A different version of this piece first appeared in The Age.
Christopher Hitchens has been dead 9 months, but the past week welcomed his slim book Mortality—a collection of Vanity Fair essays written about his aggressive terminal cancer, a place Hitchens called “Tumorville”.
It was not long after the release of his memoirs in 2010 that the formidable writer, commentator and self-professed contrarian was given the news: he had inoperable oesophageal cancer. It was at Stage 4. As Hitchens observed, there was no Stage 5.
I was enchanted by Hitchens, at turns frustrated, exhilarated and envious, but always grateful for the unique gravity of his bravura.
I objected to the militancy of his atheism, its rhetorical violence and intellectual narrowness—its discomfort with the ample psychological and anthropological evidence that religion is not a betrayal of human nature, but a logical and irrevocable part of it.
Yet as an avowed atheist I admired his full-throated defence of the Enlightenment, his demands for emotionally brave and secular frameworks of meaning and decency. I applauded his fierce attacks on religious demagogues, his tireless untangling of the webs of criminal Catholic cover-ups.
I disagreed, as much of the world disagrees, with his unwavering support for the Iraq war, yet appreciated his outing of the left’s reticence on Hussein’s murderousness, which, in the 1980s, was genocidal (and, yes, Reagan’s and Bush’s White House had themselves equivocated).
He wrote an infamous piece called “Why Women Aren’t Funny” which I confess to having only half-understood and so confusedly rebuffed. For all of his wryness and erudition, I could only think of three words: Smack the Pony.
I watched how Hitchens’ oratory power, learning and confidence overpowered his opponents, allowing him, at times, to gild the lily unchallenged. I saw him take shortcuts allowed him by his opponents’ haplessness, and I was frustrated by his inability to satisfactorily sustain long works.
Even his memoir, though sparkling with verve, seemed to lack cohesion—a higher, graceful ordering. Hitchens’ energy and talents seemed best suited to the essay, aphorism or debate. My lesson: that eloquence is not necessarily depth.
But how alive he was, even at the end. From his deathbed he wrote with the same alacrity and purpose as he had in better days, despite the chronic pain and morphine fog. In his last days he was still sitting at his little desk beside his bed in an intensive-care ward, reviewing a biography of the writer GK Chesterton.
He injected our political discourse—in all its glibness and witless applause lines and casual contempt for language—with elegance, wit and daring. He reminded us of the power of letters, and charmed us with his powerful infatuation with them. He reminded us of our own contradictions, while his personal electricity animated the question: am I as unabashedly curious as he?
To entirely reject Hitchens on the dubious grounds that he didn’t like women, or on the not-so-small matter of Iraq, seems to me a joyless inflexibility—mirthless, incurious and superior. I disagreed with Hitchens as much as I agreed with him, but I liked to picture him as a uniquely gifted and companionable sparring partner for us all.
The strident feminist or political opposition to Hitchens I’ve heard—the bitter insistence to exile him—is deathly boring. It reeks of the worst elements of political correctness—dull, dutiful decorum—as it reeks of the ritualised myopia of partisanship.
To ignore Hitchens is to ignore the invite his contrarianism gave us to celebrate wit and vigour and flamboyance; to shy away from honestly embracing our own messiness and contradictions in favour of sterility and cant. Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” gives us a beautiful epitaph to Hitchens’ life: “My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach/with the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds/Speech is the twin of my vision… it is unequal to measure itself.”
Which takes us to the end of the road, Hitchens’ dispatches from terminal illness. They are bold and moving, untouched by self-pity. Hitchens’ work could have collapsed under the weight of morbidity; the importance of style and expression could have surrendered to despair or nihilism. Given the pain, Hitchens could have stopped writing altogether. Instead, he gave us this: “So far I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”
Sure, Hitchens’ wrote in spite of death, in spite of the pain, because he had to which in itself is awesome testament to will and passion. But Hitchens had also reconciled the brutal internal struggles between meaning and meaninglessness that must come with dying, and emerged with writing that sung beautifully. The deftness, the discipline and the grace of that achievement should inspire us all.