Simon Schama on How His Friend Christopher Hitchens Said Goodbye

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Kathy de Witt, Lebrecht Music & Arts / Corbis

The year America was born—1776—was also the year when the great Scottish philosopher David Hume died. More than once during the ordeal of my friend Christopher Hitchens—as he said, less a “battle” with esophageal cancer than an act of “resistance” to the malignancy to which he succumbed on Dec. 15—I have thought of the letter that Adam Smith wrote about his friend Hume and the heroic strength and uncompromising grip on the truth that he showed throughout the illness that killed him. In the letter, Smith recounted how, after a visit with the philosopher, a well-intentioned doctor said he would pass on the news to a mutual friend that Hume—an unrepentant atheist and unflinching rationalist—seemed to be in remarkably good spirits. To which Hume replied, “As I believe you would not choose to tell anything but the truth, tell him that I am dying as fast as my enemies, if I have any, could desire, and as easily and cheerfully as my best friends could desire.”

There were times during Hitch’s illness when cheerfulness must have been entirely beyond reach. But if the radiation burnt him and left him raw, it never turned his wit to ash or melted away the sharpness of his analytical temper. Astoundingly, he went on writing, never self-pityingly, constantly clarifying, brushing away the rubbish of ignorant cant and false consolations with a swish of his bristling broom of reason. It was typical that his last essay for Vanity Fair was less a chronicle of his pain than an attack on Nietzsche’s assertion that “whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.” There was much in what he had endured lately, he insisted, that proved Nietzsche’s aphorism demonstrably false.

There was no falling-off—no retreat or attenuation. His writing ended only when he did. In that sense, if he could not in the end defeat the sickness, he certainly routed its power to crush mind and spirit. His composure was that of unconfused self-reflection. The well-meaning strangers who ventured that when faced with the end he might reconsider his atheism he treated as a lower species of insurance salesmen, pitiable in their delusions, insulting in their presumption. Facing things head on packed his writing with tough integrity. It will be said that Hitch lived for the word. It could as easily be said that English in all its muscular, jubilantly performative splendor lives on for such as him to make hay, make enemies, and make waves with.

And it’s because Hitch’s polemics—and his many thoughtful, often very funny essays—liked to kick against the pricks that he will leave an immense, possibly unfillable space where his prose rocked and rolled in face of the demure, the hypocritical, and the ignorantly self-important. The vacancy will be especially felt on the American side of the ocean, where, as one of Hitch’s heroes (George Orwell) put it, “in our time political speech and writing is largely the defense of the indefensible” contaminated by “flyblown metaphors.” Anyone, Hitchens thought, who spoke with stale laziness of “kicking the can down the road” should themselves receive the end of the boot.

Hitch might not have had quite the same impact on the world of political writing and argument had he stayed in England. The son of a naval officer, he went through the usual motions of the upper-middle class—boarding school; an indifferent degree in history at Oxford; notoriety as a hard drinker and womanizer; a brass-knuckle pugilist of the left. He might have stayed a patrician socialist with a boozy bite to his irony in a notoriously acidulous literary Britain that has seen many of that type come and go. But he felt, as he recently said in a shatteringly honest and moving interview with BBC anchor Jeremy Paxman, the “planetary pull of America” had become irresistible. Submitting to its magnetic force was one of the best things he ever did, both for himself and for the fate of strong, honest, public writing in his adopted country.

Hitchens was never going to be a conventional journalist. But he didn’t just want to raise hell; he wanted to smell its stink firsthand. Hence the journeys into the swamps of despotism and atrocity that produced some of his most trenchant writing. But the instinct for mischief-making—all the more unforgettable because it was set in the features of a debauched cherub—was, in the end, turned to great and serious good. And the reason for this was that Hitch was an even more insatiable reader than he was a prolific and prodigious writer. To talk to him was to get tutorials with attitude—especially on the genealogy of Anglophone radicalism, all the way from parliamentary democrats like the 17th-century Levellers to their fading posterity in the present day. If he was spiky, it was sharpness with pedigree—that of the straight-talking, strenuously reasoning, mordant ironists of the English tradition: Jonathan Swift, Tom Paine, William Hazlitt, and Orwell. But he was also an almost romantic admirer of their American counterparts: Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken. He wanted that America, of the unsparing but wickedly droll unmasker of the sanctimonious, to live on and be rescued from the suffocation of money and spin.

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It was Twain’s bravura in the face of the pompous and the banal that Hitch sought to perpetuate into the age of the conservative radio ranter, the formless drivel of the ego-indulgent blog, the timorous decorum of liberal high-mindedness. To those who would lay off what he called “Islamofascism” in the name of cultural sensitivity he had only the contemptuous curl of his smoking lip. Hitch cared furiously for the bloody-minded decency of the free word, and he embodied it to a degree most of us fellow toilers in the trade can only admire even as we mourn his loss. He was, in short, one of the English language’s great debaters. And at a time when what masquerades as political debate is in fact the feeble utterance of unreasoned pieties—and when so much is at stake in what might be truly debated, not only in the United States but around the world—we need his like more desperately than ever. Just for a moment perhaps you would want, after all, to be able to believe in the immortality of the unbelievers, their admission into a Valhalla of the righteously naughty. For then, at least, we might be sure that Hitch would be greeted by Paine stretching out one hand to pull him in, with the other proffering a double scotch.

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