One thing I won’t say about Christopher Hitchens: RIP.
To a man as combative as he was, that would amount to a curse. Wherever he is now, he isn’t resting. And he wouldn’t want to be.
It’s all a guess where we go after this; he’d have said (in fact he did say, quite often) nowhere. I saw him make this point in person a couple of years ago, thanks to my friend Derek, who took me to see him at the University of Central Florida, debating the existence of God with Dinesh D’Souza. If there’s a more absurd topic to be debating, I can’t imagine it, but that ultimately didn’t matter. This was a show, and it was like watching a phlegmatic old bulldog facing down a yipping little terrier… the bone they were fighting over was much less interesting than the clash of style and personality.
Arriving at the stadium that night, I noticed a large number of buses in the parking lot. They were from local megachurches — the faithful had come, it seemed, to provide a cheering section for D’Souza. Or for God, I suppose in case He happened to be behind at half time. They filled the stands, row after row of earnest white people in sweaters, and at first I was a little nervous for Hitch.
I needn’t have been. The evangelicals were polite to him — they cheered and applauded whenever D’Souza made a point, but they listened to Hitchens thoughtfully and without making rude sounds. For my own part, I disagreed with everything Hitchens was saying, probably as strongly as they did. I’m no atheist. But this wasn’t a man you would dream of heckling. He didn’t mind standing in front of hundreds of people and calmly asserting they were full of shit. In fact, he obviously relished it. Hitchens had an intellect as sharp as a rapier, but he wielded it like a baseball bat.
Dogmatic, arrogant, intolerant, opinionated, often plain wrong and insistent about it. And yet, it was impossible to hate him, or even dislike him. You had to respect his intelligence and his eloquence, but it wasn’t just respect he inspired. He was lovable. He wore his vices beautifully, for one thing: he was an unapologetic smoker, drinker, and hellraiser. His opinions, even the most provocative ones, were rooted in principles: honesty, freedom, fairness, honor. He may not have been at peace with the world, particularly its fools and scoundrels, but he was at peace with himself. He had a sense of humor, and it was large, inclusive and self aware. He suffered, as we all do, but he never used his suffering for the purpose of self aggrandizement. Instead it made him more reflective, more vulnerable, more human.
He faced his own death bravely and unflinchingly, without flourishes or drama. Some speculated he might experience a deathbed conversion from atheism, a suggestion he waved away with practiced loftiness. He was deeply rooted in this world, in his own time and in the present moment. He was awake; he was, more than anything, alive. His disbelief in God as much of the world conceptualizes Him was really beside the point. To me personally, god is an energy, a force, a power. And Christopher Hitchens embodied it.