Today we woke to the news that British-born author, literary critic, “public intellectual”, journalist, atheist and “contrarian” Christopher Hitchens had died at the age of 62.
I was never fortunate enough to meet or even correspond with Christopher. Nonetheless, in recent years his work has had a huge impact on the way I look at my own work and my place in the world. Christopher at no point really changed my way of thinking. My views on subjects like religion were already well formed when I “discovered” him and his work. What Christopher did succeed in doing, however, was help instil in me the kind of self-belief that comes from intellectual rigour: if I haven’t thought and read about the subject thoroughly, I generally try not to comment until I have.
Like Richard Dawkins, he also helped me understand more completely that my atheism was not something that I should be afraid of speaking out about, with all the force required. Again, Christopher did not convert me. I had been an atheist for decades before encountering his work, and I was never shy about discussing it publicly. What Christopher amongst others taught me, however, was that atheism in the world we currently inhabit is about more than just personally choosing to not believe, it is in many regards a position that requires a protection of an individual’s right not to have the very things he does not believe in foisted upon him – and that holding one’s tongue was not an option.
Christopher said a number of times in recent interviews that “All Life Is a Wager”. Some would say he has now lost that wager. Those who unkindly (what am I saying? The evil sons of bitches who vilely) prayed that he might die and get what he “deserved” in Hell, will no doubt be claiming a considerable victory in this department. Those far kinder Christians, Jews and Muslims, however, who prayed for his recovery rather than condemning him or praying for his soul might also see this as a wager lost (though I suspect many won’t). But I don’t. As I look at my Twitter stream as I write this, every other tweet seems to contain the word “Hitch”. Even those (myself included) who did not always agree with Christopher admired him – or at least many did.
It seems trite to talk of legacies. But, in the end, all we have is what we leave behind. We take the hand dealt and make the best of it we can. It strikes me that this is what Christopher did, to the very end. And, yes, the legacy is a considerable one. A legacy that confirms beyond doubt that the wager was won.
My thoughts are with Carol Blue, Christopher’s wife, his children, his brother, Peter, his family and numerous friends.