Maddy Prior & the Carnival Band: The Angel Gabriel
This would be so much cooler...

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2011

At least half the Christian and/or conservative bloggers and pundits will have something to say on the passing of Mr. Hitchens, and most of it will be somewhere between mildly sympathetic and adoring. This is a curious phenomenon, because he was not a conservative, and he was an anti-Christian bigot. We feel this way—I say "we" because I'm in the mildly, or perhaps a bit more than mildly, sympathetic range—because we believe him to have been intellectually courageous and honest. We believe he loved the truth, and his Christian sympathizers and admirers believe that love of the truth is love of God, and so we were willing to forgive him his bigotry. And, more importantly, to believe or at least hope that God would forgive it.

Before going any further I have to say emphatically that I don't intend what follows as any sort of definitive judgment. My acquaintance with Hitchens's work is relatively slight, most of it the book reviews in The Atlantic, the occasional essay in Slate or Vanity Fair, the occasional interview. So it's entirely possible that I'm not judging him fairly. 

With that qualification stated: I do not think he was quite the thinker or writer that many consider him. That he was brilliant and wrote brilliantly I wouldn't deny. But I haven't seen much evidence that he was profound.

I used the word "bigotry" above. I think it's the correct word for his attitude toward Christianity and toward religion in general, and bigotry is a pretty grave intellectual flaw. One cannot wholeheartedly admire the intellect of a man who exhibits such a depth of it on such an important matter. It is a failure of both the honesty and courage which we imputed to him (I don't believe that it takes any great courage to attack Christianity these days). I had always enjoyed his writings on literature, but once I became aware of how unreliable he was on the subject of religion I began to wonder whether I could trust him on other subjects. Read, for example, his review of Wolf Hall, a novel about reformation England, and then this one by the anonymous blogger who calls herself Alias Clio (well, actually, she calls herself Musette, the mortal servant of Clio).  I think the second is more perceptive. 

And his writing is fluid, rich, and elegant, often witty, supported by what appears to be a comfortable erudition. But is it? Once you have realized that, in speaking of religion, Hitchens was able to combine an enormous and intimidating confidence with ignorance and incomprehension, you're suspicious. Those of us who have little learning of our own, and little opportunity to acquire it, can only trust or distrust those who appear to have it; we can't judge for ourselves. It's a bit like your relationship with an auto mechanic, if you have no appreciable knowledge or skill in that area: if you once discover that the mechanic has confidently replaced a part that wasn't broken, you don't have the same confidence in him—especially if he refuses to acknowledge his mistake.

The first sentence of the book review I linked to above is a good example of this combination of skill and quite false assurance:

Early last fall, the Vatican extended a somewhat feline paw in the direction of that rather singular group of Christians sometimes denominated as “Anglo-Catholic.”

A somewhat feline paw. That's a striking and effective image. And yet it grossly distorts the event it describes. A deep, intense, and difficult dialogue has been going on between Rome and Canterbury for decades, with high hopes often entertained for its success, and this latest development represents not a move in a chess game—in which the object, of course, is victory—but something closer to an act of despair, a recognition that the hoped-for reunion is not going to happen. It is the result of a painful decision balancing the hopes of bringing the two institutions closer together against the desire to welcome a group of Christians who have been abandoned by their own communion. Hitchens, as the rest of the paragraph makes clear, can see only a power struggle. Moreover, he exhibits the sometimes amusing but mostly exasperating reflex of some post-Christian Englishmen: no longer Protestant, but still anti-Catholic in a paranoid sort of way, he seems to think it still possible that a Jesuit might spring from a priest-hole and sweep him away to the torture chambers. Pope Benedict personally gets only a passing mention in the review, but elsewhere Hitchens has written not only viciously but stupidly about this man who has, I would guess, twice the erudition and three times the wisdom of Hitchens himself.

I had a teacher once who was a great lover of Yeats. But in a conversation with me late in his career he confessed that he no longer regarded Yeats as being quite as important as he once had. It was not that his enjoyment of the poetry, as poetry, had lessened, but that he had come to see Yeats's style as a sort of rhetoric that was often greater than its subject: that there was somewhat less to the poetry than meets the eye. It appears to me that something like that is operative in Hitchens's work; its brilliant surface—brilliant in an English way that's especially impressive to Americans—often makes it appear better—more accurate, more profound—than it really is. 

