How Hitchens Said Goodbye

Article excerpt

Byline: Simon Schama

Christopher Hitchens confronted death

with the same furious bravura that

he deployed against purveyors of unreasoned pieties.

THE YEAR AMERICA was born--1776--was also the year when the great Scottish philosopher David Hume died. More than once during the ordeal of my friend Christopher Hitchens--as he said, less a "battle" with esophageal cancer than an act of "resistance" to the malignancy to which he succumbed on Dec. 15--I have thought of the letter that Adam Smith wrote about his friend Hume and the heroic strength and uncompromising grip on the truth that he showed throughout the illness that killed him. In the letter, Smith recounted how, after a visit with the philosopher, a well-intentioned doctor said he would pass on the news to a mutual friend that Hume--an unrepentant atheist and unflinching rationalist--seemed to be in remarkably good spirits. To which Hume replied, "As I believe you would not choose to tell anything but the truth, tell him that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could desire, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire."

There were times during Hitch's illness when cheerfulness must have been entirely beyond reach. But if the radiation burnt him and left him raw, it never turned his wit to ash or melted away the sharpness of his analytical temper. Astoundingly, he went on writing, never self-pityingly, constantly clarifying, brushing away the rubbish of ignorant cant and false consolations with a swish of his bristling broom of reason. It was typical that his last essay for Vanity Fair was less a chronicle of his pain than an attack on Nietzsche's assertion that "whatever does not kill you makes you stronger." There was much in what he had endured lately, he insisted, that proved Nietzsche's aphorism demonstrably false.

There was no falling-off--no retreat or attenuation. His writing ended only when he did. In that sense, if he could not in the end defeat the sickness, he certainly routed its power to crush mind and spirit. His composure was that of unconfused self-reflection. The well-meaning strangers who ventured that when faced with the end he might reconsider his atheism he treated as a lower species of insurance salesmen, pitiable in their delusions, insulting in their presumption. Facing things head on packed his writing with tough integrity. It will be said that Hitch lived for the word. It could as easily be said that English in all its muscular, jubilantly performative splendor lives on for such as him to make hay, make enemies, and make waves with.

And it's because Hitch's polemics--and his many thoughtful, often very funny essays--liked to kick against the pricks that he will leave an immense, possibly unfillable space where his prose rocked and rolled in face of the demure, the hypocritical, and the ignorantly self-important. The vacancy will be especially felt on the American side of the ocean, where, as one of Hitch's heroes (George Orwell) put it, "in our time political speech and writing is largely the defense of the indefensible" contaminated by "flyblown metaphors." Anyone, Hitchens thought, who spoke with stale laziness of "kicking the can down the road" should themselves receive the end of the boot.

Hitch might not have had quite the same impact on the world of political writing and argument had he stayed in England. …