My immediate reaction to the news of Christopher Hitchens death on December 15 was simple disgust, not with the fact that the man’s suffering was at an end but, selfishly perhaps, that there was one less voice in the small and increasingly de-populated universe of intelligent, clear-sighted thinkers unafraid to happily parade their immersion in the brute animal pleasures of the world.
Reading his work had the same effect on me as that of a handful of other, seemingly dissimilar, 20th century thinkers, writers, and musicians such as Hunter Thompson, Jiddu Krishnamurti, Howard Zinn, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan: A smile of recognition and empathy for a fellow human being with the intelligence to see through the intricate layers of bullshit our civilization has constructed for itself, and the guts to speak about it in a candid, creative, and deeply soulful manner.
I first became aware of his work nearly a decade ago through his frequent articles in Vanity Fair. The first piece I remember reading by Hitchens was “Living Proof,” a guide to the sensual pleasures and health benefits to be gained from a life dedicated to quality drinking.
“Not just the occasional drink—the daily drink. Not just red wine—any alcohol is better than none. An apple a day, they said in my boyhood, kept the doctor away. Yeah, that’s right—just bathe your teeth in sugar water and acid and see what happens. Much better to hurl the heartburn-inducing fruit into the trash and reach firmly for the corkscrew, which was the strategy that I began to adopt when I was about 15.”
In that same article he dispensed one of the best pieces of adult consumption advice I’ve ever come across: “Don’t drink if you have the blues; it’s a junk cure. Drink when you’re in a good mood.”
What impressed me most about his work, and his life, was the mixture of the deeply learned with the proudly debauched; an upper class, ivy league education with a near-mythic capacity for alcohol and late-night shenanigans. Here, it seemed, was a man determined to enjoy life on his own terms, conventions be damned.
Hitchens, of course, also held forth on subjects far removed from the distillations of the grape and the grain. He clearly relished documenting the absurdity of human civilization’s holy cows and cherished relics, the often corrupt and ridiculous idols venerated by so many and examined by so few: Mother Teressa, Henry Kissinger, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ronald Reagan, God — each came under the fine and bloody blade of Hitchens’s eloquent and deftly-detailed prose.
The deplorable state of affairs inside North Korea, which he described as “A nation of racist dwarves,” was another of Hitchens’s pet subjects. The death of North Korean leader Kim Jon- il a few short days after Hitchens is a cosmic coincidence that, if there is any shred of the journalist’s intelligence still floating around these parts, will surely elicit a satisfied chuckle or two.
Evisceration wasn’t his only talent, however. Hitchens wrote illuminating and deeply felt appreciations of Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell, arguing both for their continuing relevance and against the rote veneration that tends to cloud the men’s true accomplishments.
Something of a speaking engagement celebrity, on video Hitchens come across as rude, funny, smarter than his assigned host or adversary, and, invariably, just plain damn likeable. Even in his final appearances, when his head was shaved and he was clearly suffering from the affects of treatment for cancer of the esophagus, there is the undeniable sense that Hitchens never entirely grew up, that just beneath the surface of his considerable frame there lurks a young boy thumbing his nose at the foolish grownups.
Unlike many of his generation, Hitchens’s politics and viewpoints never grew calcified or recalcitrant. Moving from an avowed liberal Socialist to a defender of the war in Iraq to a human test subject bearing witness to the true nature of waterboarding, he remained curious, open to debate (which he cherished) and logical persuasion. As such, his was one of the few modern journalistic opinions I viewed as worthy of respect and consideration, even when I violently disagreed with it.
Many of his colleagues remember Hitchens as a rare-bird among veteran journalists: A mentor who often went out of his way to share his near-encyclopedic knowledge and experience with his younger colleagues. By all accounts, the man, on occasion, could also be a pompous asshole who delighted in arguing with friends simply for the sake of the argument. But, unfailingly, those same accounts also include some random act of kindness, hospitality, or support that I would guess go a long way towards defining what kind of man he truly was.
An iconoclast to the end, Hitchens went out on his own terms, standing firm in the principals he’d spent a lifetime formulating, and working, almost until the very end, to perpetuate the craft he’d dedicated himself to in his early twenties.
It seems fitting to end this appreciation with a bit of the man’s own wisdom offered up in his own inimitable voice, a voice it will be hard not to listen for in the strange and maddening days to come.
“My own opinion is enough for me, and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, anyplace, anytime. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.”