|Hitchens: sketch based on photo
There's a time when the awareness that they are about to die shows vividly in a person's face, and though I had seen several recent pictures of him, it wasn't hard to tell from this one that it would only be days.
Five, to be exact. He died yesterday.
Knowing that there would be a vast outpouring of all sorts of reactions to his death amongst my friends and acquaintances on Twitter, I didn't want to be part of the immediate controversy about a man who was both lionised and bitterly resented. One friend, Kimberley Ramplin, simply wrote:
In response to her public comment, I wrote back, publicly:
I then closed Twitter for the night.
Only then I realised how easily words get misinterpreted, especially cryptic ones. What I mean by my comment was not that Hitchens was perfect, but that Kimbo's comment was the perfect one in the circumstances. Say no more, give him time to rest in peace for a little while, and show respect for the dead - especially a man so influential in the interminable philosophical debate about religion as Christopher Hitchens.
That's all I meant. She and most of my friends would have got it immediately, but not everyone. It drove home to me once again what I have said so many times over my lifetime:
"Words are good servants but bad masters."
Hitchens was an atheist. There are many things about religion that he attacked, and for that he provoked controversy. He did so because he had a prodigious mind and was a master of words, either written or in public debate. This combination made him very persuasive and much feared by his opponents.
His greatest enemies were the Christian religious right, not those of the sensible Christian middle ground, or from other religions. Muslims generally seem to have kept a dignified silence in his religious debates, although they have had more reason to be offended by his views on politics and religion than unflinching dogmatists at the blindly ignorant end of the spectrum of Christianity.
I should make clear at this point that on many matters of religion, I agree with the essential points that Hitchens always made about them and those who manipulate religion for their own purposes, but this isn't the place for that discussion. I'll simply say that I respect absolutely the right of thinking people to their own religious and philosophical views. Finite minds do have a bit of difficulty grasping the infinite, and it is presumptuous for humans to think that if finite minds can't grasp something, then it can't exist.
Hitchens didn't have any problems with that particular point, though his atheism was misunderstood, often willfully. He ignored that willful ignorance, knowing that debate with such people is pointless.
He drove me crazy when two colleagues and I were running a course on Islamic politics for more than a decade. He had very controversial views on this matter, including support for the Bush insanity in Iraq. (There's some irony in the fact that the United States had, almost on the day of Hitchens' death, extracted themselves from Iraq as officially active military participants.)
We included some of his most persuasive articles on this topic in our teaching material in the course on Middle-Eastern politics; sensible and appropriate academic practice when balanced by opposing views expressed through the incisive writings of the venerable Beirut-based journalist, Robert Fisk.
When I say he drove me crazy, I really mean the contrast between Hitchens and Fisk drove the students crazy, because they were presented with very persuasive views from each side of the political fence, and some found this hard to handle. Sorting them out year after year in tutorial discussions and essays made an enormous amount of work for us.
That was our job, of course. It wasn't our place to convince students who was right and who was wrong; it was to show them how very different conclusions can be arrived at by fine minds - and how prejudices on all our sides were part of the equation.
Hitchens is going to be remembered more for his views on religion than on politics, because those are the ones that won't be laid to rest. When he died yesterday I was expecting the battery of jokes about what would happen when Hitch the unflinching atheist found himself at the gates of Heaven or Hell. He probably would have been mildly amused by them.
It may seem odd, but I didn't expect these jokes to come quite so soon and with such lack of respect for death; his death in particular, because lack of respect for such a potent mind as Hitchens' is lack of understanding of his contribution to rational thought and debate at the highest level.
I should have known better. It always happens. Of course, I am pretty sensitive to such matters at the moment. We are nearly the same age and we share a common fate from the same disease. He did what I have attempted to do for two years now - to demystify death without clinging too much to the mysterious.
In one of his final articles, he destroyed the proposition by Neitzsche: “Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger.” He knew that that his cancer was indeed going to kill him, and that there was nothing in his treatment that would strengthen him.
But the attitude to that condition can be strengthening. His age, and his pathway through the disease has many parallels with mine, including what he came to recognise as his own change of views about the final stages.
It's not a case of Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle...." That's bravado from the young Dylan Thomas who faced an early death but lived only half a life. He simply wasn't ready for death and was full of rage. Hitch wasn't.
Hitchens came to understand that this was not the way. There's a time to be gentle, and he was aware of it at the end.
If you read nothing more of his, read that article.