Has the theory of the solar system been advanced by graceful manners and conversational tact?
— George Eliot
If I can’t fuck up Ann Coulter before lunch then I shouldn’t be in this business.
— Christopher Hitchens
I think this says so much:
He also professed to have no regrets for a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that—or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation—is worth it to me,” he told Charlie Rose in a television interview in 2010, adding that it was “impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”
I highlight that because so few people achieve that sense of clarity of purpose. I think once you have that, the prospect of death—and even the prospect of great vast empty—becomes an easier proposition.
Regrettably, I never met Hitchens. But two moments stand out for me. First, reading Letters to a Young Contrarian, which really was an eye-opener for me. I think I’m actually going to have my son read it in the next year or two. And, oddly enough, this encounter with Ralph Reed on the death of Jerry Falwell, where Hitchens refused to shrink into the tempting embrace of false compassion. Again, when you have that clarity of purpose, this sort of necessary incivility comes a little easier.
With that in mind, it would be disrespectful for us to resort to pieties. When I think of Hitchens I also think of this outstanding piece from The New Yorker by Ian Parker, and particularly this moment:
Such performances of masculinity don’t appear exclusively on the page. Not long ago, in Baltimore, I saw Hitchens challenge a man—perhaps homeless and a little unglued mentally—who had started walking in step with his wife and a woman friend of hers while Hitchens walked some way ahead. Hitchens dropped back to form a flank between the women and the man, then said, “This is the polite version. Go away.” The man ambled off. Hitchens pressed home the victory. “Go away faster,” he said.
What you get in that piece is a Hitchens generally spoiling for fights, but rarely discriminating among them—and in that ugly scene you get a bully. I suspect it wasn’t the first (or last) offense. Is that what it takes to make a theory of the solar system? Can you have one without the other?
Probably not. But I remain grateful for having studied at Hitchens’s virtual foot. I would salute his ascent into Valhalla. But I think that would just be defiling a warrior’s grave. I think this clip will do just fine.