Saturday, December 17, 2011

Chic Radical

There are very few political writers worth taking seriously who have been able to put their faces in front of their words. That was one of Christopher Hitchens' achievements. I can't think of one American political thinker who was capable of going toe to toe with him without looking ridiculous. He was used sparingly, almost charitably, on American TV. And since debates over here are far more polite than they are in Britain, he was regarded as much too brutal and unfair, especially when he won.

He was a radical leftist for a long time and claimed to remain one in his last interviews. He was outspoken in his support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And he was "unapologetic" when it became clear that the justification for the invasion had been at worst a concoction and at best a terrible mistake. In this, there was rueful irony in the coincidence of the American military presence in Iraq officially coming to an end the day before Hitchens died, at 62, in a Houston hospital. (I wonder if he pronounced it "Hooston" to the last?)

Somehow, the quaint word dashing summed up his looks - until chemotherapy deprived him of his bountiful hair - and fearless summed up his writing, especially when it came to standing up for a cause, the more unpopular, the better. Despite his mellifluous British accent, which he seemed to cultivate after his move to the U.S. in the '80s and which greatly intimidated his stupider American opponents, he grew to love America. He was passionate about what matters: truth, justice, life.

One of his lifelong heroes was George Orwell. In fact, Hitchens was born nine months before Orwell died of his own terminal illness. Perhaps it would be unfair to compare them, but Eric Blair was by no mean s a saint. They both wrote voluminously, obsessively. "I am a writer. It's what I am, not what I do." Though written by Hitchens, Orwell could as well have said so. Hitchens admired Orwell because he was the most engaged with his own age.

I think that Hitchens' move to America and his eventual backing of Bush and the Iraq War were due to his fear of becoming marginal or irrelevant. Perhaps he saw socialism as Orwell saw it near the end of his own life at the age of 46 - as a Utopian ideal with, at best, remote prospects of ever being realized anywhere in the world.

More charitable Christians probably prayed that he be converted in his last moments. Of course they would. But Hitchens, I am confident, came to the same conclusion that Primo Levi came to when he was in Auschwitz. Hitchens said that, in a Christian universe, "we are born sick but must make ourselves well." Levi describes a crucial moment in the Lager:

I too entered the Lager as a non-believer, and as a non-believer I was liberated
and have lived to this day; actually, the experience of the Lager with its
frightful iniquity has confirmed me in my laity. It has prevented me, and still
prevents me, from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice .
. . I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the
temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in the October of
1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death.
Naked and compressed among my naked companions with my index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the "commission" that with one glance would decide whether I should immediately go into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: you do not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a non-believer is capable. I rejected the temptation: I knew that otherwise were I to survive, I would have to be ashamed of it.
(The Drowned and the Saved)

Always seeming to look the part, not even a makeover for Vanity Fair could diminish his stature as one of his generation's best debaters and polemical writers. What a beautiful expression "He passed away" is, even if it is only a euphemism.

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