Remembering the Foolish and Brilliant Christopher Hitchens

by Morgan Meis

MorganMeisAt the moment, I’m angry with Christopher Hitchens. Not because he died. A man dies. And angry is not really the correct word, nor the correct emotion. I’m frustrated with Christopher Hitchens, troubled by him, moved by him, enamored of him and then repelled at the attraction.

The first time I met Christopher Hitchens was at a Harper’s Magazine Christmas party just before the start of the Iraq War. Bloomberg had recently banned smoking in New York City and the intellectuals were pissed. In those days, Harper’s parties happened down in the basement at Pravda. It was all very arch. Smoking ban be damned. Lewis Lapham and his band of merry lit boys were going to light up the smokes anyway. Hitch had a Scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other. But you’ve seen him like that a thousand times, in person, in pictures, on TV. I stood in line to speak with him. The line was moving smoothly until a woman in a red dress half a size too small for all her stuff gummed up the works. You could hear the collective groan all along the line as she stepped up to the Hitch. This was going to take a while.

I gave him a copy of a review a friend and I had written about his recently published book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. The book is not very good, a fact he readily acknowledged. Really, my friend and I wrote the review to attack him for his abandonment of the Left. He didn’t care that we felt abandoned. Speaking with him, I came to understand that he really didn’t care. All the same, he appreciated the review, which was pretty smart. Hitch appreciated smart. Always.

I suppose it was his confidence in leaving the Left behind that infected my own thinking after that meeting. He’d taken all his verve and passion and gone somewhere else. The real fight is with me, he kept saying, the good fight is with me. I’m a sucker for that kind of talk. I’m a sucker for a fist slammed on the table and a drunken rant about the genuine lost cause. It was around this time that a number of apostates on the Left were beginning to toy with the idea that being anti-fascist meant supporting any war that would rid the world of Saddam. Anyway, I decided I was for the Iraq War too, and whatever else the new fight was going to entail, the grand struggle against all that is vile and inhuman. I signed up, if for no other reason than that I wanted to be with him.

Soon enough it became clear that the war had turned into a genuine debacle. When we all found out Hitch had cancer, I wondered if before died, he would say something about being wrong. A person can be wrong. Any person can be wrong. The facts don’t turn out the way you hoped they would. Events turn ugly, turn sour, and history plays one of her infinite tricks, going one way just when you thought she was going the other. The Iraq War was a terrible mistake by any honest assessment and I, Morgan Meis, was wrong to have thought and argued differently. There. It isn’t so hard to say. But Hitch could never say it. There was something greater at stake for him. There was something that he valued more deeply, in this case, than he valued the truth.

This is not at all to side with most of his critics, who happen to be smaller persons than he. There is no shame in being smaller than Christopher Hitchens. He was great. Most people are not great and are never going to be great no matter how hard they try. Arguing with greatness is an absurd undertaking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched Hitch demolish someone in discussion or debate when, in fact, the other party had the better argument, the more careful analysis. It doesn’t matter with greatness. The force of greatness comes down like a cudgel. Everything is smashed when greatness comes barreling through.

It will be said a hundred times and then a hundred times more in the following weeks that Hitch’s atheism was a stance of immense courage. This is complete bullshit. Hitch’s atheism was a thing of anger and fear, and it fed off the anger and fear of the legions of angry and fearful religious people who took up the bait. Christopher Hitchens did not, for instance have the courage to confront the works of Simone Weil, and to read them with honesty and openness and a feeling for the greatness that is contained within her words. A person could read Simone Weil for a lifetime and never become a believer. But no honest person can read Simone Weil, truly read her, and maintain the position that religious belief is a phenomenon that can be dealt with solely in the mode of contempt. Christopher Hitchens was perfectly aware of this fact, which is why he never allowed himself genuinely to read the works of Simone Weil or genuinely to contemplate the paintings of Caravaggio or genuinely to recite the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, to pick a few random examples of greatness on this earth that, troublingly, cannot be disentangled from religion. There was something that Hitch valued more deeply, in this case too, than he valued the truth.

It will also be opined in the days and weeks to follow that Hitchens was a lover of reason and rationality. This is poppycock. Hitchens was a lover of argument and persuasion. He was a lover of being right and winning at any cost. This is what made him great. His irrationality made him shine. When the facts were out, and the facts were against him, it drove him to ever more eloquent flights of rhetoric in the name of his own doomed wrongness. This is not an admirable quality. In the hands of a lesser man, it would be pathetic. In the possession of a great man, however, such a quality cannot be judged so easily. It becomes a quality both wicked and grand. Hitch was large enough to take upon himself wickedness and grandness both. One of the reasons that we all loved to have Christopher Hitchens around is that he was proof that life does not always have to be so relentlessly disappointing, so boring. Being human does not always have to be a matter of being puny, of opting for the small matters of our own comfort day after day. Most of us live small lives of quiet desperation. Hitchens opted big every time. He paid the price for that choice, and never complained about it once.

When someone great leaves this earth you don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. It pains me that things will be said about Christopher Hitchens that have nothing to do with what actually made him great. Then again, this is as it should be. True human greatness is a thing that we do not get to measure. It is the thing that measures us. In his foolishness and brilliance Hitchens has established a measure that the rest of us now have to live with. We have to wrangle with it. We have to put our own lives as writers and thinkers and human beings against this massive thing that Christopher Hitchens has left behind. It is a hateful burden, this legacy. Still, it is as an honor that I bend down in order to lift up my own tiny portion. We all bear what part of it we can, the legacy of a great man. I’m angry with him. And I miss him very very much already.