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A farewell to Christopher Hitchens

The Charlottetown Guardian, 30 December 2011


The English-American writer Christopher Hitchens, whose career as a speaker and polemicist spanned more than four decades, died Dec. 15 due to complications from esophageal cancer. Hitchens was perhaps best known as a champion of the New Atheism movement in non-fiction, which included his 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, and for his critiques of Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. Though I never met Professor Hitchens, he was someone that I admired and whose contributions to journalism will be greatly missed.

During the last several months, I had planned to sit down and write something about Hitchens, with the intention of publishing it after his death. At the time, he was continuing to write movingly about his painful expiration, which he was fighting with chemotherapy. Though it was clear that the end was coming soon, I was never able to write the article. I realize now that I was still clinging to a hope that he would hold on long enough for a new treatment to be found, which would allow him to return to form as one of the world's best debaters and orators. Given that Hitchens was suffering from stage-four cancer (and as he often reminded his readers, there is no stage five), this appears to have been some wishful thinking of my own.

Hitchens was a robust and fiercely independent thinker, whose ability to retain scores of information on a vast array of topics made him a pleasure to read and watch. His controversial and confrontational style of writing and speaking was inspirational to young men who love to think. (Women who love to think seem to have been less impressed by him.) In my experience with student groups, conferences, and university life in general, I have yet to encounter a serious male student who doesn't read his stuff. Many can quote from memory lengthy passages of Hitchens' work, which has been widely disseminated in recent years via the Internet.

Two of Hitchens' most endearing qualities were his versatility as a writer and his willingness to go to the places in the world that he wrote about. Not only was he well read but also well travelled, visiting some of the most dangerous and contentious places on earth, which gave his positions added credibility. Notably, he is the only Western journalist to have reported from each of the "Axis of Evil" countries - Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. His work also took him to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks and to the countries of the former Yugoslavia during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s.

More impressive than Hitchens' commentaries on politics and religion was his literary criticism. Notwithstanding his advancing illness, many of Hitchens' last pieces in The Atlantic were among his best. Hitchens' essays would make the text come alive by adding his own knowledge of history and literature to very thorough reading and interpretation. His style in this regard had the curious effect of making one feel humbled by his expansive power of recall yet enlightened by his thorough explications.

Hitchens also exposed his readers to the work of others, many of whom he discussed in his columns. Andrew Sullivan, David Brooks, Thomas Friedman, James Wood, Patrick Buchanan, Salman Rushdie, and Noam Chomsky, as well as the late journalists William F. Buckley, Jr., William Safire, and Irving Kristol are just some of the contemporary writers that Hitchens has introduced to me in one way or another. And this is to say nothing of older authors, such as Orwell, Wodehouse, Marx, and Paine, whom Hitchens has written about in great detail.

Most importantly, Hitchens was a great teacher who led by example, demonstrating the power and significance of literacy. While many of today's journalists are poorly read and pitifully reliant upon the Internet for even the commonest historical reference, Hitchens was the kind of intellectual who seemed to have read everything and forgotten nothing. This kind of ethic and rigor represents a standard that more readers should expect and demand.

Hitchens was far from a flawless character, and his shortcomings provided much ammunition for his opponents. Most damaging were his serious addictions to cigarettes and alcohol - dependencies that ultimately led to his premature death. While these habits provided amusement for his fans, one cannot help but regret that Hitchens died at the height of his popularity and with much left to contribute. Yet these habits were part of what made him a real personality and a profoundly interesting person. He burned the candle at both ends and it gave a lovely light.

Perhaps fittingly, Hitchens passed away the same week as the Czech dissident, playwright, and politician Václav Havel - another opponent of totalitarianism and stunning example of erudition. As strange and silly as it may sound, I often felt as though Hitchens was addressing me personally when I read his books or columns, and for this reason feel that I have lost a friend. But like all great thinkers of the past, his work will live on through his stacks of literary output and through the people who have been influenced by him. Most of all, his legacy will serve as a motivation and example for those in search of knowledge and truth.





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Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com