Christopher Hitchens was, for me, as with many people on the rough noospheric conglomoration we term “the left,” firstly something to aspire to, and then something to revolt against. However, my personal evolution of perspective upon the man who was proud to be known as a contrarian occurred within a microcosm, partially due to my age and partially, I suspect, because of the rapidity with which the internet can build and then destroy a picture in one’s mind.
I became aware of the man’s work quite late on – it was in early 2007, as he was poised to release his famous polemic against religion, God Is Not Great, that he first came on my radar due to an interview in The Times. 18 years old, I was about halfway through my flirtations with angry atheism, tilting wildly at the windmill of a vaguely Catholic upbringing. Up until that point, I’d barely ventured as far as the books of Richard Dawkins or the TV programmes of Carl Sagan; pitifully, I was impressed with the rhetorical flourishes of the unbelievably daft Rational Response Squad, and convinced the likes of Ray Comfort and his bumbling, barely literate ilk were all an atheist need fear our righteous intellectual battle against religion. Thankfully, I was never in the thrall of the other heavyweights of online freethinking, the neckbearded, unkempt YouTube warriors; though I was faintly aware of people like Thunderf00t and TheAmazingAtheist. Who knows what horrible intellectual paths could have awaited me had I not come across Hitchens.
Whilst I inevitably found his arguments against religion sound and, as a teenager, was attracted to his seeming disregard for his liver, his influence went further than that. I had never been a particularly good student – going from a Catholic primary school in a poor town to the best grammar school in the area had had the demoralising effect of transforming me from top to bottom of the class. Though I retained my interest in some subjects I’d always been good at, such as English, the first few years of adolescence, beset as it was with patronising, discouraging teachers, had brutalised any recognition of myself as intelligent. If anything was going to change that, it was listening to, and reading, Hitchens. He made me want to be erudite. He made me want to be well-read, if only so as I could get his literary references (indeed, the man turned me on to writers as diverse as E.M. Forster and Peter DeVries). He made me want to know what I was talking about, and then talk about it.
I even went so far as to allow myself to be converted to the just causes behind the invasion of Iraq. It’s not often I confess to being a (albeit temporary) supporter of perhaps the greatest blunder of Western foreign policy of the past generation, but it’s true. I had been converted to what Alexander Cockburn has since called the “cult of Hitchens,” and everything that went with it. I felt mildly guilty about this at the time, as if even my newfound hero’s arguments didn’t exactly ring true, but the visceral enjoyment that accompanied the man debating any subject was a delight too profound to deny myself… until the day came that I couldn’t swallow it any more.
My infatuation with the New Atheism didn’t last long, though I’ll always cherish my signed copy of The Selfish Gene and owe a debt to Daniel Dennett for turning me onto the works of Gilbert Ryle (two things that would still go a long way towards explaining religion, if Dennett and Dawkins could be bothered to go back and read themselves). Discovering J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism was a major turning point, as it seemed to say what all the New Atheists had danced inexpertly around, logically destroying the Thomistic God as a philosophical concept. So were stumbling upon the works of Karen Armstrong, John Dominic Crossan, Bishop John Shelby Spong, Elaine Pagels and Don Cupitt – these were people who actually knew what they were talking about when it came to religion and its persistence as a cultural force. My subsequent and ongoing love affair with anthropology, the precise and poetic beauty in the great works of the likes of Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas and Margaret Mead, has long-since destroyed any desire for the impotent bombast of Hitchens, which shared the unpleasant Islamophobic tendencies of much of that New Atheist movement.
And, I’ll admit, Hitchens was more of a target than the others because of how much I owed to certain aspects of his personality. By the time the decade ended, I had inherited his arrogant self-assurance that comes with believing you’re the smartest person in the room, and took the same pleasure in proving it with an obscure reference to literature or science (though my forays into popular physics books were as much down to hanging around physicists at university and not wanting to be left too far behind in conversations). My arrogance, though, was, in fact, pure insecurity, and perhaps seeing the real deal made me uncomfortable. Or perhaps I’d just become tired of his distortions of fact, of his gleeful xenophobia, at his indifference or even celebrations of mass slaughter, and angry at myself for having ever been taken in by a refined accent and a cheeky grin.
Finally, though, just before his diagnosis with the cancer that would kill him, Hitchens became something for me to ignore. This is why I’m so late in my summation – it’s now been over a month since he died – because I genuinely didn’t care one way or the other. Part of me would have liked, as several of his ex-colleagues or enemies have, to summon the bile to attempt to deliver the sort of damning postmortem he dealt out to the likes of Mother Teresa, Edward Said and the vile Jerry Falwell. I wouldn’t, either, have been the first to wistfully reminisce about a younger Hitchens – though whilst many would look back to his pre-2001 days as a Vidal-esque critic, it would be the “drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay,” as George Galloway called him, I would seek to remember fondly.
I can’t even bring myself to say, as many have, that he died tragically young. Whilst he wasn’t particularly old, at 62, he wasn’t young, either. I honestly don’t think he had much left to give – he’d already treated us to the sweaty, bearded socialist; the suited, belligerent socialite. We’d had Hitchens the half-decent essayist, the second-rate debator. We’d sat through Hitchens the alternative media voice and Hitchens the Fox News personality (my favourite of all his incarnations – I can still enjoy the utter disdain with which he treats the likes of Sean Hannity). What else was there?
When it’s all said and done, Hitchens was an entertaining man, a good writer, and a lover of literature. Considering the variety of my emotional responses to his late life and work, I wish I had something more definite to say. Is it fitting that he remains something of an enigma, something hard to pigeonhole, as he seemed to portray himself in his memoir? Or is it just sad that a man who always sought a strong reaction gets little more than predictable eulogies that either canonise him or condemn him? I think he’s lucky that so many people have so much to say about a journalist at all, especially one who had long since become more of a columnist and celebrity instead by the time of his death.
But my life would probably have turned out differently without him. I still, a month later, don’t know how I feel about that.