“Firebrand”, “iconoclast”, “gadfly”, “peerless contrarian”, “masterful rhetorician and fearless bon vivant.” Obituaries of Christopher Hitchens, arguably the 21st century’s most prolific man of letters, have been drowned in a deluge of adjectives such as these; epithets which stress the divisive and competitive aspects of “the Hitch,” and his reputation for courting controversy whether as an intellectual figurehead of the atheist movement, a fervent youthful Trostskyist or as a staunch supporter of the War in Iraq. But there was far more to Hitchens that the popular portrayal of him would have you believe. A writer must be more than a mere provocateur to gain the world-wide popularity that Hitchens possessed. Alongside Hitchens the polemicist was a profoundly original thinker who wrote on any topic he turned his mind to with warmth, wit and an eye for detail and nuance.
His greatest strength lay in his originality. Almost alone among modern writers, he bought a fresh perspective to every issue he wrote on, and backed his opinions to the hilt in a confident but rarely dogmatic style. He could never be accused of merely following a party line, which made his work both compulsive and compulsory. While this originality could manifest itself in his efforts to prick the bubble reputations of figures such as Mother Theresa and Ghandi, who are so often considered sacrosanct, at the same time he could approach the work of the convicted Holocaust denier David Irving with the necessary delicacy to draw a distinction between the man’s ugly views and his genuine contributions to historical writing. It is also easy to give too much attention to his merely political works. Were Hitchens apolitical, he would still be remembered as one of the most incisive literay critics of his generation. His recent collection of essays includes subtle comparisons of translations of Proust, measured appreciations of great literary figures such as Evelyn Waugh and Samuel Johnson. His longest essay in the book is a critique of a long forgotten travelogue of Yugoslavia written just before the Second World War by the unjustly obscure British journalist Rebecca West while an essay on the great Soviet Dissident Victor Serge is one of his best.
While his support for the Bush Administration and the war on terror alienated him from much of what remained of an established Left, he remained sober and measured enough to oppose the neo-conservative enthusiasm for torture, even going so far as to submit himself to water boarding
His support for American intervention overseas led many to label him a warmonger, and he claimed to despise pacifism as a moral creed. But I challenge anyone who holds this opinion to turn to his 2006 essay in Vanity Fair on the continuing devastation that Agent Orange sprayed in the Vietnam War still wreaks on both the native inhabitants and the veterans of that conflict. How does one rekindle outrage about the atrocities of a war that ended 30 years ago? By reflecting that “many of the victims of Agent Orange are not yet born” and “that if that doesn’t shake you, then my words have been feeble, and no photographs will ever do.” His pen was an implacable ally of those fighting tyranny in any form, and one of his most noble yet fruitless endeavors’ was to try and draw attention to the many elements of the Kurdish and Iraqi democratic and secular opposition that struggled first against Saddam Hussein, and then against the bloodthirsty jihadist insurgency that followed the American invasion. Ironically the divisiveness of his thought was the biggest contributor to the broadness of his appeal. His championing of the worldwide atheist movement made him an idol to many on the mostly secular Left. Meanwhile his support for the Iraq War gave him the neocon credentials to appear on Fox News, and in an imperishable moment declare of the late Reverend Jerry Falwell that “were he to be given an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.
But the desire to be as unorthodox could often him into contradicting himself. After spending most of his career denouncing the outrages of American foreign policy, whether in Vietnam, Nicaragua or Iran, his apostasy from socialism and overwhelming support for post 9/11 American Foreign policy took him to declare the United States “the world’s last, greatest hope” presented him with a contradiction about America’s role in the world he could never truly square. Hugh Trevor Roper said that the mark of a great historical writer was an ability to explore a specific incident and use it to illustrate a larger historical theme. While Hitchens had a crystal clear eye for the minute details of a situation, his vision was a magnifying glass that blurred the further the historical timescale was drawn back. Confronted by an audience member at a 2009 lecture in Berkeley about this contradiction, he rather too brusquely cut the Gordian knot by blaming America’s crimes squarely on Henry Kissinger, a hardly satisfactory response.
Karl Popper noted however, that a great thinker should never be judged based simply on whether he was right or wrong, or how internally consistent his thought, and by standards of literary ability, the range of his oeuvre and depth of reading, Hitchens has no equal, or even heir apparent in the world of journalism. He had an uncanny ability to summon a stave of poetry or the words of an esteemed literary, and I hope he would approve of me ending with the words of his favorite poet, W H Auden
“Time that is intolerant/
Of the brave and innocent/
Worships language and forgives/
Everyone by whom it lives”