Christopher Hitchens: Death of a Wasted Wordsmith
Dec. 17, 2011
Christopher Buckley, a conservative Catholic who writes excellent humor pieces, was a friend of the liberal atheist Christopher Hitchens. He has written a fine obituary for a talented waste of a man.http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/12/postscript-christopher-hitchens.html
He says that Hitchens wrote well. I have read little of Hitchens, so I will accept this judgment. But Hitchens left behind little or nothing of lasting substance. There is no great book associated with his name. There are lots of well-written essays, but essays rarely survive the issue of the magazine in which they are published. I speak from 45 years of experience.
Because of the Internet, bits and pieces of Hitchens' legacy will survive. But who will read these already forgotten essays? Why? Old essays are old news. Think of Samuel Johnson. He was one of the most gifted and famous writers of his day. He is remembered only because James Boswell -- a celebrity hound -- wrote a 1500-page collection of snippets about him, and a few of the snippets still get quoted.
Hitchens amused the Left for decades. They liked him. But when he became a defender of George Bush's Iraq war, he lost credibility in Left-leaning circles.
His brother Peter is a conservative, an essayist, and a late convert to Christianity. He is the author of The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith. Christopher wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. They were born of a Jewish atheist mother who committed suicide, who did not tell them of their roots. They became a Jacob-Esau pair in middle age.
My familiarity with Hitchens comes from a series of debates he had with Rev. Doug Wilson. The issue: faith in God. Wilson is a skilled debater. The debate is available on DVD. You can rent it for $3. Do.http://www.amazon.com/Collision-Christopher-Hitchens-Amazon-com-Exclusive/dp/B002Q8400K
Wilson repeatedly confounded Hitchens with variations of two ethical questions: "As a Darwinist, what are your criteria for deciding what is good and what is evil? Why should anyone else believe in these criteria?" Hitchens could not answer, other than to say he thinks people know the difference, which is hardly a philosophically coherent answer. At the end of the video, Hitchens and Wilson are in the back seat of a car. Hitchens admits that if he could forever end Christianity, he would not do it.
Every skeptic has a problem: the corrosive effects of skepticism. Where does it end? On what basis? Where does it lead to? How can men build a civilization in terms of skepticism?
Hitchens had a series of writing jobs. Unlike most authors, he could live by his pen. But what was his calling? What was the most important thing he could do in which he would have been most difficult to replace? In our age, skeptics are a euro a dozen. He is gone. His friends miss him. The public doesn't. He is easily replaceable. Clever skeptical essays do not change people's lives. They at most reinforce the readers' opinions. Or they amuse.
He drank too much. He smoked too much. "It's the fags that'll get me in the end, I know it." They did. He died of esophageal cancer.
He showed no remorse.
Christopher Hitchens is known as much for his hard-drinking, chain-smoking lifestyle as he is for his controversial writings. But when asked by Charlie Rose if he regrets having burned the candle so thoroughly at both ends -- given that he has now been diagnosed with esophageal cancer -- Hitchens was adamant: absolutely not.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/17/christopher-hitchens-desp_n_685021.html
"All the time, I've felt that life is a wager and that I probably was getting more out of leading a bohemian existence as a writer than I would have if I didn't," he said in an interview that aired Friday. "Writing is what's important to me, and anything that helps me do that -- or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation -- is worth it to me. So I was knowingly taking a risk. I wouldn't recommend it to others"
"But you would do it again?" Rose asked.
"Yes, I think I would," Hitchens responded. "I've had to reflect on this, of course, a lot recently, and trying to imagine doing my life differently and not ending up mortally sick. But it's impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights...without that second bottle."
The man wasted his gifts. He died at age 62. Careers like his should stand as warnings to the rest of us. Talent is not enough.