Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the obituaries of Christopher Hitchens with which the press abounds today is the way in which they teem with moving and amusing details of a life fully lived. That certainly is the theme of Hitchens' (awkwardly titled) memoir of a couple of years ago, Hitch-22, a book that is nothing if not a contemporary celebration of Epicureanism--in the best sense of the term. On the more immediate, physical end of the Epicurean spectrum, there are the booze and the smokes, both of which seem to have been ever-present personal accessories. They were not, however, pure affectations, for Hitchens seemed to think them essential to the somewhat bohemian figure he cut among contemporary journalists, a throwback to the adventurer-writers of the early and middle twentieth century, towering figures like George Orwell (whom he adored) railing against oppressive tyrants at a time when people played for keeps. That the booze and cigarettes were both props and something more than props is clear in the photographs from Vanity Fair illustrating Hitchens' stint in the gym conducting research for a series he did on healthy living. The photos show him, cigarette and glass in hand, in a health club, in which he looks as much at home as he would at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in rural Mississippi.

But there is also a higher-end Epicureanism of which he was, once again, one of the principal exponents of our time. For Hitch-22 is also a testimony to friendship, and to the friendship of many of the foremost men of letters of the English-speaking world, such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan. (So enthusiastically does Hitchens testify to friendship that a number of his eulogists in the press today have hastened to point out that they, too, were among the number. Christopher Buckley, for instance, in his obituary on Hitchens for the New Yorker, writes in his usual self-serving way, making clear in his tribute that he knew Hitchens very well indeed.) Hitchens' memoir speaks also of the joys of reading, of writing the well-crafted sentence, of high polemical drama, and of fine conversation. This is indeed the stuff of the high-minded epicure, even as wine, women, and tobacco--all of which abound in Hitch-22--form the dreams of the garden-variety epicures of any time and place.

If Hitchens' life had simply been filled with fun and drama, however, he would have offered little more than entertainment, but like any good work of art, his life gave instruction as well as delight. His best--and defining--quality is his opposition to tyranny in any form, particularly political. His aversion to those who abused power marked him throughout his life, and it does much to explain his opposition to the Vietnam War (which he opposed in part because of the way the young draftees, mostly from the lower classes unable to purchase college deferments, were at the mercy of politicians who to all appearances were more interested in their careers than in the lives of the soldiers). Near the other end of his career, it explains his support for George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq, since to him American involvement meant the end of a ruthless regime that capriciously, often for its own entertainment, brutally ended the lives of its citizens. And in his case, as in that of his hero Orwell, his firm belief in human freedom and equality proved stronger than his ties to party or his loyalty to any group. One of the most interesting sections of his memoir recounts his journey in 1968 to a Cuban work camp for international supporters of the Castro regime, an experience with which he quickly grew disillusioned when his minders refused to let him wander the country and see for himself how the revolution had remade society. His deepening suspicion of Castro's regime led him to speak out against it, though in the 1960s and early 1970s, support for Castro, as for Mao, was still a shibboleth of the radical left, with which Hitchens had long identified.

Indeed, his willingness to break with colleagues, to risk ostracism by the tribe, is another of his most admirable qualities. Perhaps the best portion of his memoir concerns the events surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses. Because the novel is offensive to radical Islamic sensibilities, it earned Rushdie a fatwa from the Aaytollah Khomeni, who placed the author under a sentence of death. Then as now, left-wing artists and writers, those who prided themselves on their transgressive boldness in applauding such desecrations as gained Robert Mapplethorpe his fame in the 1990s, were cowed into silence when confronted with a religion that is willing to answer blasphemy with death. (Even Rushdie himself tried to placate the Islamofascists by issuing an essay in which he claimed that he was, in fact, a believing Muslim.) Hitchens alone stood up to such threats and urged the international community of writers to sign a petition of solidarity with Rushdie. As if to confirm (for the hundredth time) what Mario Vargas Llosa has said about los intellectuales barratos, those who talk a good game about their independence of thought but who can without difficulty be bullied or bought into silence, Hitchens was at first almost alone in this stand. Eventually he persuaded such as Susan Sontag to stand with him, but some, including Arthur Miller (whose Crucible, precisely about how terrible it is for a state to bully its citizens, is supposed to serve as a cautionary tale about the McCarthyism of the 1950s) proved very reluctant indeed. Eventually Hitchens rounded up enough signatories to make a credible show of opposition to Khomeni's censorship, but had it not been for his single-handed efforts, this chilling act of repression would have met no serious response anywhere in the Western world.

Toward the end of his life, Hitchens gained a deal of notoriety for his atheism, which is surely his least attractive quality, though it is in a way related to those traits that made him so admirable. Hitchens was no great philosophical thinker; the stands he took usually issued from the viscera, which is perhaps why he could be so passionately devoted to his causes. Such an m.o. works very well indeed when the topic at hand is the oppression of women under sharia law; it works less well when the topic is the existence of God, a question that has summoned some of the subtlest and most profound philosophical thought in the history of the West. Hitchens was a thorough-going atheist, and as a philosophical matter, atheism is simply untenable. At the very most, a person committed only to the merest logical consideration of the question can be an agnostic, because just as one cannot prove God's existence through logic, so neither can one disprove His existence, either. One can only go so far as to raise serious objections to the arguments for the existence of God, but calling into question His existence does not by any means prove conclusively that He doesn't exist. When Aquinas asserts that the universe must have a creator since everything we see has a cause, one can indeed respond with, "Then who made God?" But this problem with Aquinas' argument does not mean that God does not exist; and to anyone confidently asserting that He is not, one can always ask with Pascal, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" To this question the atheist has no response, nor can he ever have, and thus his confidence that God does not exist is a confidence based on nothing at all. For this reason, Hitchens' insouciance about the matter, though it was of a piece with his more attractive political convictions, was ultimately annoying because he uttered with such conviction assertions about which if he was certain then he was wrong. His commitment in the matter led him at times to foolish extremes, as when, having to defend in debate with Dinesh D'Souza the position that religion poisons everything, he explained away the horrors of the atheist regimes by using the utter sophism that Naziism and Communism were deeply religious at their core. Much better to have conceded uncertainty on the big question and not therefore have felt himself required to utter nonsense on the subsidiary points.

Had he done so, however, had he been more philosophically modest, he would not have been Hitch, the embodiment of common sense, whose instinctive understanding of right and wrong endowed his commitments not only with wit but with a strong emotional force. That emotional force, which runs throughout a rich and colorful life, animated his politics for good and his metaphysics for ill. May he rest in peace.

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