If Christopher quit the left … he never joined the right. Like his hero George Orwell, Christopher was a man whose most creative period of life was a period of constantly falling between two stools: his new hatred for George Galloway never dimmed his old animosity toward Henry Kissinger. He was for the Iraq war without ever much trusting or liking the leaders who led that war. The stock phrase of the 2000s on the right was “moral clarity.” If moral clarity means hating cruelty and oppression, then Christopher Hitchens was above all things a man of moral clarity. But he was also a man of moral complexity, who would not submit to Lenin’s demand that who says A must say B. Christopher was never more himself than when – after saying A – he adamantly refused to say B.
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.
One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
Like all of us, he was often wrong, but never in the way everyone else was wrong. His originality was a constant, his independence an unstoppable engine. He loved to argue and debate, not because he was a bully but because he thought it pointed in the direction of truth. And possibly because he was better at it than anyone else. It was moving to see Christopher applying his integrity to the experience of dying. He went out on his own terms, with no sentimentality or regret, telling it straighter than anyone else would dare.
Hitchens was the best kind of essayist. You'd start reading, unsure what position he was going to take. You'd finish knowing just why he took it, and you'd be wondering why you didn't, or spitting with frustration at how wrong he was, how you just knew it, how you could prove it if you, well, you'd need a few minutes to sort this out, first you needed some paper…
A foolish consistency is a terrible error and no-one, perhaps not even those dolts who hated him, could accuse Christopher of that. But though he was often a contrarian he was rarely a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. There was a point to it all and it was not a pose struck for the sake of, well, just striking a pose. That said, his poses were also an aesthetic matter: Hitch had style and he knew it and traded on it and that was all just fine. You could love it but you also, if you were being honest with yourself, envied it and, in sourer moments, almost resented it because you knew you could never match it. That was your problem, not Christopher's.
Every moment in his presence was joyous, even when we were arguing; he was wildly entertaining, by turns provocative and gracious. He may have been among the last of his kind–truly, a thought-full man of letters, rather than of “takes” and sound bites. I will miss the joy of reading him, and chatting with him at parties; but more, I worry that Hitch is taking with him a world, a world of contemplative reading and writing–the very opposite of what I am doing right now, posting an immediate reaction to his death on this blog. He lived life perpetually intoxicated, not just by booze (he was happily soused during our English debate), but by books and words and thoughts and ideas. I will miss him, and all the excesses he cherished. We need more such, and are left with less.