On paper, Christopher Hitchens was a first-rate journalist and an incisive, brilliant polemicist. In reality, he was so much more. A lot has been written on his life already, so I’ll keep it short and personal.
Hitch was one of those rare individuals who not only refused to mince words, he refused to mince facts. His opinion was always his opinion, invariably built on the most compelling facts he could unearth. His opinions on specific issues might have echoed those of figures as diverse as Leon Trotsky and George Bush Jr., but with Hitch it was always clear such overlaps were merely happenstance. He was the anti-stereotype; he never played into partisan lines.
His debating partners knew him as a staggeringly erudite, witty juggernaut. Hitch never compromised, but he rarely counted his ideological opposites among his foes. Even so, he had the unique ability to profoundly respect the individual, while vehemently declaiming whatever loathesome ideas came out of their mouth. Though he was a ferocious contrarian (despite his ironic discontent with the label) and an unrivalled rhetorician, by all accounts, he was also a gracious and affable gentleman.
I never had the privilege to meet Christopher. I knew him through his writing. Discovering his work was a pivotal thing for me. The genesis of this blog can be traced back to 2009, when reading Hitch for the first time rekindled my passion for writing, which ultimately got me out of a deep, dark hole I’d found myself in, plagued with poorly-managed depression and self-loathing. He spoke to what was left of me. Here was a writer none could categorize; who wrote passionately and selflessly, and who wrought beautiful prose. Here was someone for me to look up to; not slavishly, of course (he would have hated that), but as a mentor. And he delivered.
Listening to Hitch speak sparked a revolution in my mind. I had long considered myself an atheist and a freethinker; the former position was facile for me to adopt (‘atheism’ merely gave a name to a pre-existing conviction), but before Hitch I plainly failed at the latter; I was comfortable in my 21st century Green-voting inner-east Melbourne ideological mould. Hitch taught me to pull back the curtain, to always ask the hardest questions and to always demand answers.
Hitch also taught me that one should change one’s mind when the facts demand it. His constant struggle against the one answer, the divine plan, the totalitarian final word, is one we are obliged to continue. And most crucially, nothing he did was ever boring.
He was brave on and off the page; he once openly defacing a sign sporting fascist propaganda in Beirut. Following the subsequent assault he endured at the hands of a pack of far-right thugs, he remarked to his colleague Michael Totten: “I think a swastika poster is partly fair game and partly an obligation. You don’t really have the right to leave one alone.”
There’s very little that flowed from Hitch’s pen that I didn’t find enlightening, but I particularly relished the things I disagreed with. It felt like an achievement to have independently conceived a carefully-considered position contrary to his. One couldn’t simply go to his critics, because they were too often right for the wrong reasons; it was rare that Hitch didn’t anticipate and demolish such (generally obvious) arguments head on. As such, disagreeing with Hitch was hard work.
Now I always look for a glimmer of Hitch’s daring when I assess the work of other writers. He plainly set the benchmark high, and precious few will ever make the cut. I’m not ashamed to admit I aim to cultivate Hitch’s remarkable lucidity, flare and audacity in my own prose. (It must be acknowledged that his trademark style is inimitable and all attempts to replicate it will fail, so I won’t be doing that.) I don’t feel I will ever do his influence on me justice, but I’ll sure as shit try.
Hitch had no need for a superstitious afterlife; his prodigious oeuvre had long ago cemented his immortality. I have no doubt his books will be devoured by independent thinkers for many generations to come.
Thank you Christopher. Thanks for showing me the courage to write exactly what’s on my mind. Thanks for cajoling me into standing up for what I think is right. Thanks for the laughs, the serious stuff and the life lessons. You will never be forgotten, and you are sorely missed.
Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.
Click here for Slate’s compendium of Hitch’s greatest hits.