Friday, 16 December 2011

God bless Christopher Hitchens

I lost a hero today. The inestimable Christopher Hitchens – journalist, essayist, bon viveur and professional awkward bugger – has died in a Texan hospital from pneumonia arising from the metastasised oesophageal cancer he was told would kill him in about a year (typically of Hitchens, some 18 months ago).

The reason I mention this here is because Hitchens wrote with massive wit, humour and grace about his cancer. I started this blog in an attempt to look at the disease with a certain amount of humour, and I would like to point to someone who did it a lot better: I recommend his Vanity Fair piece Topic of Cancer as an example.

I also admire the bravery and logic of the man, who kept writing pretty much to the end with incisiveness, scathing wit and humanity. Look at his last piece for Vanity Fair, Trial of the Will, dated in the odd way of magazines January 2012, to see his maintained contempt for platitude.

In this spirit, he seems to also have maintained his atheism – or, as he would have it, anti-theism – defying fear-driven hedging and the virus of faith. He despised religion, believing that it poisons everything (see his best-seller God Is Not Great - Kindle edition here), so I'm pleased by that, although I would have expected nothing less.

My cancer is less serious than Hitchens'. While my condition is incurable, it is controllable with a relatively kind treatment regime, and I am not labouring under any deadline. Hitchens' cancer had already metastasised into his lung and other organs when it was found; he was given a year to live, that time in exchange for the organ-wracking pain of heavy-duty chemo, scorching radiation, and a loss of ability. I would like to think I would also resist hedging my bets when faced with that, but I can't be certain I would. I think I would.

I'm sure there are elements out there currently celebrating the demise and even the damnation of the old unbeliever. Some reportedly welcomed his illness, including one Christian - a credit to his religion of peace - who apparently insisted that loving, fatherly old God had given Hitchens "throat" cancer because that was the body part he used for his blasphemy. Hitchens replied: "My so-far uncancerous throat is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed."

I would simply applaud the man's humanity and invite the well-meaning religious to join me in that. To the less well-meaning, well… they deserve all the life-wasting fear they are inflicting upon themselves; it's just a shame theirs is a delusion they insist on inflicting on others as well.

You didn't have to agree with Hitchens on everything to appreciate him. You didn't even have to agree with him on much. Even his best friend Martin Amis cheerfully said in The Quotable Hitchens, "hardly anyone agrees with him on Iraq". I certainly didn't, although at least his position was honest and consistent, unlike many. You just had to appreciate what he said and how he said it, and that was often a joy in itself.

And now to this morning. I've been watching the Hitchens coverage on the BBC with some irritation. Why is it necessary to describe the man as "alcoholic" with the same apparent weight as "intellectual" or "essayist"? Is it even relevant to the story?

Indeed, was it even true? While Hitchens himself in 2003 cheerfully admitted that his daily intake was "enough to kill or stun the average mule" he wrote in his 2010 memoir Hitch-22 (Kindle edition here) that while he still drank with some enthusiasm, he had in recent years begun to do so "relatively carefully", pointing to his prolific output as proof that he was no kind of piss artist. You can read that extract A Short Footnote on the Grape and the Grain on Slate.

Also, there seems to be an insistence on stressing that while Hitchens began his career as a radical in the 1960s, he had moved to the political right in recent years. Not true. Hitchens believed in opposing totalitarianism in all its forms, and as Woody Guthrie owned a guitar bearing the slogan "this machine kills fascists", Christopher Hitchens should have owned a pen engraved with the same. This gave him some strange allies at times: he was a post 11/9 hawk who found himself standing beside neo-cons on the subject of Iraq, but that hardly made him one of them. In fact, in his November 2010 BBC interview conducted by JeremyPaxman, Hitchens insisted that he remained a Marxist, agreeing that he still believed in the dialectic.

It's a pity that, when dealing with a man who saw so much value in precision, the BBC couldn't have made a better job of his obituary.

Lastly: why the headline, God bless Christopher Hitchens? Well, Hitchens wrote at length on the importance of irony. I felt that an atheist who hates cliché using a religious cliché to pay tribute to another atheist who hated cliché had a certain something in that direction. I hope the old bugger would have approved.

I'm now going to raise a glass of whisky. A futile, empty gesture, I realise - but I like whisky. I think he might have approved of that as well.