Like many bright but impressionable youngsters I was greatly taken-in by the charisma and bravura bombast of the late Christopher Hitchens. In fact, I became a Hitchens groupie. I even own a t-shirt with his likeness on it. His was the first book on atheism I ever read, after losing my fragile faith watching Dawkins videos on YouTube. I purchased God is Not Great from the local bookstore to the visible dismay of the cashier, kept it in its paper bag on the car ride home, and then hid it under my bed until, on a day when my parents were out, I devoured it in a fit of scandalized glee.
Hitchens was cool and uncompromising, a debonair radical, equally likely to rouse you to righteous indignation with a blaze of rhetoric as to pitch you into elated laughter with some bawdy aside or flourish of scintillating wit. Provided you were on his side, of course. He retains that powerful charm in my memory despite the fact that I’ve shifted against him on most matters that he cared about. This image (Hitch: the brilliant intellectual pugilist, suave, cerebral, and incendiary) I owe less to his writing than to his role as celebrity provocateur, which is best chronicled in the multitude of YouTube videos in which he stars.
It’s clear to me now that Christopher Hitchens was one thing above all: an entertainer. He was (and I’m speaking here of his public persona) really only a more cultured version of Lenny Bruce. Dial down Bruce’s caustic, streetwise stylings and add some burnished English charm and effortless erudition and you’ve got the Hitch. His appeal is precisely that of a celebrity. One is tempted to trot out the cliché “larger than life” because Hitchens fits with what most people mean when they use that phrase: his character is written in broad, bold strokes and we feel we can know him without needing to acquaint ourselves with the private being that dwelt in the shadow of that vivid façade. One could just as appropriately say “smaller than life” then, if that private being, in its frailty and nakedness and immutable beauty, is what matters most about each person, as I believe it is.
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Hitchens has been called a narcissist by a few of the many enemies he won for himself with his undaunted style and ideological idiosyncrasies. I think there is some truth in that accusation. Reading him, you never feel you are being confided in, you never feel trusted as a reader. There is always this distance of lacquered artifice. You are being treated to a performance, often a very impressive one, but you remain always a spectator. Hitchens requires only your rapt attention. Anything more, anything like the intimate contact of souls that every reader of a religious inclination yearns for, would be a sentimental embarrassment for him.
Humility, on the rare occasions he attempts it, has a hollow ring in his prose, looks as transparently affected as an infomercial grin. He was evidently a man who did not suffer fools gladly (to indulge another apt cliché). And he drew a stark line between foolishness and wisdom, clearly convinced that his finely calibrated intellect would never fail him in discerning the difference. Is arrogance excused if it is parcelled out in witticisms and blazoned with indignation? How narrowly delimited was the scope of his compassion if he took such delight in dousing his opponents with scorn? How could he then be expected, after indulging so shamelessly in polemical fervor, to do justice to matters of moral seriousness? He is as vulnerable to these questions as any shock-jock or TV pundit. This doesn’t make Hitchens a stand-out amidst the ranks of cultural warriors, but it surely undermines the gilded image of him in the minds of his most avid fans, as a man of unshakeable principle and iron integrity.
Hitchens took on matters of profound importance, and he did it with a fierce passion. But when I think of the rhetoric he deployed, and the vehemence with which he deployed it, I can’t help but see him as a demagogue and a charlatan. One of his most oft-repeated quotes is “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” This is, from the perspective of both science and philosophy, a recipe for obscurantism and intellectual irresponsibility, and a disastrous idea for anyone with an interest in truth to take to heart. Its appeal is the same as much of Hitchens’ rhetoric: when invoked it provides the intoxicating pleasure of putting your foot down in an argument. It’s a flashy rhetorical gambit that says, “I need say no more.” Though happy to present himself as a champion of science, Hitchens was clearly ignorant of the philosophy of science and its most important developments in the twentieth century; otherwise, he would not have uttered a remark so redolent of verificationism. Popperians must shudder when they hear that quote.
Hitchens was also an avowed advocate of irony, seeing himself as a participant in the “all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind.” One wonders whether he would have appreciated the irony that a fierce critic of the cult of personality should have become the object of just such a cult. Today he is worshipped (if I said idolized it would be only a minor exaggeration) by multitudes of devotees who fiercely defend him against any criticism. It is not to doubt the sincerity of his unbelief to observe that his refusal to make any concessions to the faithful in the course of what was surely an agonizing and in some ways humiliating death has made him, for some, a kind of atheist martyr. I don’t imagine his death from throat cancer gives pause to those who thrilled (and thrill still) at the sight of him moodily sucking on a cigarette, or swilling whiskey in his palm. He is not the first iconoclast made icon, and he will not be the last epicurean undone by his appetites and yet emulated by the young.
For all this, as far as cults go the Hitchens cult is a relatively inoffensive one. Hitchens can’t fairly be compared to odious figures like Ayn Rand. You will not find a writer as artless, witless, and shrill as Ayn Rand, nor a philosophy as blinkered and dogmatic as hers, and, given her influence among atheists, Hitchens’ inability (which the rest of the New Atheists share) to offer more than the most perfunctory denunciation of her philosophy is significant. It speaks to a lack in his thought, and a wild imbalance in his priorities, that he did not have the resources to rebut such repugnant sophistry with anything like the passion that he decried Christianity.
There is a superficiality to Hitchens’s thought which is hard to ignore once one has seen beyond his swaggering self-assurance and belletristic flair. To take just one example, like his atheist fellow traveler Richard Dawkins, the idea of transubstantiation is one he could only meet with incredulity (another irony given Dawkins’ railing against “arguments from incredulity”). Something like Elizabeth Anscombe’s penetrating and insightful exploration of the mystery of transubstantiation was entirely beyond Hitchens’s intellectual powers. To be fair, it is beyond most people, but the seriousness and rigor that a great philosopher brings to a subject, so wonderfully displayed by Anscombe, is not even approached in the treatment given to such profound topics by Hitchens, whose words seem only the fine clothing on a scoff or a snicker.
Like all the New Atheists, Hitchens made a platitude of the pronouncement that you don’t need God to be good (Anscombe had a few things to say on this subject too). He was never able to see the depths of presumption and condescension in this sentiment. He saw praying for mercy as grovelling. He saw trusting that such mercy was on offer as a self-indulgent fantasy. It seems to me he was a man with a strong sense of dignity, but a perverse one. If, like him, you’d woken up to the fact that death is plain cessation, that hell is human perfidy and heaven a lurid mirage, and that the universe makes no guarantees, then you had a claim on dignity. You were facing the world with the steely disillusionment it demanded. But if, like the benighted people of darker ages, you felt indebted to something greater than yourself, committed to reverently attend to what you cannot fully understand, then you forfeited any claim to dignity, having turned your back on the stark truth in favor of consoling lies. For a man who routinely condemned “cynicism” in his opponents, Hitchens’s vision of the world was unremittingly cynical, as is anyone’s when they deny the necessity of grace. You may excise God from your picture of human goodness, but it is easy then to withdraw compassion from wherever it lacks the sanction of your tribe.
Ostensibly a socialist for much of his life, Hitchens was always a good liberal, ready to greet his opponents with derision and ridicule for believing in something other than the iron law of argument and the supremacy of theory. For Christopher Hitchens the world was a debating hall, an arena, an editorial page, a stage. For many of us (and I imagine for all Christians) it is a mystery and a gift, bewildering in its excess and perplexing in its simplicity but always and undeniably precious. No argument can fully compass that view, and so it seems it is one that lay far outside the vision of Christopher Hitchens. His worldview was a lively chiaroscuro. But it was still only black and white.