Originally published at The Humanist (December 15th)
“It can be good to start with a shipwreck. Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.” —Christopher Hitchens
This article is about a shipwreck.
Particularly about my shipwreck, of which to this day I am still grateful for.
But more importantly, this article is about the man who caused my ideological ship to wreck.
The first time I ever heard the name "Christopher Hitchens" was from the announcement of his death. The headline simply read: Christopher Hitchens, atheist, dies at 62¹. If I might digress for a brief moment, I should say that I see no purpose for putting "atheist" in the title of a person's obituary, even if they were a well-known one, save for the morbid satisfaction of those who believe, seeing as how I have never seen an obituary that read Bobby-Jo, baptist, dies at 81 or Sumeet Chabra, hindu, dies at 70. Nevertheless, being a 20-year-old newly-enlisted soldier stationed in Fort Hood at the time (with no intellectual stimulation in my day-to-day life), and being someone who identified as a Christian during that period, I couldn't take my mind off of the question "What makes a man unafraid of god even as he lies dying?" After awhile, however, my interest in this question— and the headline that spurred it— ceased.
Fast forward two years later, and I was no longer a soldier stationed at Hood, but was a student at university triple-majoring in Biology, Psychology, and Philosophy. At this point I had not completely forgotten about the man named Christopher Hitchens to the point where if someone mentioned him I wouldn't know who he was, but needless to say he was not at the forefront of my mind. This all changed when I received a phone call at 2 AM one morning, informing me that I had lost someone I was terribly close to in a car accident. I do not wish to dwell too long on this tragedy of mine; I only wish to say that this individual's death ultimately caused me to wonder if a higher power really was in control, and if it was, why hadn't it stopped this person from being killed?
About a week of pondering this went by, until I at last remembered the headline I had read only two years previously: Christopher Hitchens, atheist, dies at 62.
Except now I began to think of that headline in a slightly different way than before. Rather than ask "What makes a man unafraid of god even as he lies dying?" I began to ask "How could someone die so confident that there isn't a god at all?" Answering this seemed to me to be of infinite importance, as the person who had died was of the Jewish faith and believed in a god who— it appeared— had no intention of stopping a man from getting absolutely hammered at the local country bar and driving on the wrong side of the highway that fateful morning.
So I looked up this Christopher Hitchens. It turned out he was a very well-respected intellectual and journalist, had enjoyed quite an adventurous life, and possessed a voice of authority that hearkened back to the days of Victorian gentlemen. As if all of those things weren't enough, his wit and his skill at debate were unparalleled by any other "public thinker" I had ever seen. He was much much more than just "an atheist". Christopher Hitchens was a true renaissance man.
Nevertheless, a godless renaissance man Hitchens was, and I found that he had written a book on the subject titled God Is Not Great. Perhaps it was mere curiosity, perhaps it was intellectual masochism, or more likely perhaps it was grief, but whatever my motivation was, I went to the nearest bookstore and bought a copy. It was excellent. Even with the religious conviction I had started God Is Not Great with, it could not be denied as I journeyed through the book— becoming more and more devastated and intrigued with each passing chapter— that my lifelong faith that I had been raised in was tumbling down like Jericho. I read the whole thing in two days.
It was Hitchens who "pulled me from the foundering of my previous existence". It was Hitchens who caused my shipwreck. For the next few years I would admittedly waffle back-and-forth on the question of god, before eventually becoming an "agnostic atheist" (a person who feels like no one can really know if a god exists, but also thinks that the probability of a god existing is more low than high). Meanwhile, through these years of ping-ponging on the god question, I read Hitchens' other books. Love, Poverty, & War, a collection of essays, taught me that "a man's life is incomplete until he has tasted the three". No One Left To Lie To and The Missionary Position were both devastating exposés on why Mother Teresa was no saint and why the Clintons weren't even decent. And Letters To A Young Contrarian sought to instruct young adults on how best to be a radical, freethinking dissenter without being a moron.
In the end Hitchens was not only responsible for my transition from belief to non-belief, but was also in a lot of ways responsible for my shift from libertarianism to anti-totalitarian leftism. His books Why Orwell Matters, A Long Short War, and On Thomas Paine's Rights of Man forced me to confront that if we truly valued democracy, secular governance, gender equality, and the triumph of reason over superstition, then we did— in fact— have an obligation to the world and to ourselves.
But while all of these books pleaded their various cases remarkably, and while they all had a tremendous impact on my own life, none of them I noticed were about Hitchens himself. Who was Christopher Hitchens beyond his public persona? What was the story of his life that lead him to be such a towering public intellectual? For this I had to read his autobiography Hitch 22, wherein I learned about an English boy shipped off to a strict— even totalitarian— religious boarding school at the age of eight; a boy who would later rebel as a young adult against the pious, brutal (and homoerotic) teachers and schoolmasters of his adolescent past, by attending Oxford and becoming involved with the radical left in the 1960s; I learned about how this young adult and activist, while enduring the suicide of his mother, became a writer and a journalist; how this writer and journalist traveled all over the world, from Sudan to Cyprus, Uganda to Greece, Cuba to Iraq, Chad to Bosnia, along with dozens of other countries, and charmed his readers while at times shocking them with the subjects he detailed; and most importantly, I learned that not even a man who travels the world and gains fame and admiration enjoys a complete life unless he also has love. But to read about the life of Christopher Eric Hitchens in Hitch 22 is to gain an excellent snapshot, not only of the man himself, but also of the latter-half of the 20th century and the beginning decade of the 21st. It should be considered as much a history book as an autobiography.
Arguably, however, it was Mortality— Hitchens' last book which detailed his battle with esophageal cancer (published posthumously)²— that was his masterpiece. I will not soon forget a line in the very first chapter wherein Hitchens mused on his condition, "To the dumb question 'Why me?' the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: 'Why not?'" It goes without saying of course, that devoted readers of Hitchens picked up their copy of Mortality with a lot more appreciation than they did his other works. After all, these were the reflections of a man "living dyingly". Such devotion to the craft of writing, even in one's darkest and most dreadful hour, is a reflection on just how much Hitchens was dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of knowledge.
Lest you be tempted to doubt if "Hitch" was really as fascinating as I proclaim, ask yourself if there is anyone else in the world who would have had as attendees at their memorial service, both Sean Penn and Paul Wolfowitz. Ask yourself if there is anyone else who could elicit such outrage at a Tory dinner party, that he would be called a "naughty boy" and spanked by an angry Margaret Thatcher. Ask yourself how many people there are in existence who could count among their friends pundits on the right, pundits on the left, celebrities, dissidents, genuine theists, genuine anti-theists, and writers, and could count among their enemies religious charlatans of all faiths, sleazy politicians conservative and liberal, ideological hypocrites, and dictators from South America to the Middle East.
Christopher Hitchens, atheist, died at 62. But this eccentric, marvelous, courageous, kick-ass contrarian still lives on, and will continue to live on, in the hearts and minds of future (and present) writers and travelers all over the world. And the burden falls on us to fill, as best we can, the void his passing has yielded.
References & Notes
1. The Irish Times and Reuters ran this headline.
2. While Mortality was published after Hitchens' death, essays within Mortality first appeared in the magazine Vanity Fair during the last year of his life.
3. Christopher Hitchens, "Martin, Maggie, & Me", Vanity Fair, May 2010