Christopher Hitchens is dead.
I have spent the last hour reading old articles by Christopher Hitchens, and poring over sad and respectful obituaries, looking for quotes to open this blog post. I wanted one about his own attitude to death, his own loathing of the semi-mythical "deathbed conversion" so often attributed to public unbelievers. But instead I just read and read and read. His words are brilliant. His sentences and his thoughts all perfectly constructed.
When I took my compulsory two-minute glance at twitter before getting in the shower this morning I saw the top trend "Christopher Hitchens" and immediately I knew. Since his diagnosis, in 2010, of esophageal cancer his thoughts on mortality and cancer have been lucid, touching and public. His wonderful televised interviews showed the same sharp mind, even as the head that contained it lost its hair to the ravages of chemotherapy. Despite the public knowledge that he did not have long left his death was still able to take me by surprise. He continued writing and publishing at a rate far exceeding most healthy authors (see Slate and Vanity Fair), and it seemed to me that he might go on for ever.
I, I suspect like many other similarly-minded people, am not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear on more than one occasion today. First upon hearing the news this morning, and second when I returned home and read Peter Hitchens' (Christopher's brother, and his political polar opposite) touching obituary In Memoriam, my courageous brother, 1949-2011. It was the following few words that got me:
At one stage – and I am so sad this never happened – he wrote to me saying he hoped for a ‘soft landing’ (code, I think for abandoning any further attempts to combat his disease) and to go home to his beautiful apartment in Washington DC.
There, he suggested, we could go through his bookshelves, as there were some books and other possessions he wanted me to have. I couldn’t have cared less about these things, but I had greatly hoped to have that conversation, which would have been a particularly good way of saying farewell.
But alas, it never happened. He never went home and now never will. Never, there it is, that inflexible word that trails close behind that other non-negotiable syllable, death.My brief tears were not the hysterical mania of those weeping over the death of Princess Diana, but a sign of respect shown to a great intellectual general, and a sign of respect shown to that unbeatable and eternal abstinence, death. Death, unfortunately is the end, and Christopher proudly succumbed knowing that full well.
Soon after his diagnosis Christopher wrote Topic of Cancer, an article for Vanity Fair, about his recent thoughts and experiences. In it he briefly considered:
Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Centre rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.and now we must deal with the fact that all future events in the worlds of politics and religion will be spared his sharp analysis and unflinching criticism. Sleep a little easier, peddlers of bullshit and oppression.
Thank you Christopher for a lifetime of wonderful words and insightful analysis. Thank you to the doctors that treated you, the nurses, the research scientists, the fund-raisers, the charitable donaters, the doctors that didn't treat you but treat others every day. Thank you.