The second blog I ever wrote, in June last year, was about Christopher Hitchens who died on Friday. Being new to the blogosphere in those days, I was a little intimidated by the furious response it received from Hitchens’ fellow-atheists, who denounced me for stating I would pray for him (he had just been diagnosed with the cancer which was to kill him) and for suggesting that the disease might be a ‘wake-up call’ for the incorrigible essayist and contrarian, as Hitchens liked to describe himself.
In the face of a slow and painful death, met with his customary clear-sightedness and lack of self-pity, all this atheist rage – and indeed, Hitchens’ own famous denunciations of religion – seems irrelevant. As the US blogger Sheila Liaugminas wrote in her blog on Friday, “[He] now knows the truth of it…A year and a half ago, when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, I wrote that even if he thought it was stupid, I was praying for him. I still am.” So am I; and indeed, although Hitchens was dismissive and derisory of ‘religion’, he was too imaginative and magnanimous a man not to be touched by the evidence of concern for his health among his Christian friends. These included Dr Francis Collins, a well-known Christian, as well as the scientist who masterminded the Genome Project. Collins has spoken movingly about his friendship with Hitchens, a friendship which transcended the divergence of their beliefs.
Yet the response to his death which stirred me most was that of his brother, Peter, also an author and journalist, who wrote in his Mail blog that “the one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’…I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it”. On reading his autobiographical memoir, Hitch-22, last year, I noted the same quality; I also felt that Hitchens was a larger and more generous-hearted man than his prejudices and spleen would suggest. He had a kind of fierce intellectual integrity that led him to question most things – including, notoriously, his own Left-wing political views after 9/11 – although not, alas, his stance on faith. He was never afraid to make enemies and never tempted to make peace with them at the expense of a certain defiant honesty.
An anecdote related by his friend Francis Wheen in Saturday’s Telegraph illustrates an aspect of Hitchens that I had intuited from his writings, especially his response to literature in his reviews collected in his last book, Arguably. Although refusing to recognise that “Beauty” might be an aspect of God, he was deeply responsive to what one might describe as “kairos moments” – those moments when a cerebral response is forced to cede to a deeper level of consciousness. As Wheen narrates, “Staying in his apartment once, I played ‘Abide With Me’ on the piano – and looked up to see tears rolling down his cheeks.” I don’t think this was merely nostalgia or sentimentality.
My colleague, Jack Carrigan, who by coincidence reviewed Arguably in the Herald this last weekend, concluded that Hitchens would not survive for posterity in the same way as George Orwell, one of his heroes. I agree. He was a very good writer, clear, engaged, ironic and knowledgeable, but he lacked the sustained moral vision to produce a corpus of work that would last. Touchingly, in his acknowledgments in that book, Hitchens himself reflected that his now adult children (whom he has admitted to neglecting when they were young) represented “all that I can ever hope to claim by way of futurity”.
When I was in primary school we had to learn a poem by heart every week (that shows you how old I am); once we had to recite a rousing ballad by Charles Kingsley, called “The Knight’s Leap: A Legend of Altenar.” It related the story of a hard-drinking, hard-fighting knight, cornered at last by his enemies, who chose to ride his horse over a gorge in a reckless attempt to escape. The last stanza runs: “They found him next morning below in the glen/with never a bone in him whole/ But Heaven may yet have more mercy than men/on such a bold rider’s soul.” Thinking of “Hitch”, this stanza comes irresistibly to mind.