Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. Vanity Fair broke the news and any number of publications are running obituaries at the moment.
For myself, I can only say that one of my biggest regrets is never having seen him speak in person. He was a brilliant debater and uniquely entertaining and an inspiring essayist. I daresay that I have seen nearly all of his public appearances, interviews, and discussions, at one time or another, via Youtube and Vimeo.
Why I was so compelled by him, his writing, presence, and dependably imaginative turns of phrase, I can not definitively say. A beautifully flawed person, and courageously adamant in his beliefs and defense of liberal democratic values, there is certainly no one reason why I, and others I know, were so drawn to his example. I don’t make a habit of going around and memorizing clever rejoinders or snarky rebuttals, but whether through accident or unconscious intent, or because of repeatedly re-watching his debates and interviews, and re-reading his books and essays, such was the case with Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens was the first public intellectual (though that label is far too weak sounding to properly describe a man of such strong conviction) to inspire within me a confidence in the things I believed even when they were not widely shared or even respected. I did not get my atheism from him, nor my deep respect for Western humanism and literature. I certainly did not take up his late neoconservative tendencies toward imperialism and clash of civilizations theory.
What gift I did receive from him, through is writing and public speaking, was the idea that it was not only alright, not only sometimes necessary, but often extremely enjoyable, highly entertaining, and unusually enlightening to challenge the current terms of debate. From reading his Letters to a Young Contrarian, lent to my while at university by a friend and fellow Hitchens admirer, I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin. My shoes fit a little better, my collar felt a little less tight, and my ideas became a little more free from the cultural, social, and political milieu in which they had been born into and grown out of. In other words my ideas changed, shifted, and transformed in sometimes subtle, sometimes painfully explicit ways, and became with each adjustment, a little bit more my own. I can imagine few greater gifts, especially from someone I’ve never even met.
I am by no means an expert on the man, and still have only a shadow of an insight into his life before stardom, of his passionate affair with Marxism or his time in Greece or, for that matter, his principled position on the Bosnian War. Indeed, the only silver lining to the sadness of his passing might be in the extensive and vibrant body of work he leaves behind for others to read, watch and listen to.
I have nothing profound to say. All I can write is that the world is worse without him. And my thoughts are with those who knew him best and who will be most grieved by his passing today and in the days to come.