I became familiar with Christopher Hitchens in a rather strange way: through the face of a villain. Not a real life flesh-and-blood villain, but the face of an actor playing one -- Roger Allam's smarmily handsome mug as the corporate miscreant Royalton in the Wachowski's Speed Racer, to be exact.
On a visit during the shoot in Berlin over coffee one day in the summer of 2007 at the Intercontinental Hotel, in between sips, my father flanked over at Roger (who was sitting innocently enough on the couch) and said something like "Damn, he looks a lot like Christopher Hitchens." "Who?" I asked. "He's the columnist at Vanity Fair. Got a biting wit," my father replied, blowing on the hot beverage before him. "Oh," I said, and thought nothing more of it. Six or seven months later, as I perused a bookstore one day while escaping a frigid San Francisco afternoon air, flitting about aimlessly between the aisles, I came to face what I thought was my dear thespian brother Roger on the cover of a book. Amazed that Roger had so recently taken up writing (or at the very least, modeling), I got closer and picked it up, seeing then what it really was -- Christopher Hitchen's book Thomas Paine's Rights Of Man: A Biography, with a smoothly dressed Hitchens coolly gazing at the reader, his face filled with an expression of bitterness and wry sarcasm it would take me a long time to begin to understand the motives of.
So I, amazed that someone on the planet so closely resembled dear Roger, picked up the little book and purged my wallet. Serendipity is a strange thing when you go back and look at all the plain and stupid coincidences that have affected your life, which in their banality become all the more remarkable once the measure of their effect has been made. I had caught The Hitch.
Since that day in San Francisco, I've been a great admirer of the writing and speaking from the roguish wit, and through his books like God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitch-22: A Memoir, Arguably, Why Orwell Matters, and Letters To A Young Contrarian, to name just a small fraction of his prodigious work, which also include columns in Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic and The Nation -- I can say that Hitchens for me was a gateway to an ongoing broader education that I otherwise would have never had -- and not just because I never went to college (okay, maybe a little).
But even more than presenting a mere path, he inspired me to want to learn more about the world in the first place -- he provokes wonder in people over ideas and the act of thinking for oneself; inspires an urge to walk the path. Not only an effortless master at writing, he dished out elegance and ease in equal parts using his peerless powers of oration, and if one visits YouTube and types his name, it's not hard to get lost in videos of Hitchens speaking across the world on a cornucopia of subjects.
It was more than just being a master rhetorician and fearless polemicist that attracted me and so many others to Hitchens -- I believe it was because one gets the distinct impression as one reads him that they aren't getting any of his ideas or beliefs cut with anything -- this is the one hundred percent pure Hitchens, a guy who would rather roll over into his own grave than bullshit anyone or bow down to anything -- foe to friend. He brought an immensely controversial yet articulate reasoning for his support on the war in Iraq, often getting the antiwar establishment to sound as if they weren't the ones getting their facts straight and leaving their tongues tied. "He's wrong about Iraq. He's got that way with words, but he's still wrong," said one close friend I talked to about Hitchens' pro-Iraq War stance -- a near exasperated statement that many on the left perhaps said more often than they'd prefer to admit after they'd debated him. And no doubt would they have much rather have had him and his way with words on their side -- instead they vilified him as another spoiled lefty gone to the dark side out of his contrarian nature and became a born again neocon.
Hitchens prided himself on his diversity of political opinions, his unwillingness to become another man in anyone's rank and file doctrine, and his natural lack of innate respect for any authority. Regard everyone as mammals, was Hitchens' motto -- replace the Pope's robes in your mind with a business suit, and view his actions through the lens of a CEO in a large corporation -- and then hit us with your apologist philosophizing.
Truth teller, and man of real moral and intellectual backbone that he was, he didn't pull any punches when describing his homosexual encounters and experiences as a young man and beyond -- even though he was now married and had children -- a testament not only to his forthrightness, but also his progressive nature that separated him from other more conservative and religious voices that his critics would try to lump him in with. Hitchens refused being put in any box, infuriating the entire political and social spectrum simultaneously. Anti-capital punishment and pro-women's rights, he continuously was the voice that appealed to me the most to see subjects that I had thought I had previously considered and formed an opinion on, but the strength of his arguments and ideas regularly gave me a fresh set of eyes and ears to familiar quandaries.
