Reading Christopher Hitchens reading

Paul Wells on Hitchens why matters


The joke’s on all of us who are left behind to take the measure of Christopher Hitchens, who died yesterday, because of course the measure can’t be taken. The arms won’t reach around. We feel the loss of Hitchens so keenly because he had far more imitators than peers. The imitators fail because the model is so imposing.

Louts who love to start a fight and think it’s clever to parrot the fashionable heterodoxies of the day are a dime a dozen. Hitchens matters because he was so much more than the sum of his clichés. Take away any part of the legend — his campaign against Mother Teresa and, later, all of religion; his support for the Iraq war; his certainty that if there are war criminals on this Earth, Henry Kissinger was one of them; his battle with esophageal cancer, both public and dignified — and you would still be left with someone larger than life.

His method was simple:

1. Read everything.

2. Draw your own conclusions.

Just about everyone prefers to skip the first step. Most have trouble with the second. Readers of this autumn’s big Hitch compendium, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens may be surprised at how little polemic it contains. Anyone looking for 700 pages of harangues against Christ or Islam or Bill Clinton must look elsewhere (though they won’t have to look far; he wasn’t shy about serving up harangues).

The collection begins with some essays in American history, including a chapter on Abraham Lincoln that draws a bold but plausible connection between Lincoln’s relationship with his father and his opposition to slavery. He moves on in every direction, with sharp discussions of Dickens, Flaubert, Isaac Newton, Hitler (“I treasure one episode, in the clotted pages of Mein Kampf, above all others…”), Philip Larkin and plenty more. Every piece is informed by a spirit of inquiry.

We used to have a “book” columnist at Maclean’s — OK, it was Mark Steyn, and soon enough we stopped pretending he was here to write about books — who was delighted to announce, week after week, that he had found another book that proved he was right about everything. That’s not how Hitchens rolled. He got the thing about Lincoln’s father from Lincoln, not from Hitchens. He wrote about it so you could share something he learned about Lincoln, not about Hitchens. Christopher Buckley’s Hitchens remembrance at The New Yorker‘s website includes this:

During the last hour I spent with Christopher, in the Critical Care Unit at M. D. Anderson, he struggled to read a thick volume of P. G. Wodehouse letters. He scribbled some notes on a blank page in spidery handwriting.

Some might ask: What the hell? He was dying. What good could Wodehouse letters do him? And who were the notes for?

But of course the answer is, the thing itself was worth doing. Expanding the range of his inquiry, digging deeper, engaging with the minds he admired most. Hitchens spent much of his life offering everyone his answers on any subject, but they would not have mattered so much if he had not also been such a ravenous asker of questions.

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Reading Christopher Hitchens reading

    • Hitchens was a fascist.

      • no, he was not. Your need for him to be one, speaks volumes about you, nothing more.

  1. I shall miss him.
    Barbara West

  2. I wrote an e-mail to Christopher Hitchens, telling him that his getting cancer was not going to change my negative opinion of him (based on his Vanity Fair article stating that women were not funny). He had become the writer I loved to hate. And Mr. Hitchens, already gravely ill, took the time to answer, not once but twice. The more I read him or listened to him, the more I liked him–not because I necessarily agreed with him but because of his stunning intellect, his wit, his fearless and constant choosing of the path less traveled. 

    God (sorry Christopher) I will miss him.  Dakota Hamilton

    • He’s right about that. Women just aren’t funny. They don’t do humour well. Even other women seldom laugh at their jokes. That he was so eager to ruffle feathers with the truth is to his credit. As you yourself came to accept and admire. 

  3. “soon enough we stopped pretending he was here to write about books — who was delighted to announce, week after week, that he had found another book that proved he was right about everything. That’s not how Hitchens rolled.”

    Another slag at Steyn?  OK, we get it, you don’t like him. Yes, Steyn was not really a “book columnist”. But no, Steyn readily admits when he’s wrong, you’re wrong about that. And one thing that Steyn had in common with Hitchens is that they’re both very good with words, much more so than the average columnist.

    Anyway, Hitchens was a fantastic writer, no doubt.

    • Compared to Hitchens, Steyn is a sophist with a mouthful of marbles. As Hitchens once said of Jerry Falwell, if you gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox.

