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Christopher Hitchens: The man for all reason

The writer, journalist and contrarian Christopher Hitchens died at the age of 62 on Thursday after crossing the border into the “land of malady” on being diagnosed with an oesophageal cancer in June 2010.

books Updated: Dec 16, 2011 20:03 IST
Richard Lea, The Guardian

The writer, journalist and contrarian Christopher Hitchens died at the age of 62 on Thursday after crossing the border into the “land of malady” on being diagnosed with an oesophageal cancer in June 2010. Vanity Fair, for which he had written since 1992, marked his death in a memorial article posted late on Thursday night.

The reactions to Hitchens’ illness from his intellectual opponents — ranging from undisguised glee to offers of prayers — testified to his stature as one of the leading voices of secularism since the publication in 2007 of his anti-religious polemic God is Not Great. The reaction from the author himself, who after a lifetime of “burning the candle on both ends” described his illness as “something so predictable and banal that it bores even me”, testified to the sharpness of his wit and the clarity of his thinking under fire, as he dissected the discourse of “struggle” that surrounds cancer, paid tribute to the medical staff who looked after him and resolved to “resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice”.

Born in 1949, Hitchens was sent to boarding school at eight, his mother deciding: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.” This resolution pursued him to his time at Oxford, where he confessed to leading a “double life” as both an “ally of the working class” and as a guest at cocktail parties where he could meet “near-legendary members of the establishment’s firmament on nearly equal terms”.

After graduating in 1970 with a third-class degree, the doors of Fleet Street opened wide for Hitchens, who followed his friend James Fenton into a job at the New Statesman. He began a lifelong friendship with Martin Amis and gained a reputation as a pugnacious left-wing commentator, excoriating targets like the Roman Catholic church, the Vietnam war and Henry Kissinger in dazzling essays, reports and book reviews.

A resolution to spend time at least once a year in “a country less fortunate than [his] own” spurred him to witness the stirring of revolution in Portugal and Poland, as well as counter-revolution in Argentina. Hitchens travelled to post-war Iraq in 2006, Uganda in 2007 and Venezuela in 2008. A report for the New Statesman from Beirut brought rare praise from his father, a former navy officer, who phoned to say the piece was “very good”. This validation was all the sweeter for a son who believed he’d always disappointed his father “by not being good at cricket or rugger”.

New York offered an escape from the British class system that Hitchens grabbed when the offer of a job on the left-leaning magazine The Nation came in 1981. Columns for and Vanity Fair followed, with Hitchens consummating his love affair with American life when he took US citizenship in 2007.

He maintained an intense rivalry with his younger brother Peter, who followed him into journalism but found his place on the opposite side of the political spectrum. Both downplayed talk of a rift, but Peter confessed in 2009 that “if we weren’t brothers we wouldn’t know each other”. One of the many issues that divided them was the 2003 Iraq war, with Peter arguing that the war was “against Britain’s interests”, while Christopher supported a war that would stop Saddam Hussein using the country as “his own personal torture chamber”.

His advocacy for the Iraq war was only the latest of Hitchens’ positions that many on the left found uncomfortable, and led to a chill in his relations with Gore Vidal, who had once nominated him a “successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delphino”. But Hitchens’ opposition to what he called “fascism with an Islamic face” began long before 9/11, with the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie, imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Hitchens accused of “using religion to mount a contract killing”, after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

Religion, or at least a fierce aversion to it, fuelled Hitchens’ ascent towards celebrity, after the publication of God Is Not Great in 2007. In it he argued that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry”, notching up sales of more than 500,000 copies.

Hitchens gave short shrift to the “insulting” suggestion that cancer might persuade him to change his position where reason had not, arguing that to ditch principles “held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favour at the last minute” would be a “hucksterish choice”, and urging those who had taken it upon themselves to pray for him not to “trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries”.

Writing in his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens said that he hoped his “advancing age has not quite shamed my youth”, disavowing the “‘simple’ ordinary propositions” of his younger days in favour of the maxim that “it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”.

Hitch a quote

‘[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor... She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction’

‘Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant… Suspect your own motives... Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you’

‘One reason I have always detested religion is its sly tendency to insinuate the idea that the universe is designed with ‘you’ in mind or, even worse, that there is a divine plan into which one fits whether one knows it or not’

‘Well, I’m dying, since you asked, but so are you’

First Published: Dec 16, 2011 20:03 IST