His very strong opinions against religion I believe came from what one could arguably call an almost spiritual place -- he wanted the truth so badly, he would accept nothing that his mind could not spot smacked of counterfeit. He called faith the weakest of the virtues, the pinacle of handing over one's reason and thinking faculties. Yet he harbored no real grudge against the religious and even counted many of them to be friends, and some of the most standup people he knew. I've talked to several of the devout, and encouraged them to read God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, not necessarily to shake their faith, but if anyone could tempt a religious person away from the flock I believe it is Hitchens -- and if one regards themselves of possessing an unshakable faith, in my mind reading God Is Not Great may be their ultimate test in book form.
While appreciating King James Bible's profound effect upon the formation of our modern English vernacular, Hitchens still regarded literature as superior to scripture -- both in quality of prose but also in its moral and philosophical questioning. He believed one should reach for Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, for a far deeper probing of life, death, and justice than the Gospels. He was downright emotional when it came to reading and ideas -- he wrote a withering review for John Updike's Terrorist, where he comments on sending the book, "Windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance" at one point while reading it -- a harsh reaction, but one that could never be mistaken for indifference.
The more I learned about Hitchens, the deeper of an enigma he always seemed to be -- even less real, even more amazing, even more improbable. His legendary smoking habit, even admitting to having had a habit of smoking in the shower -- a several pack a day habit at one point -- to his also now mythical physical constitution and dexterity and his ability to consume copious amounts of alcohol -- as he at one point said his daily allowance of grog was enough to kill or stun a small mule -- I can't deny, made him into even more of a rockstar in my mind.
I have tipped quite a few glasses and emptied quite a few ashtrays toasting to the Hitch. It wasn't just his habit of alcohol one must be careful not to be spurred on by, but his sheer love of it, and reasoning for that love -- they fed his lust for life, a beloved muse. But Hitchens made rockstars seem small, as well as politicians or celebrities -- because his power wasn't something that was easily quantifiable or electable, he didn't have to pander to crowds to gain acceptance for a rise in this or that poll. Though from England, he loved the United States and the values and ideals it represented, relocating here in 1981 and becoming an official citizen in 2007, and always defended what he viewed as the greatest country in the world with an energetic outrage and piercing zeal that got him into regular tangles with Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal -- as well as Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity (not that those four be grouped together, mind you).
It didn't matter what philosophy or government one associated with, Hitchens, like his hero George Orwell, was, if anything, consistently anti-intolerance. Whether denouncing Kim Jong II, Moammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, or Slobodan Milosevic -- to having himself waterboarded to see what it was really like and calling it by its right name of torture, there was no imperialist juggernaut, mad hatter dictator, gang of sanctimonious hypocrites, or banana republic that Hitchens dared not go for the jugular on, or bite with a bone deep turn of phrase if he felt compelled to do so. In a world where we get closer and closer to thoughtcrime, as Winston Smith knew all to well in Orwell's 1984, there was Hitch, critics be damned, telling it like he saw it -- and not just telling it, practically howling it. Whether you agree with all or any of his thinking, those types of critical qualities and courageous integrity are to be cherished and encouraged. And yet, more boldness of voices in our choir of public discourse or not, never will be another Christopher Hitchens -- not even close.
I guess as I'm writing this I'm still in a state of shock, as many are. I've been following Hitchens' continuing illness this year, detailed in his exceptional Vanity Fair columns which he wrote with courage and grace until the very end. Esophageal cancer, the very illness his father died of, though at an older age, has claimed the son as well, at 62. No doubt the smoking and drinking caught up with him -- though being diagnosed with cancer hardly surprised him, as he admitted he had been tempting the Reaper already for quite some time.
It's a very sad day, but the gift that he gave to us is the gift of ideas -- those won't die anytime soon, in fact they may outlive us all. If you've never heard of Christopher Hitchens, the next time you see his cool gaze looking at you as from the cover of a book as I did almost five years ago, don't hesitate -- reach for it. It's been a thoroughly worthwhile and rewarding intellectual journey for me -- even at times in disagreement (it would be nearly impossible for anyone to agree with him on everything -- even for the most obsequious toadies -- the man was just too all over the map. Anyone else want to pick a fight with Mother Teresa?).
When Hitchen's spoke at his father's funeral he read a passage from the King James Bible, in the New Testament book of Philippians -- and said that he would hold the words close himself at his final hour:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there by any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.