I first met Christopher Hitchens some years ago at a panel put together by a publishing house. Our topic was, as I recall, the future of the public intellectual.
We were in a hotel ballroom, and “No Smoking” signs were prominently displayed, but he had found an ashtray somewhere, and went through any number of cigarettes as he devastated my presentation (I had the misfortune of speaking just before him) and told the audience why, in his opinion, there was more wisdom in any page of Stephen Hawking than in the entirety of the Bible.
Afterward, at the reception, he was warm and friendly, because criticism for Hitchens was not personal, but rather part of the search for truth. I told him then -- I had occasion to repeat it often -- that he put me in mind of Sport magazine’s famous encomium to Ted Williams: sometimes unbearable, but never dull.
Hitchens, who died Dec. 15, was one of the great writers and critics of the age. He was probably best known to the wider public for his aggressive commitment to atheism and his screeds against religion in all its manifestations, particularly his best-selling book “God Is Not Great.”
The historian Sean Wilentz, a friend and admirer, once referred to him as the Voltaire of our age with respect to the reputations of religious figures. The comparison seems apt. Like Voltaire, Hitchens hated religion, but hated even more to see his fellow humans turning other humans into demigods; like Voltaire, he often went too far in his efforts to debunk those whom the religious admired.
Parody and Critique
But Hitchens’s writing on faith was neither the most interesting nor the most important of his remarkable career, and many who excoriated Hitchens for his views misunderstood, in our unlettered and literal-minded age, the way in which traditional British wit merges wicked parody and cold critique. From his early days at the New Statesman and the Nation to his most recent decade as perhaps the West’s most prominent public intellectual (a term he abhorred), what moved him most was a love of clear thought.
He disliked whatever forces in life prevented people from thinking for themselves. If he despised religion, it was for the same reasons that he despised communism, fascism and most forms of partisan politics: All were disguises for substituting slogan and cant for clarity of thought.
If Hitchens had an ideology, it was a hatred of totalitarianism. Like his intellectual hero George Orwell, about whom he wrote a wonderful book, he celebrated the individual and had distaste for governments, on right or left, that attempted to manage the lives of those they were supposed to serve. On matters domestic, Hitchens leaned toward socialism, although that preference may have faded a bit over the years. He despised what he considered America’s imperial ambitions and hated many of its military adventures. Yet Hitchens also believed that military and economic might could and should be used judiciously in the service of liberty and democracy.
This belief explained his controversial support of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He wondered aloud how American liberals could be more concerned about the rights of gay people to serve openly in the military than about the Taliban regime that buried them alive. He scorned those who suggested, as an argument against the war in Iraq, that we had long been Saddam Hussein’s patrons: For Hitchens, that egregious moral error only meant that it was our responsibility to get rid of him. And although Hitchens had few kind words to say about the presidency of George W. Bush, he never fell into the common partisan trap of never crediting those whose politics he abhorred, or always excusing those whose politics he adored.
My own admiration for Hitchens had little to do with his views. What I loved most was his facility in the language, his attention to nuance and metaphor, his genuinely creative style - - all the things that rarely matter in the unlettered and overliteral dark ages that are upon us. Osama bin Laden was a man of “strange, scrofulous quasi-nobility and bogus spirituality.” A visit to North Korea produced a pithy yet evocative summary: “Newspapers with no news, shops with no goods, an airport with almost no planes.” Sarah Palin is “anti-Washington except that she thirsts for it.” As for efforts at the United Nations to restrict criticism of Islam: “The thought buried in this awful, wooden prose is as ugly as the language in which it is expressed.” Oh, and then there is Christmas, the season in which he died: “a moral and aesthetic nightmare.”
There are today pundits aplenty whose pens are poisoned, but few who possess Hitchens’s magnificent facility with words - - writers whose prose one is forced to admire even as he skewers you. William Safire had it. Peggy Noonan and Martin Amis are close -- A’s to Hitchens’s A-plus. Alas, the great mass of columnists and commentators seem long ago to have surrendered any obligation to write cleverly or creatively or, in many cases, even intelligibly, contenting themselves instead with the cheers of partisan readers. There is a place, of course, for pandering, and money to be made doing it, but Christopher Hitchens was no panderer. He said what he thought, and said it with a masterful erudition.
Unlike many who sharply criticize others, Hitchens did not seem to mind being criticized himself. When attacks turned personal -- as, after his support for the Iraq War, they increasingly did -- he crowed that the ad hominem was “a sign of victory.” Words were his weapons, and if all wars were verbal, he would always have won.
In the first chapter of his book “Letters to a Young Contrarian,” Hitchens expresses the hope that he might “live long enough to graduate from being a ‘bad boy’ -- which I once was -- to becoming a ‘curmudgeon.’” He added, with evident sadness, that our current age was losing any taste for serious debate or even dissent: “Most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security.”
Hitchens sought neither. He spent his life saying what he thought, in language so brilliantly polished that its flash could be blinding. After your most sacred cows had been effectively skewered, you had little choice but to gasp in admiration at the skill with which it was done. Hitchens did not care whether you agreed with him. He sought neither acolytes nor praise. He sought only truth. Even when he was egregiously wrong -- even when he was at his most unbearable, as in his attacks on Mother Teresa -- he was never dull.
This month, in an essay in Vanity Fair, Hitchens expressed his hope that he would die with his eyes wide open. He did not believe that anything followed this earthly existence, and wanted to be sure that he experienced every instant. I like to imagine that he did exactly that. I also suspect that he now knows he was wrong about the afterlife, so I have little doubt that he is sitting there at this moment, sharpening his pen, ready to explain to the rest of us in exaggerated yet withering detail just how mistaken the rest of us are about precisely what lies on the other side.
(Stephen L. Carter, a novelist, professor of law at Yale University and the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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