December 20, 2011
News of the passing of Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens didn’t actually blindside his reading public as much as run over it head on. We all saw the punch coming. It was just that the swiftness and devastating power of the blow was such that we were not adequately prepared when it came. We didn’t quite have our legs under us. We didn’t expect to find ourselves so completely knocked off our feet.
Hadn’t we already lived with news of his advanced-esophageal-cancer diagnosis for over a year, that determination arriving on the heels of the publication of his brilliant memoir, "Hitch-22?" And then the long death watch that commenced in earnest once the disease took away his facility for speech, which for a majority of his flock had proven as addictive as his provocative prose.
Many of us weren’t fans of "Hitch" in the sense that he spoke for us gave voice to our philosophical opinions or anything. Rather, it was his overall intellectual brilliance in skewering our sacred cows, as a devil’s advocate, a contrarian, a champion of the controversial argument, that so endeared him to our collective psyche.
We figured anyone who could take on God ("God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything") and Mother Teresa ("The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice"), righteously defend the invasion of Iraq, plus volunteer for waterboarding and Brazilian bikini-waxing, while accomplishing it all with aloofness and flair, had to be paid attention to.
Hitch, a British Trotskyite and former editor of "The Nation" who had famously swung to the political right following the Ayatollah Khomeini-proclaimed fatwah on his friend Salman Rushdie, found waterboarding to be "very much more frightening though less painful than the bikini wax." His essay on the subject, "Believe Me, It’s Torture," was published in "Vanity Fair."
An avowed atheist, much of his work centered on his long-held conviction that "human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it." That’s just one of many examples of Hitch’s total mastery of the quick, erudite, off-the-cuff remark, especially as a retort.
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Irony or metaphor didn’t scare him much either: "Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are God. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods."
Interviewers from the political right were also seldom spared his verbal scalpel if they proved less than worthy to their task. Responding to Sean Hannity, Hitch dismissed the attraction of an "all-seeing God" with: "It would be like living in North Korea."
Hitch, as you would imagine, rode with a quite literate posse, with novelists Ian McEwan ("Atonement," "Solar") and Martin Amis ("Money," "London Fields") being two of his closest brothers-in-arms.
Pundit Christopher Buckley, son of the late conservative publisher and television host William F. Buckley, also found longtime favor within his aura. Not that, at one time or another, even they wouldn’t be denied a "hall pass" and find themselves scurrying for shelter from the master’s scathing wit and philosophical barbs.
Although a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking played into the pneumonia that complicated the cancer and brought on the too-soon end for Hitch, regret never received an invite to the endgame.
As he told Charlie Rose only last year: "Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation is worth it to me. It is impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle."
In that Houston hospital, as his days dwindled down to a precious few, Ian McEwan helped Hitch out of bed and sat him in front of a two-way Internet connection with a packed house at London Festival Hall where "A Celebration of the Life and Times of Christopher Hitchens" was just getting underway.
McEwan noticed how young many of them looked. He guessed nearly all of them would have opposed Hitch over Iraq. "But here they were, and in cinemas all over the country, turning out for him," he mused.
Indeed, many of us may have opposed him on specific content, but in no way could it detract from our longtime love affair with his impeccable form. You stuck to our ribs, Hitch! Thanks for the ride!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.