Yet, with all the reservations above, I don't think we are wrong to admire him. The fact that he had huge blind spots, and was perhaps not so accomplished a writer and thinker as some esteemed him, does not mean that he didn't have the virtues often attributed to him. If a man sets out willingly to battle a dragon, he deserves credit for courage even if it turns out that the dragon was not a dragon at all, or that he attacked it in the wrong way with the wrong weapons. 

Hitchens was applauded by conservatives and especially neo-conservatives for his willingness to question and then to break with the left, with a quasi-religious view of the world that he had inhabited for most of his life. That took courage. His support of the Iraq war, whether it was right or wrong, was based on a genuine attempt to understand what is happening in the Middle East and what the West can and should do about it. 

Whether we agreed with him or not, those of us who admired and respected him felt that he was trying to see and understand the world as it really is, and to follow that understanding wherever it led, whatever offense might be done to conventional opinion. I find it impossible to believe that he wasn't sometimes speaking out of a simple and somewhat juvenile desire to shock and to play the rebel. But I also believe that he genuinely hated cant, whatever its source, and that his fundamental intention was always to seek out and to face reality. This is the stuff of which great faith is made, and what made so many Christians feel a kinship with him. We hoped he would convert, of course, and put his brilliance to a better purpose. And after his cancer was diagnosed some hoped, and a few predicted, that it would be the catalyst for a change of mind. But to tell the truth I'm almost glad that didn't happen: I wouldn't have wanted to see him back down out of a simple fear of death. In his last illness he refused to avert his eyes from the reality of his situation, and in this piece in Vanity Fair (was it his last?) he shoots down that popular and obviously shaky proverb of Nietzsche's, "Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger." If there is some element of spiritual truth at the core of that, it is manifestly false in the physical realm, and often enough in the psychological, and I don't think Nietzsche would have cared for the power-of-positive-thinking twist it has been given in recent popular culture.

I also don't think Hitchens would have wanted obituaries that were anything less than honest, which is why I've said here exactly what I think.

I had thought I might gather up some of the obituaries and tributes, but there are simply too many for me to sort through. Google the name "Hitchens" and you'll turn up plenty of them. You really must read his brother Peter's first published reaction, though. (Thanks to Robert for passing that along to me.)

I was about to post this when I ran across this piece by Hitchens in which he discusses the death in Iraq of a young soldier whose decision to enlist was partly due to Hitchens's writing. I believe it settles the question of whether he could be profound.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I remember reading a year or so ago (and I think in one of the recent eulogies) that his mother had told him as a child that there was no greater sin than being boring. Since reading that, I’ve wondered if that was why his writing could now and then be profound, as you say, and yet at other times be so cruel and wrong-headed.

Whether that's the cause or not, it's impossible to believe that he didn't sometimes say things just for the sake of shock and provocation. Anybody who describes himself as a "contrarian" is probably going to do that at least sometimes, I think.

Once you have realized that, in speaking of religion, Hitchens was able to combine an enormous and intimidating confidence with ignorance and incomprehension, you're suspicious. Those of us who have little learning of our own, and little opportunity to acquire it, can only trust or distrust those who appear to have it; we can't judge for ourselves. It's a bit like your relationship with an auto mechanic, if you have no appreciable knowledge or skill in that area: if you once discover that the mechanic has confidently replaced a part that wasn't broken, you don't have the same confidence in him—especially if he refuses to acknowledge his mistake.

All so true. I'm thinking again of Mr Third-Base Man whose superior skills in dialectic, (and intimidating confidence and usage of heavy sarcasm) had me convinced he might be right about lots of stuff, until I worked out that his views of marriage border on the heretical and that much of his style (apart from his real skill in dialectic) is due to some temperamental defects ("I'm right, you're wrong, I'm better than you..."). Whereas I had originally wondered what other things he might be right about, now I wonder what else he might be wrong about. I am left with the distinct impression that the man I've been reading might be a fairly standard, flawed, though gifted, human being. Amazing!

Fortunately, I never paid much attention to Hitch. I like his brother. But he was famous enough for me to know about him and want to pray for his soul.

"Mr Third-Base Man"?

TypePad's search feature has been pretty flaky lately. But it did manage to find the previous comments by Louise that I think she's alluding to: -- about a dozen comments or so in.

He didn't like Ayn Rand, btw. Dispense with her in a snap saying something like "... her essay praising selfishness... Don't know about your experience with people, but I don't think this is something that needs encouragement."