  4. Hitchens was really something. I haven’t read that much of him for some strange reason – probably afraid he might puncture some of my smug assumptions. But man he was a force of nature. Where do you place him amongst the greats?The first impulse is always to reach for Orwell – there are obvious similarities; both brilliant, fearless, omniverous ; both lucid and contrary. Somehow that doesn’t catch him completely. Personally i have an image of Orwell fused with Dylan Thomas fixed in my imagination, perhaps with a dash of E.Waugh who was another brilliant jerk. I rate him just behind B. Russell, if you can rate such men. No idea if that’s at all close, but being a Brit myself i can’t see him any other way.There was something essentially Englsh about the way he wrote and argued. He was a poster boy for the finest of the Oxbridge tradition.
    I came across something he wrote in Hitch 22[ i think – still haven’t finished it] In relating a meeting with Thatcher in SA ,he recalls a lecture she gave him [ he was still very much a man of the left at the time] smacking him on the arse as she went by. Hitichen’s mused that he had the uncomfortable conviction that she was going to turn out to be absolutely right.
     Loved the honesty. Loved the guts. Loved the generosity of the true intellectual. Loved the man when i didn’t feel an impulse to punch him in the mush – it’s an impluse i’m sure he would have understood.
    RIP Mr Hitchens.

  5. A wonderful article, thank you.

    Hitchens infuriated me for as much as I adored the man.  His work forced me to learn new things and to accept new views.  For that I am grateful.  I read more, I challenge everything, and I accept my personal beliefs are fluid and constantly reforming.

    A lion of a man that will never be duplicated.  Tonight I shall toast in his memory and settle down to a few essays last written by him. 

  6. The true irony of Hitchens is that one had to take him on faith!

    • Without explanation this comment is senseless.

      • I am so sorry for your limitations.

  7. ‘And who were the notes for’? 
    From what I understand, Hitchens had been commissioned to review the new ‘thick volume’ of Wodehouse letters for the Atlantic. 
    Sophie Ratcliffe 

  8. Was the backbiting toward Steyn really necessary?  Weak, Wells.

    Recquiescat in pacem Christopher Hitchens.  We are praying for you, and I, for one, will miss your independent spirit and take-no-prisoners honesty.  Reminded one of Steyn, actually.

    • Necessary? no. Important… as a true example after commenting on Hitchen’s self-serving imitators? yes.

      •  “Hitchens spent much of his life offering everyone his answers on any subject, but they would not have mattered so much if he had not also been such a ravenous asker of questions”

        Indeed. Steyn gave the impression he already had the answers long before he ever asked the questions – if he ever did ask them.

    • Yeesh.

  9. Most remarkably he did practically everything under the influence, starting with breakfast, he was proud to relate.  Didn’t hurt his productivity.  But everything he wrote wasn’t gold, and since turning right wing in triumphal support of the war in Iraq and “terror” and the Bushies – for which he received glowing encomiums from Wolfowitz – I think he attempted to cross that bridge too far.  Rather cynically, I think: he always had to be against the current, and the current was hard against the war.  One makes more money being controversial, and as a brilliant debater he could pick either side of a fight.  Or thought he could.  I think he lost on the war on terror, admitted it slightly when he did the whole waterboarding stunt.  But who else would take on Mother Theresa?  And the writing could venture into the convoluted as if he were trying to impress – or had written it after lunch.  Maybe, like Hunter Thompson he’d passed his best before date.  Too much booze and cigs.  Certainly brilliant, unquestionably brave.  Would’ve been wonderful to see how he aged.  I was rooting for him to beat the C and still wish he had.  Even the rare gem from the man was worth the wait.

  10. Wow! Lets not blow this guy out of proportion or anything. He was a Imbecilic Trotskyite that became a hardcore Neo-con (am I missing anything? … Oh yeah, in between he had an obsessive hatred of Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton)

    His dry wit was amusing, but he is by no means a iconic writer. I think the attraction by many journos is he was a bit of a pompous wordy blowhard

  11. What is even more funny is watching Macleans pee their collective pants in excitement over Will and Kate, then mourn the passing of a writer that correctly labelled Princess Diana a airhead bimbo

    • Has it occurred to you that perhaps Macleans didn’t agree with his take on the Royal family, while admring the impulse to original thinking? You missed the most cogent point about the life of Hitch – do your own thinking – on every issue – Wells makes this point quite plainly – weren’t you paying attention; or do you simply prefer to wallow in your hatred of Hitchens ? 

      • I am doing my own thinking on every issue. Don’t you know how to read?

  12. The employment of Steyn was the low point of the rightward turn of Mac’s.

  13. At the age of 61, Hitchens reaffirmed his support for Marxism.  More:

    ‘In 2006, in a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania debating the Jewish Tradition with Martin Amis, Hitchens commented on his political philosophy by stating, “I am no longer a socialist, but I still am a Marxist”…

    In a June 2010 interview withThe New York Times, he stated that “I still think like a Marxist in many ways….
     I consider myself a very conservative Marxist”…
    He continued to regard both Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky as great men,[73][74] and the October Revolution as a necessary event in the modernization of Russia.[31][38] In 2005,

    Hitchens praised Lenin’s creation of “secular Russia” and his discrediting of the Russian Orthodox Church – Wikipedia.

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