With the death of Christopher Hitchens, a singular voice has been silenced. Unbuttoned and unacademic, Hitchens weighed into almost every subject with panache and passion. He wrote as powerfully on Proust or the Kurds as on George Orwell or American eroticism. He authored books on the Elgin Marbles and Mother Teresa. He was a nimble wordsmith and talksmith who danced around most antagonists. His energy and ready knowledge, his eloquence and quickness, his love of controversy and repartee set him apart not only from an aloof professoriate but from vacuous talking heads.
Nor did he ever trim his sails. For better or worse he followed his own compass. He came from the left and never ceased to champion the Palestinians, savage religion, or lambaste Henry Kissinger for foreign-policy crimes. At the same time, his ardent support for the invasion of Iraq and his talk of Islamic fascism put him in the company of conservatives and war hawks. Hitchens was a leftist who became a rightist who remained a leftist.
He belonged to a coterie of British radicals loosely centered around the London-based journal New Left Review. Many made careers in the United States—people such as Perry Anderson and his brother, Benedict Anderson, Alexander Cockburn, and, for a while, Robin Blackburn. To Americans, those English arrivals always seemed supremely educated, articulate, and cosmopolitan. Indeed, like Hitchens they all attended Oxford or Cambridge, where they honed their debating skills.
Hitchens himself found England too confining. "Life in Britain," he remarked, seemed like "one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers." As a young man he moved to the States, and he began writing a column for the leftist weekly The Nation.
His causes were many, and his rumpled look, quick wit, and poisonous pen abetted his career. He became close to Edward Said, the Palestinian-American professor, with whom he edited a book on the Palestinians. About this time, Hitchens, who was baptized into the Church of England, learned that his mother, who had committed suicide, had been Jewish. The discovery was not unwelcome, and Hitchens delved into his past, looking for distant family. To be sure, it did not alter a whit his politics; on occasion he would identify himself as "an atheist and semi-Semitic polemicist."
But what were his politics? On some issues, he never deviated: his denunciation of the death penalty, torture, and religion; his defense of free speech; and his hatred of colonialism. However, Hitchens interjected himself in the last moment of the Clinton impeachment by offering to testify that a Clinton aide had lied. To his friends, that seemed strange. Why fuel a politically driven witch hunt?
But bigger surprises lay ahead. Hitchens had already been riled by the weak reply of leftists to the Iranian fatwa calling for the death of his friend, the author Salman Rushdie. He asked pointedly: If a left can't militantly defend free speech, what could it do? Then came the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the response of the left seemed wobbly to Hitchens. Some leftists suggested that the United States deserved a violent wake-up call. On the contrary, Hitchens believed that Islamic extremism spelled barbarism, if not fascism, and should be fought tooth and nail. He resigned his post at The Nation and joined those advocating the invasion of Iraq, using his considerable talents to flay his former comrades.
Hitchens died the day the war in Iraq officially ended for Americans. But the invasion proved to be a debacle wrapped in a debacle, almost criminally flawed in its planning and execution. In his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens rues American mistakes that led to looting and misery. He writes that he is well aware of "the impeachable incompetence of the Bush administration." He regrets that he did not ask the simplest questions, which his father, a commander in the Royal Navy, would have raised, such as: Do you have troops to guard the National Museum of Iraq? But the looting of the museum was only one of many failings, Hitchens admits, that have "permanently disfigured the record of those of us" who argued for the invasion.
His record is, in fact, damaged by that war, but it remains a single, albeit large, entry in a vast body of work. Consider his new 800-page collection, Arguably, which covers subjects as varied as Isaac Newton and Vladimir Nabokov and demonstrates that Hitchens cannot be tedious. In the introduction, he notes the cancer that recently struck him and counts in months his remaining life. Without missing a beat, he salutes those who have given their lives so others can live better. He dedicates the volume to an instigator of the Arab Spring, the Tunisian vendor who set himself on fire and triggered the political upheavals. Hitchens recalls another death: In 1969 Jan Palach, a Czech student, immolated himself in Wenceslas Square in protest against the Soviet occupation of his country. A young student himself at the time, Hitchens organized a rally against the occupation, and later became associated with the Palach Press, a center for East European dissent. This is the Hitchens we honor and treasure.
In the age of insufferable pundits and bland English professors, Hitchens summoned up a different possibility—the public intellectual as literate, lucid, and committed. Was he the last of the nonacademic intellectuals? Or was he something else, a very talented journalist? He resented the put-down that someone's writing was "journalistic" and saw himself as working the vein that ran from Thomas Paine to George Orwell. At least some of his work ranks with that company's. But he may have been sui generis, neither scribbler nor pedant. To whom can he be compared? Hitchens contained multitudes. Perhaps the absence of a cohort of public intellectuals meant that he carried that much more weight. Perhaps he was a public intellectual after its decline.
At least this can be said: Hitchens never sat on the sidelines. He wrung every drop of life from life. He wrote, traveled, and drank long into the night.
In a message to me a year ago—our lives occasionally intersected, and he wrote a blurb for my most recent book—he said that "we old Bolsheviks should stick together." I've pondered the phrase: we old Bolsheviks. Perhaps there is something to it, and through it all, Hitchens remained an old Bolshevik. He died in the saddle (like the old Bolshevik Trotsky), and wrote unflinchingly about cancer and his coming death. He made mistakes (like Trotsky), but fought with incomparable energy, rare courage, and sinewy prose for those everywhere who get cheated of life and liberty.
So long, Hitch! We miss you already.