Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011
The public square has a gaping hole this morning, as the brilliant Christopher Hitchens has died. Here is a brief obituary in Vanity Fair that links to some of his most recent columns and essays, several of which reflect on the cancer that took his life. David Gibson excerpted one of them in this space about seven months ago:
To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: “How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?” That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.
Hitchens’s voice was, it should go without saying, one of the best of his generation, and we are all poorer for its absence. (David Castronovo reviewed his memoir in the magazine last year.) But it would be unfair to Hitchens, because out of the spirit of his own combative nature, not to mention how wrong that voice often was when it came to matters of religion. From Eugene McCarraher’s lengthy review of his bestseller, God is Not Great, again in the pages of Commonweal:
All Hitchens claims to ask of his deluded religious friends is that they “leave me alone.” But for a public intellectual, what this innocent-seeming wish really implies is the privatization of religion, its eradication as a form of public discourse. Like the New York intellectuals of yesteryear, Hitchens turns to high culture as the new symposium of moral tutelage—and specifically to literature. Well “within the compass of the average person,” the study of literature and poetry, he proposes, should now “depose the scrutiny of sacred texts” as the basis of ethical reflection. Of course, the arts and letters have long been modernity’s citadel for paradise, a safehouse for idiosyncrasy, brotherly love, transcendence, and other utopian ideals battered by the power of the state and the market. Reminiscent of the democratic humanism espoused by his late friend Edward W. Said, Hitchens’s expansive vision of cultural democracy should appeal to anyone serious about the moral imagination. But his insistence that we uncouple high culture from the sacred has its own insuperable problems. Aside from assigning a covert clerical status to writers and literary critics—“the divine literatus,” as Whitman put it—supplanting sacred texts with literature would require the bowdlerization of at least nine-tenths of our literary canon. Our high culture simply owes too much to religion, Christian or otherwise, for anyone to suggest intelligibly that the two should be separated.
In any case, what we get from Hitchens in the end isn’t “culture” but a gooey compound of boosterish bromides and liberal nationalism. Like so many disappointed radicals, Hitchens has elsewhere declared capitalism the only remaining revolutionary force, and for all his bad-boy press, he is a stalwart guardian of the bourgeois virtues, harrumphing like a sullen Rotarian at Christ’s injunction to “take no thought for the morrow.” Such gospel nonsense, Hitchens tells us, implies that “things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time.” This former Trotskyite turns out to be a metropolitan burgher at heart, as well as a technological visionary, rhapsodizing over “undreamed-of vistas,” “unfettered scientific inquiry,” and the accessibility of scientific knowledge to “masses of people by easy electronic means”—all of which will “revolutionize our concepts of research and development.” It’s a Brave New World, brought to you by Merck. Cue the studio orchestra.
In the end, Hitchens’s brilliance as a journalist and rhetorician is inseparable from his shallowness as a critic of religion, not to mention the gross error of his support for the Iraq War. As Ross Douthat noted a while back, however, Hitchens took no offense at the thought of being prayed for by those who possessed the faith he lacked, and surely it’s a good time to do that.
Update: Somehow I failed to link to Terry Eagleton’s essay on “Culture and Barbarism” from March 2009, where he takes on Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. The essay was excerpted from Eagleton’s Terry Lectures, published as Reason, Faith, and Revolution by Yale University Press. Matt Boudway noted Stanley Fish’s sympathetic discussion of Eagleton’s argument later on that year.