Remembering Christopher Hitchens

Posted: December 17, 2011 in 21st century life, Random musings

I never knew him, never heard him speak in person, rarely read anything he wrote.

I heard about him regularly. I knew, roughly, his point of view on things, although he still managed to surprise (his stance in support of the Iraq war, for instance).

For the most part, I lived my life without thinking of him much. And yet, when I learned that he was terminally ill, I felt genuinely sad. And this week, his death hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I don’t think I’m alone in these sentiments, judging from the high readership his obituaries appear to be enjoying on the Internet, along with various tributes to him by colleagues and acquaintances.

I frequently disagreed with Hitchens’ opinions. When he published his book on religion (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), I was rediscovering a hunger for theology. I thought his decision to support the invasion of Iraq insane. (And I read in his obituary in the New York Times that he even supported Britain’s invasion of the Falklands!) I decried his blunt assault on many aspects of American culture. I thought he seemed rather full of himself.

But now that I must write about him in the past tense, I realize what a tremendous loss it is. We on the Left have become so timid in so many ways—always taking pains not to offend and to pass our lives in “moderation.” Hitchens plunged in. He lived.

I have a friend who reminds me of him. A powerful writer and thinker, a dedicated atheist, a lover of travel, unabashedly self-absorbed. And this fall, she, too, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. As I write, she lies in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia, the ailment that succeeded in killing Hitchens. Since I have known my friend, I have encountered a number of people who have decided to forego any relationship with her because of her abrasiveness. I, too, was ready to bail at one point, but then the awful diagnosis was handed down.

Now the confluence of her fate with that of Hitchens makes me more appreciative of her distinctive brashness and courage. It isn’t easy being a left-winger or an atheist outside a big city. Nor is it a comfortable existence to write iconoclastic fiction that regularly lampoons the sacred cows of America—particularly if one is a woman. Freedom of speech may be a core value in these United States, but one can pay dearly for that privilege.

So here are a few qualities I most admire about both these writers: zest for life, self-confidence, no compunction to apologize, originality, worldliness, generosity. That last one surprises me. But Hitchens blessed us with columns about his illness and impending death, written with unflinching honesty and generosity of spirit, even as he faced severe pain and increasing incapacitation. And as my friend has navigated the end of her life, she has demonstrated remarkable kindnesses to me. Last weekend, for example, because it was my birthday, she insisted on staying up with me to watch a movie she had already seen, when she clearly did not feel well at all. (She checked into the hospital the next day.)

Would that we could all muster the courage to rise to these standards at least once in a while. And think of them when we do.

  1. susanissima says:

    Janet, you are a beautiful writer and clearly a sensitive observer of the people in or on the fringe of your live. I very much enjoyed reading this post and look forward to much more.

  2. susanissima says:

    Good for the rest of us. (and make that “life”!)

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