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.