Christopher Hitchens, arguably the most entertaining and celebrated polemicist of his time, succumbed to cancer yesterday in a Houston hospital at the age of 62. Hitchens, described as a "British Trotskyite who had lost faith in the Socialist movement" in this NY Times obituary, had chronicled his grueling battle with esophageal cancer in a series of unflinching essays, the most recent one appearing in Vanity Fair days before his death. In it, he questioned whether the famous maxim "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" was really true:
I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than “There but for the grace of god go I,” which in turn is to say no more than “The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.”
Hitchens, who was born in Britain and moved to the U.S. in 1981, was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of 2010, and said that "the chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends." He certainly had a lot of them; Hitchens was known as much for his effulgent intellect as his conviviality. So there are a lot of talented people remembering him fondly today: Vanity Fair's Juli Weiner describes him as "the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant." Benjamin Schwarz at The Atlantic writes:
Like his hero, Orwell, Christopher prized bravery above all other qualities--and in particular the bravery required for unflinching honesty. And as was true of the work of Orwell, the former colonial policeman, this devotion paradoxically lent a certain military coloring to Christopher's intellectual, literary, and political pursuits. This most intellectual of men valued intelligence, but valued courage far more--or rather, he believed that true intellect was inseparable from courage. It's commonly said that Christopher couldn't stand stupidity.
That isn't true: He couldn't tolerate stupidity married to pretentiousness or dishonesty. It's also said that Hitchens was intolerant of his adversaries. True, he saw many of his adversaries--the shabby and dishonest--as beneath contempt. Rightly so. But he could be far more than tolerant of those honest men and women who were devoted to causes he found abhorrent: He paid honor to his enemies.
As it happens, Hitchens died on the same day that the war he so vigorously championed came to its whimpering, pointless "end." As much as we disagreed with him about that particular folly, we'll miss having him around to explain why we're wrong. Here's a great video compilation of Hitchens's best rejoinders (and here's a collection of his Daily Show appearances):