You nailed in Maclin. As usual.

"nailed it" doh

Thanks. I saw a good comment about Rand the other day--something to the effect that her code of conduct was useless for non-fictional human beings. Unfortunately Hitchens liked some others who were just as bad in different ways, e.g. Trotsky.

Martin Amis, I think Hitchens’s best friend in all the world, wrote a book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, in which he took his own father, Kingsley Amis, as well as Hitchens to task for their support of Soviet Communism, even though they knew of the horrors worked through that system. It’s been many years since I read the book, but I remember being utterly shocked by the supreme disregard Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, et al., had for human life. I think Hitchens wrote a response defending his position, but I’ve never read it; I suppose because it’s indefensible.

I remember something Hitchens wrote about Trotsky in The Atlantic sometime in the past 5 years or so, in which he still seemed to want to believe that Trotsky was a good guy and it was all those others who ruined it. I don't really know much about the subject but I have heard people who do know say that's just wishful thinking. Supporters of leftist revolutions always want to think the idea was basically good, it just got hijacked by bad people.

Actually I've read a couple of things about Hitchens since I wrote this post that lowered my opinion of him a bit. Someone who prides himself on contrarian iconoclasm should have divested himself of any soft spot for communism.

I have to admit I never knowingly read anything the guy wrote, not by avoiding it, but because I never came across it. I did buy God is Not Great, but it got lost under the 'to be read' pile. I have been quite surprised to read people saying he changed their life, in the wake of his death. Maybe that is why sometimes when I tell a stranger on a train or plane that I teach theology they give me a cold, deadly stare - their life had been changed by Christopher Hitchens :)


What did he change it from, and to, one would want to know. I'm surprised you never happened across anything by him, as much as he published.

The piece you linked to is the first thing of his I've read. Is it possible that he was bigger in the US than in the UK? I have seen him on the BBC a few times, and he invariably came across as arrogant and boorish. He certainly makes a better impression in prose.

Must be (bigger in the US). I expect that anyone here who follows current affairs very closely at all would at least have heard his name. And I think he is on tv a lot although I don't watch enough to know. One of the negative things I read about him over the past few days was from the critic Terry Teachout, who met him and thought he was arrogant and boorish.

It was only shortly before I left GB that I had stopped buying a newspaper everyday, and I still bought the Telegraph or the Guardian on many weekdays, and the Sunday Observer every week. So I certainly followed current affairs. It must be he made a bigger mark in the USA.

Right, I meant people in the USA who follow c.a.c.

But to tell the truth I'm almost glad that didn't happen: I wouldn't have wanted to see him back down out of a simple fear of death.

Well, I think I have to disagree with you about that. I believe that the fear of death is a gift from a loving God, Who would prefer that we all come to Him out of love, but is willing to accept us however we come. If God isn't too proud to welcome those who turn to Him out of fear, I don't believe it's anything for the fearful penitent to be ashamed of.


No argument with that. That's why the word "almost" is in there, actually--I knew when I wrote that that I wasn't saying exactly what I meant, but as is often the case with these SNJs I didn't have time to clarify and expand.

So: what was in my mind was that if he was truly a dedicated seeker of truth, it would have been good to see that quest end up where we think it was naturally heading. If truth was his really his main concern, to convert out of fear would have been, in a paradoxical way, a sort of denial of his best conception of God. Well, not a denial, but a retreat. And maybe (pure speculation) his refusal to do that was actually more pleasing to God. Maybe. Way out on a limb there, I know.

But ultimately, yeah...I sort of think God's view is "whatever works." :-)

Well, I think I just couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that a person could turn to God because of fear of death without there being some sort of recognition that God might exist--that one was seeking truth in that direction, however faint a hope one thought it might be.


Certainly, just a very different path, and a less freely chosen one. I guess it's a little like the difference between avoiding a sin that's right in front of you because you have the will to resist a temptation, and avoiding it because your car broke down and you didn't want to walk to where the temptation was.

Another thing I was thinking of: a lot of Christians were hoping for a near-death fear-driven conversion for reasons that appeared to have more to do with desire to win the argument than desire for the good of his soul. They would certainly have gloated if he'd changed his mind. Just from the human point of view, I can see why he wouldn't want to give them that. Not that that's a good reason for resisting God, but it's understandable.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)