Saturday, December 17, 2011

on Christopher Hitchens

I found out Christopher Hitchens died today and I’m sure I won’t be able to stop thinking about it for a long time. I don’t usually care too much about the deaths of celebrities or those who I don’t know, but I can’t shake this one. There is something, well, it’s not ‘troubling’ as such, but it makes me uneasy. Perhaps it’s just sadness. I thought I’d write about it to figure it out.

A healthy(ish) Hitchens.
First of all, his life was a lot about death – as is anyone’s who debates ideas of religion and faith and morality. He spent a lot of time batting off threats of ‘hell’ and it’s interesting to consider where his consciousness is now, if anywhere. Nothing seems to fit. For example, I try to picture him having a conversation (read: intellectual argument) with St. Peter at the pearly gates, but it’s just unreasonable to think of Hitchens in a heaven (you know, if there is one or whatever). I imagine him being reincarnated as a holy cow in India, but that doesn’t really make sense for him either because all that intellectualism would just be torturously trapped if it were to be jailed in the brain of an animal. I think of him being stuck on a tropical island with a plane full of strangers and discovering a hatch, but then I remember that Lost was a load of crap and Christopher deserves a better afterlife than that.

Or perhaps there is actually nothing after death and there really is no more of Mr. Hitchens. This thought depresses me most of all because it just seems like such a waste. For human beings like this one to simply die and be no more. He was carrying, in that mind of his, so many memories and ideas and completely unique opinions and so much charisma and energy. And within that flesh that ended up letting him down, there was an incredible force. Some might call it a spirit and I don’t claim to understand the differences between the physical and the non-physical elements of an individual, but you cannot deny that whatever that non-physical element is, that it was particularly notable in him in particular.

The only reason I find it difficult to believe that there is nothing after death is because I don’t want to believe it. So many humans die with the most incredible vaults of information locked away inside of them. As though our minds are all houses – of course some of us will end up with a shanty and some with a mansion. The choices we make lead us to experiences and relationships and situations that all imprint on who we are, and for all of this information to be gathered inside a person and then simply destroyed – well it just doesn’t make sense.

And so I often consider the stories that might be bled from the minds of the dying on their deathbeds. If it was somehow a human custom to provide those close-to-death with a tape recorded or pen and pad, or these days perhaps a laptop. Imagine what would stream from the minds of those who were sure of their imminent fate. Consider - if you could put all this information, from all of these people, into a library of some sort so that we could all look at the lives that have been led before us. So that somehow this information would not be lost.

Well, Christopher Hitchens pretty much did it. Not only was he actively writing right up until his death, but his autobiography Hitch-22 was published in 2010 and a collection of his essays called Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens was released just this year. He knew he was dying. And he was a genius. I do not know how anyone could be uninterested in the writings of a genius who knew he was close to death. Let alone a genius who knew he was going to die who did not believe in heaven or god. He stood strong to the end, and he wrote until the end. I believe these things make him an exceptional example of the potential of a human being.

I finished Letters to a Young Contrarian just a month or so ago, and it was the first of Hitchens’ books that I’d ever read. I had long been a fan and kept up with his Vanity Fair  articles which I originally found simply because I am a fan (as previously written) of the publication itself. I also always tried to keep up-to-date on/with his public appearances and watched a lot of his YouTube clips. Actually reading this book, though, was an entirely different encounter. It affected me profoundly, and my own hand-written notes cover almost every page. I felt as though he was speaking directly to me, injecting itself directly into my mind and everything he was saying made complete sense. The book is required reading for any young person intent on becoming an autonomous thinker, intellectual or change-maker in the coming times. It’s also fucking hilarious and incredibly fulfilling. I would go so far to say that it’s the best non-fiction I’ve ever read. (And you know it’s true because I said something along these lines in the post I wrote about it when I had just finished reading it - well before he died.) I know a lot of people know and like him, and if that’s you, then I strongly encourage you to read any one of his books – especially Letters to a Young Contrarian if you’re a young person. It’s like listening to a lecture by the visionary himself. Actually it’s better than that, it’s like sitting across from him at a dinner party.

I’m sad that I won’t ever be able to have dinner with him. I mean, I would have to do a hell of a lot of awesome things to be invited to the kind of dinner party Christopher Hitchens would be invited to and even more awesome things to be invited to one of his own infamous dinner parties, but I have no doubt it would be one of the highlights of anybody’s life.

A rather more recent photo - he was in the
middle of chemotherapy treatment.
Over at The Lit Pub, Alex Pruteanu (who knew Hitchens) has written a great reflection on what he knew of the man and what Christopher Hitchens means to him. Apart from being an excellent thing to read, this post also reminded me that I need to get (back) into Orwell. Hitchens was known and “the Orwell of our time” and actually now I remember that in Letters to a Young Contrarian Hitchens often referred to Orwell. I have both Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and his collection of essays titled Books vs. Cigarettes here with me. I am officially determined to read them both. I got through Animal Farm earlier this year and wrote vaguely about it in this post when I was still afraid of being deported like my classmates here in China. Now that I actually blog about the books I read, I will, of course, let you know how both of these go.

Actually now that I think of it, as a writer (albeit a young and naïve and unaccomplished one) I also feel genuinely sad that he died. I have never felt sad about a stranger’s death before. Ever. But I remember reading his piece on the writer’s voice and being moved in a way I hadn’t in a long time. Again – it was as though he was speaking personally to me. Us plebeians (read: baby writers like me) can only dream of one day approaching his precedence of brilliance and I would never presume to be even in viewing distance of his league of awesomeness, but as a fellow appreciator of the written and spoken word, there is something there that puts us on the same page. I know that a lot of you will know what I mean when I say this.

I feel bound to mention, thought, that one of the greatest things I get from listening to his debates and reading and appreciating his words is that, in general, you don’t have to agree with people to have intense respect for them. I do not really identify as an atheist in the traditional sense that Mr. Hitchens does, and unlike him I think that women are extremely funny, and from what I’ve seen and heard he could really be an asshole sometimes – but none of these things do anything to diminish my immense respect for him.  For example I know a lot of people don’t like the fact that he was a great drinker and smoker (I happen to like these qualities in the right individual) but nobody could really talk any shit about the man himself. He commanded respect and deserved every ounce of it that he received.

I like to think that one of the reasons he gets that respect, is that he really fought for what he believed in. And I need to believe that people like this really exist. People who spend their lives on the search/battle for truth. There are, no doubt, others who came before and perhaps others might follow his example, but I doubt whether any have ever or could ever do it with his sharp wit, side-aching humor, and massive charisma. He was the very definition of an individual. Those who knew him often spoke of his incredible energy and productiveness and I’m so damn glad that he wrote so much – because I might just be able to consume the contents of his mind until I also die.

If you want to read other (read: better and actually real) accounts of his life, then I recommend the several articles currently on the Vanity Fair website, my personal favourite being this one. (The images in this post are also from their website.) 

Or do what I plan on doing, and go and buy and read Hitch-22 as well as those essays.

I guess in closing I'd like to wish that Christopher Hitchens rests in peace - wherever that is or isn't.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...