Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Christopher Hitchens died last night at age 62. The National Journal tweeted that the New York Times literally stopped the presses to publish his obit on A1. That alone speaks volumes about stature of the thinking man whom many called "the Hitch." The deluge of tributes to his outsized personality and polemics is wondrous to behold. Some of his antagonists even tipped their hats. Even his Achilles Heel ― an overindulging fondness for smoking and alcohol ― is remarked about with awe. All this, ironically, for an Englishman most Americans have never heard of. That, too, alas, speaks volumes about us writ large. Hitchens was a candle that flickered defiantly in what sometimes feels like an intellectual Dark Age. We are the worst for that light being extinguished prematurely.

I shall miss the heft and worldliness of his arguments, his complexity and nuance, his unflinching fidelity to the truth as he saw it, the breathtaking audacity of his stand against organized religion (which he saw as "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry"), the shimmering brilliance of the prose he produced so effortlessly, and his wicked Wodehousian humor (think Jeeves and Bertie Wooster). And then there is his bohemian voice, now silenced. "[V]irtually no one else on earth talked the way that Christopher talked, with that degree of precision, passion, learnedness, and lethal wit. Yes, his mots were mighty bon," wrote John Heilemann today. That, too, I will miss. Hitchens, to my mind, is among the last of the great 20th century intellectuals. We may well endure a Long Winter before we see the likes of him again.

Time's Joe Klein nailed it when he wrote:
"He may have been among the last of his kind–truly, a thought-full man of letters, rather than of “takes” and sound bites. ... I worry that Hitch is taking with him a world, a world of contemplative reading and writing―the very opposite of what I am doing right now, posting an immediate reaction to his death on this blog. He lived life perpetually intoxicated, not just by booze (he was happily soused during our English debate), but by books and words and thoughts and ideas. I will miss him, and all the excesses he cherished. We need more such, and are left with less."
There are some great remembrances out there. Heilemann's here and Christopher Buckley's here, are two of the best thus far. But Hitchens touched the literate commoner, too. One of Andrew Sullivan's readers wrote:
"I once went to hear Hitchens speak in San Francisco. Afterward, he was signing books. I was broke and didn't have enough money for a book, but I got in line just to thank him for his articles denouncing Kissinger, which meant a lot to me and my parents, who were both deeply affected by the Vietnam War. I told him all this. He listened - he seemed as good at listening as speaking - and he asked me all kinds of questions. We talked for a bit, and finally he asked if he could sign something. I told him I didn't have enough money for a book. Without hesitating, he pulled one off the pile, asked for my parents' names, and inscribed the book to them. One of the best moments of my life. I loved the man. He's left the world to a bunch of fucking lightweights, but we have to try our best."
Fred Kaplan, who knew Hitchens, is right about not sentimentalizing him. "Hitch could be a real shit if you fell on the wrong side of his favor," wrote Kaplan. "Among our mutual friends, he had fallings-out, in some cases multiple ones, with almost every one of them. And yet, at some point, they always fell back in. He was too irresistible and, in a pinch, too good a friend." RIP.

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