Not Great, which saw him join fellow anti-religionists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on the world’s bestseller lists for a sustained and exhilarating period where rational common sense appeared on the verge of an historic tipping point (alas, not to be). In contrast to scientists Dawkins and Harris, who dissect religious belief with clinical precision, Hitchens tears it apart limb by limb, and makes no apologies for the state of the corpse. For secular humanists, God is Not Great was a visceral call to arms — a reason, if you like, not to believe. It is stirring stuff, gritty and glorious, to which his god-bothering critics were left scrambling, responding meekly (and to type) that the ferocity of his critique proved…ahem… that Hitchens must somehow, secretly, harbour doubts.
In Africa recently, I ran a training session on advocacy writing for a handful of government officials. I chose a Hitchens column, a full-throated hatchet job on Prince Charles called Prince of Piffle, as the primary teaching tool:
At a point in the not-too-remote future, the stout heart of Queen Elizabeth II will cease to beat. At that precise moment, her firstborn son will become head of state, head of the armed forces, and head of the Church of England. In strict constitutional terms, this ought not to matter much. The English monarchy, as has been said, reigns but does not rule. From the aesthetic point of view it will matter a bit, because the prospect of a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts, is a distinctly lowering one.
Within thirty minutes, Hitchen’s singular voice –his disruptive, oven-fresh metaphors, peerless eye for the explosive detail and trademark wit – filled the room. Moving forensically from one sentence to the next, we were entranced. We sighed and sniggered at Charles’ inanity, and shook our heads and murmured in awe at the audacity of Hitchens’ prose and his blistering turn of phrase. Never had writing seemed as much fun, or as effortless — or anywhere near as devastating. Two or three days later, a Google News alert pointed me to funny and incisive opinion piece under the byline of one of the bureaucrats who had taken part in the session. Take a bow, Mr Hitchens, I thought to myself. That was back when I thought he would live forever.
Why does the prospect of Hitch’s death fill me with such dread?
Hitchens himself is the first to concede that the causes of his deadly esophageal cancer are far from mysterious, falling, as they do, into the euphemistic “lifestyle” category. But this does nothing to ameliorate the sense of impending grief that accompanies news of his worsening condition.
There will be no shortage of new and brilliant writers to occupy the hole left by Hitch’s exit, but his persona is indelible, unmistakable, and impervious to duplication. I will be wowed and enlightened by others, no doubt; but will they ever resonate quite the same way as Hitchens, or as deeply, or touch me with the same uncanny precision? Unlikely. Correction: no chance.
Anyway, the void Hitchens seems set to leave behind will be shaped inalterably in his image, so it’s unfair to expect anyone else to fill it, whatever their gifts. His voice (literally in the case of the magnificent audiobook version of his recent memoir, Hitch-22) looms so large in the world I have cobbled together that I worry about a future without him. How can we possibly face the dense and intractable stupidity of the world, post-Hitch?
The man himself would dismiss this as morbid hysteria — and he would be right. I am, after all, merely a weak-willed mammal (his word) in a world crammed to overflowing with them. Which is a good reason for him to stay a little longer! To keep reminding us how cant and bullshit will envelop us if we don’t maintain vigilance; to call out hypocrisy and superstition, and force us to a higher standard. Without Hitch at the vanguard, the battle seems impossibly hard. We are not ready, even if he is. The flag is too much to bear in our puny, inadequate hands.