Phil-osophically Speaking: December 22, 2011

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Christopher Hitchens: Always Outnumbered, Never Outmatched

I was three-quarters the way through Christopher Hitchens’ tome of essays entitled Arguably, when I got word of the fiery controversialist’s death. Suffering from esophageal cancer, the news of his demise was not unexpected. Encountering the Oxford-educated Hitchens was an experience; his often sneering, contemptuous, supercilious style did not lend itself to a polite, cerebral colloquy, but a rough and tumble brawl replete with eye gouging, head butting and an occasional knee to the groin without so much as an apology.

His life was one big fight. I suspect he even grappled with himself, notwithstanding his legendary savoir-faire and cool self-assurance. His bacchanalian lifestyle included smoking more than 15,000 cigarettes a year and a daily consumption of alcohol that, he boastfully noted, could kill a small mule. His craving for nicotine was so intense, he actually smoked in the shower. Hitchens lived life burning the candle at both ends and it cast, he assured us, a lovely light.

Lovely, perhaps, but benign it definitely was not. Hitchens’ reputation was forged by writing and debating on a cornucopia of topics with the virtuosity of a highly skilled swordsman. His adversaries often died a death of a thousand cuts, shredded by logic, ingenious wordplay and a barbed wit. A polemical polymath with a pachydermatous memory, Hitchens’ erudition was as deep as it was wide.  A brooding iconoclast, he jovially inveighed against society’s most sacred cows:  Henry Kissinger, Presidents Reagan and Clinton (he claimed to be in the room when Clinton didn’t inhale), Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, the Pope, organized religion and, yes, the creator of the universe, God himself, who he relentlessly savaged as a macabre invention of the ignorant, the superstitious and the fraudulent.

Quite a cast of characters, I would say, to duke it out with. An intellectual shock jock who believed the bigger they are the harder they fall. No target was sacrosanct; he relished, for example, equating the hierarchy of the Catholic Church with North Korea. It was classic Hitchens — swashbuckling and venomous to the core. While most people remember their “first love,” Hitchens gloated in remembering his “first hate.” He was a great hater; his malevolence no doubt fueling his marvelously pungent prose. As much as I recoiled over some of his hyper-inflated rhetoric, I admired his courage in fighting for human freedom and human justice. He felt this commitment keenly; inspired by the words of the Jefferson Memorial extracted from a letter our third president wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800: I have sworn before the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny imposed upon the mind of man.

I feel chills every time I read that towering manifesto; Hitchens must have found it equally affecting since he became a U.S. citizen on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, memorializing its author in a book and even more impressively by crusading for the Jeffersonian ideal by visiting every year a country whose people are subject to tyrannical rule. It was a curious odyssey for a once firebrand socialist and Trotskyite who never quite dulled the shine off his Marxist veneer. Events, however, would cause him to set sail from the archipelagos of the hard left when it failed, in the name of political correctness, to defend British author Salmon Rushdie when a price was placed on his head for irreverent passages written about the Prophet Mohammed in the Rushdie’s novel, Satanic Verses. In the face of danger to himself, Hitchens mounted the ramparts and bravely and indefatigably defended Rushdie’s right of free expression.

This boldness attracted me to Hitchens; partly as a dissenter because I loathed the Wolf Larsen character in Jack London’s novel who only read books that supported his pampered and coddled predispositions, but also because Hitchens’ literary expositions scintillated brilliance. He challenged you; when you weren’t being dazzled by the depth of his learning, you were enchanted by his seductive uses of language, which he mobilized so potently and elegantly to win arguments with style and panache. Whether sitting before a word processor or standing in the debate hall his forensic skills were overpowering and by this measure, along with William F. Buckley Jr. in his prime, he was the most impressive public intellectual I ever saw in action.

While you cannot pigeonhole Hitchens’ politics, which tended to be left leaning although he was also an emphatic supporter of the Iraq war, his views on religion were unambiguous and unsparingly hostile. Hitchens became the principal leader of the new atheism, harder and more radical than anything that came before. Religion, not money, was the root of all evil — or most of it. To invest religious faith with importance, much less validity was an act of abject surrender by which reason knuckled under an allegorical narrative designed to comfort weaklings afraid of the dark. Hitchens played the role of a secular Saint George, slaying the dragons of religious mythology with a single-minded eagerness that bordered on irrepressible rage. Unlike Thomas Huxley, who coined the term agnostic to essentially mean one does not know or cannot know about the existence of God, Hitchens brooked no compromise. He would live and die as an unbending atheist.

He sought to make this clear to the legions who prayed daily for him. During his terminal descent, he was determined that there would be no miraculous conversion. He pre-empted any possibility that his prayerful intercessors could claim victory by stating that any change of heart on his deathbed must be attributed to mind-altering drugs to treat or kill the pain of the convulsive cancer that was mercilessly wracking his gravely attenuated body.

Because he saw religion as tyrannical and the idea of God despotic, divine rule was no different than the regimes of Stalin, Baby Doc or Saddam Hussein. Like that most rebellious spirit in Milton’s epic poem, Hitchens shook his fist in defiance at the Almighty, his voice booming through time and space: I would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Yes, “Sic semper tyrannis,” the spirit of Brutus lived in Hitchens. So did the German philosopher Fredrich Nietzche who he often quoted: God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, murderers of all murderers?  

And yet, strangely enough, in either his last or penultimate article he refers to another famous Nietzche quote whose truth he once took for granted but has now taken the liberty of disabusing himself of: “That which doesn’t kill us, will make us stronger.” Being crucified by the cancer that was slowly killing him, he wonders, or seems to, how he could have been so wrong. Did it occur to him (how could it not for someone so smart) that he could also be mistaken about other things far more foreign to him than his own being? What mankind knows, after all, is so infinitesimally little compared to the infinity he doesn’t know. Was there not room in his vast and far-ranging intellect to find a corner — a crevice — a hollow for the existence of what we call “a higher power?”

I honor his commitment and eloquence on behalf of the oppressed of the world, but am mystified by his declaration of war against the heavens. It strikes me as so utterly pointless and profitless. With swagger he walked down the 5th Avenue of life, theatrically thumbing his nose at the great Cathedral and its medieval incantations. But now his ticker tape parade has come to an end, the lights have dimmed and he has exited the great stage. I am left to marvel over how still a thundering voice becomes when shrouded by the silence of the grave.

Christopher Hitchens dead at 62. R.I.P.

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