Christopher Hitchens died, I suppose not improbably for such a pugilistic intellectual, of esophageal cancer, though the official cause was pneumonia, according to the New York Times obituary.
I have not read enough of his work. And I’ve read a good bit: Why Orwell Matters, The Trail of Henry Kissinger, Letters to a Young Contrarian, and of course God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As well as the collected essays, which I adore – not always for the point he makes but how he makes it. Even when I disagreed with Hitchens, I continually admired his ability to intelligently articulate his argument.
I will miss that fierce intellect: how it made me mad and made me laugh and prodded me to think. How it challenged assumptions I didn’t know I’d made, and how it revealed to me the roots of ideology planted long ago in my child or adolescent or even young adult brain that I had not considered worthy of – or for that matter, desperately in need of – repotting. Hitchens changed my mind a few times. And he also helped me to identify where I stood firm in my opinion and why.
I just finished reading his final essay in Vanity Fair, the Jan. 2012 issue (Hitchens died December 15th of this year). In it, Hitchens takes on the old adage “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” as patently false when facing the debilitating effects of medicine’s assault on the very body it attempts to save. With that humor that is still recognizable beneath it’s bitter veneer, Hitchens explores what it means to survive surviving, and what it costs us.
What he describes is what most of us will face eventually, to some degree: that whittling away of our best selves as time or disease diminish us. Generally it happens slowly, so that we accomodate it: the stiff hands, the aching back, the lost strength and agility. But illness and the medically intrusive response can accelerate it grotesquely. Hitchens explains: “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.”
And certainly it weakened him. And then killed him, despite all he suffered trying to beat it.
The essay is classic Hitchens: profound, confrontational, filled with suggested readings and intriguing notations, a challenge to the status quo of maxims we repeat without always considering the contrary evidence.
I’m still digesting it; the words are swirling, settling inside me.
I feel a great grief that I have a hard time explaining. I never met the man but I bought Vanity Fair just for his essays, unable to wait for a collection to be assembled. I didn’t know him except for words on a page (and the occasional television commentary or interview appearance in a documentary), and yet I suffer a sense of personal loss. That voice – that mind – has been silenced and we have lost a great and passionately articulate defender of reason, an investigative mind of high caliber, a potent philosopher for our time.
My boyfriend met him once. Hitch poured out of a rental van and surged to where James stood with his .22 trying to shoot a bottle cap off a twig.
“I want to shoot,” Hitch exclaimed.
James could smell the booze and was cautious, but he said Hitch steadied the barrel of the rifle against the fence and damn if he didn’t pop that cap on the first try. Hitch was there to interview James about north west Texas – the culture and environment that made George W. Bush so easily identifiable as someone you’d like to have a beer with – and they went out looking for scenery to backdrop the documentary Hitch was part of. James went one way with one assitant, Hitch the other direction with another. On the return, James spied the white rental van and two pickup trucks pulled over to the side of the road and was immediately nervous; but there in the center stood Hitch, surrounded by a small group of Texans and waving a tall can of Miller beer, gesticulating widely and, of course, talking. As James approached Hitch apparently asked the locals their position on the war in Iraq. One said he thought we ought to fight ’em over there before they came here. Another, an older man with a sad face, admitted he couldn’t much see the point in it. Hitch, James reported, was neither dismissive nor argumentative; it was a conversation, one where he shared his opinion but listened to others as well, gaining understanding of the landscape and the inhabitants.
I would have enjoyed witnessing that investigative mind at work.
I don’t know if that documentary got made. I had forgotten about the interview and that story until I told James about the death of Hitch and we both sat, sad beyond measure and words, aware that the world had suddenly become predictably accommodating, unquestioning, less sane, and quieter, for a time.