“Have you heard about Hitchens?” I asked a friend one day the summer of 2010.
“What—is he finally in rehab?”
Not exactly the response I expected, but after all a logical one.
“No,” I said. “He has esophageal cancer.”
“Isn’t that the kind of cancer you get when you’re an alkie and you smoke like a chimney?” my friend asked. My friend, a poet, is an “alkie” himself and, at 47, has been sober for more than 25 years.
“Yeah,” I said. “It often has a very poor prognosis—they usually don’t find it until it’s advanced.”
Poor Hitch, we agreed, then we were tempted to take it back, because if there were anyone in the world who wouldn’t stand for anyone’s pity, it might be Christopher Hitchens.
Christopher Hitchens, just before he was diagnosed with cancer.
And now Hitch has gone. The world of language and letters and of debate will be the more impoverished for it. He was a brilliant speaker and writer.
Hitch has remained on my mind since I read about his diagnosis the summer he got sick. Just before that, I’d come across this interview with him in the Guardian, in which the writer opens with a portrait of Hitch in hangover and then, after taking him for a pub lunch:
It seems to me so evidently the case that Hitchens is an alcoholic that to say much more feels unnecessary. But for the record, he trots out all the usual self-serving, defensive evasions: “For me, an alcoholic is someone who can’t hold his drink” or, “I’m not dependent, but I’d prefer not to be without it.” The longest he has ever been was a dry weekend “in fucking Libya”, and he claims he drinks only to make other people less boring. So, presumably, he doesn’t drink when he’s with [Martin] Amis? “Er, yuh, I do.”
He was a relatively young man—only 62, not yet out of middle age—but his body had been leveled. Not only by cancer, but also by addiction, the underlying cause of the cancer. Just before he got sick, he’d been taking care of book sales and promotion for his memoir Hitch-22, flying around the world, but he’d not been taking care of himself.
Hitchens was a formidable intellect. He could worst his opponents in debate, gain the upper hand or secure the last word on panels, or engross any assembly for hours on end. Talk-show hosts worked hard to insert toeholds into Hitch’s monologues. He reveled in performance as much as he enjoyed working out the arguments.
I remember sitting in a bar with Hitchens, listening to him regale me and our partners (Hitch and my partner had been at Oxford, at the same college at the same time) with his opinions and tales of his exploits. This was a while ago, he had just started working for Vanity Fair, and I don’t remember the details of the stories or the arguments; what I remember is his bearing, and his appearance. He knocked back glass after glass of scotch and chain-smoked, holding the cigarette in the same hand as the booze. His shirt was unbuttoned (as always) to show the mat of hair on his chest, and his sandy locks fell across his damp forehead.
I kept looking at him, wondering, Why does this guy think he’s so hot?
He had been much more handsome before the booze and ciggies went to work on him.
Christopher Hitchens as a student at Balliol College, Oxford, around 1970.
Hitch always carried himself as though he were a real dude when in truth, by the early 1990s, he looked blowsy. He wouldn’t have been much to notice had it not been for his voice. Hitch had a gorgeous voice—insistent, seductive; mellow and smooth at the front but with a deep burn at the back, like the Scotch he loved. For a man who had lived and worked in the States for 30 years, his voice was still curiously Oxonian all the way through. How Hitchens preserved his accent is an interesting question. I think Hitch’s voice was where his psyche lived (he may have said and even believed it lived between his legs, but a great part of it lived in his larynx) and I suspect he protected it.
After his diagnosis interesting discussions sprouted up on the Internet about the ethics of praying for Hitch. Should someone who disdains faith and God be prayed for? Would they want prayers? And many people wondered: Could Hitchens possibly remain an atheist, now that his life was in jeopardy?
Of course he remained an atheist, for fook’s sake. Who cares whether Hitch would or would not want anyone’s prayers?
What I always wondered was, would he ever get sober?
I suppose it’s because I lost both parents to addiction that I find this the more important question. Neither of my parents was able to quit their drugs before they died. … A prescient exchange occurred between Hitchens and Jon Stewart when Hitch appeared on The Daily Show in his 2007 promotion of God is Not Great, his book about atheism.
Stewart: Does [faith] serve a purpose to give comfort to people, because we are a species that knows we’re going to die and leave—isn’t it nice to have something that brings comfort? Is it necessarily a bad thing to have that comfort, if it doesn’t then cause us to attack other species whose comfort we don’t believe in? Let’s say it’s just for our comfort.
Hitch: That’s a very beautiful and sincere question. [audience laughter] I, myself, I’ve always thought—in the death matter—that an exception would be made in my case.
H: Yes. But I must look like an asshole to you when I say that.
S: Not just when you say that.
Uproarious laughter at Stewart’s last jibe. Anyone who was able to get Hitchens’s goat always earned some giggles. Hitchens himself was gracious about it—he was usually (but not always) generous with talk-show hosts who tried to spar with him. And of course Hitchens was joking about living forever, but only half-joking—the carefully chosen language of his response skirted a critical blindness. Let’s face it: his life had been in jeopardy long before he was diagnosed with cancer. You can’t drink and smoke that hard for that long without putting your life on the line. Hitchens said ages ago for the record that many great writers “did some of their finest work when blotto, smashed, polluted, shitfaced, squiffy, whiffled, and three sheets to the wind.”
Well, OK, Hitch, and how long and how well did they live?
Another thing that I noticed during this Daily Show clip: Stewart looks and sounds so calm and spiffy next to Hitchens. Because Stewart is so healthy.
I’m thinking about Hitch’s wife and kids. …
By the way, if you think it’s impossible to get sober and still be an atheist, think again. Lest it be considered in poor taste to offer up my own example, let me mention that a friend of mine turned me on to this interview with Augusten Burroughs, author of the memoir Running with Scissors: he claims to have no religious belief and to have cleaned up with a higher power that was a “cartoon version of Jesus, plucked from the manger with a pet cow.”