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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Critic, gadfly, supporter of the Iraq war, misogynist, atheist. Christopher Hitchens was all these things. He was also one of the most erudite and plain-spoken writers of his day, possessed of intelligence, wit, and interests that were, in the secular sense of the word, catholic.

Hitchens died last night after a protracted battle with esophageal cancer. He was 62.

The man himself would, perhaps, cavil with the term “battle” to describe his ailment. In one of a series of pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine describing, in typically direct, often painful detail, his daily struggles with the disease that was killing him, he referred to the oft-repeated term as “one of the most appealing clichés in our language”:

You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.

Once lionized by progressives, Hitchens’s views fell increasingly out of favour in the years following 9/11, especially concerning his support for the unpopular war the U.S. and its “coalition of the willing” launched against Iraq in 2003. From the Observer:

His advocacy for the Iraq war was only the latest of Hitchens’s positions that many on the left found uncomfortable, and led to a chill in his relations with Gore Vidal, who had once nominated him a “successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delphino.” But Hitchens’s opposition to what he called “fascism with an Islamic face” began long before 9/11, with the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie, imposed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Hitchens accused of “using religion to mount a contract killing,” after the publication of The Satanic Verses.

He was also excoriated in many circles for a 2007 article in Vanity Fair entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” which prompted outraged, and not unfounded, cries of misogyny. That essay is included in his 2011 collection, Arguably, which is one of the books in the inaugural season of McClelland & Stewart’s non-fiction imprint, Signal. Writing on Random House’s Book Lounge blog, M&S president and publisher Doug Pepper says:

Christopher dealt with his illness as he did his life leading up to it: with wit, insight, incredible intellectual productivity, and extreme courage. We are all terribly saddened by his passing “ his was an incredible life cut short and we send his family our heart-felt regrets and sympathy. We are honoured to be his publishers, and in that role to have brought and continue to bring his work to Canadian readers. He will be missed but his great and inspiring legacy will live on.

Among the many tributes pouring in is one from Graydon Carter, the longtime editor of Vanity Fair, where Hitchens served as contributing editor and where much of his recent writing appeared:

He was a man of insatiable appetites “ for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. He wrote often “ constantly, in fact, and right up to the end “ and he wrote fast; frequently without the benefit of a second draft or even corrections.

Indeed, Hitchens went out as he likely would have wanted to: writing. As recently as this month, he published an essay about his cancer treatments interrogating, with clarity and an utter lack of sentimentality, Nietzsche’s famous bromide that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger:

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my will to live would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

These are progressive weaknesses that in a more normal life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that what didn’t kill me made me stronger. This is one of the manifestations that denial takes.