Friday, December 16, 2011

Brief Reflections on Christopher Hitchens

The very first time I saw a photograph of Christopher Hitchens - one of many where he held a cigarette in one hand and a whiskey in the other - I thought to myself that here was a man who didn't want to see or be bothered by anyone.

Hitchens was a fantastic writer, articulate, insightful and - more often than not - spot on in his arguments. Each book and article was a gift, and I knew that I was going to be smarter - whether I agreed or not - after having read them. As time passed, the image of the gruff contrarian I had built up in my mind no longer matched the words on the page.

A few years ago, I thought I was on the receiving end of this perceived gruffness. I wrote a letter to Hitchens, asking whether - in lieu of my sending copies of all of his books to him for signing - he would consent to send me several signed bookplates to put in each. Month after month passed without the slightest hint of a response, and I had visions of my letter surfacing in the in-box on his desk and then being tossed aside with a scowl, an exclamation of "Bloody hell!", and the general response that any unwanted bill or letter would get. And then, one day, an envelope appeared; Hitchens had apparently tired of my letter continuing to circulate through his correspondence, thought "I'm putting an end to this NOW!", and sent off a reply. There was no note, no "thanks for writing", nothing - just a half-dozen strips of paper which he had apparently torn from a piece of Xerox paper, scrawled his signature on, and then shoved them in the envelope.

I grinned at the thought of him muttering "That takes care of THAT!" as he dropped the mail in the post.

In June 2010, in conjunction with the book tour surrounding the release of his autobiography, Hitch 22, Hitchens came to Politics and Prose here in Washington. I, of course, was determined not to miss it, expecting to see the grumpy, "leave me alone!" contrarian who didn't really want to be there, but had to if he wanted to sell some books.

However, I quickly discovered something that many people have discovered over the years. Christopher Hitchens, the man who always struck me as not wanting to be bothered with anything, who wanted to be left alone with his computer, his cigarettes, and his liquor, was in fact a charming, engaging, and interested man. During the Q&A session there were those in attendance who knew in their heart of hearts - mistakenly, of course - that they could best him in an intellectual duel. There were the requisite questions about his support for the war in Iraq and his atheism, all of which he answered with great wit and great skill - triumphant in yet more debates. If memory serves, one person who had lost the "Hitchens intellectual challenge" immediately left the shop; even if my memory is flawed, it's still a wonderfully hilarious picture to have in mind.

I met him later, during the signing, and he was absolutely fascinating - one of those rare people who, even in the 2 or 3 minutes you have with them, seems genuinely interested in what you're saying. There were flashes of his wit, a few laughs, and a look of pleasant surprise when I mentioned the name of a mutual acquaintance. It was a wonderful time, one which I really enjoyed - and while pictures weren't allowed, the lady in front of me in line was kind enough to sneak this one for me. Naturally, it didn't catch the laughter or conversation; instead, he's looking at me like - yes - he can't be bothered.

And now he is gone, claimed by the cancer which he had been fighting valiantly for some time. My sister wondered aloud this morning if Hitchens had perhaps now found what he had been looking for - an answer to the debate he had engaged in, with great spirit, for many years: whether the God whose existence he had denied would greet him at the gate.

I don't know how to answer that - but if I had to guess, he probably can't be bothered with it now, anyway...


karen said...

No doubt he was interested in what you had to say, Matt! You're interesting!
I'm glad you got to meet him.

jmecmor said...

You know Matt, believe it or not, I have not read a book, article, or snippet authored by Hitchens. I get so wrapped in McCullough, Hemingway, baseball, and legal decisions (ugh), that I am sure I have missed out on something thought provoking.

Any suggestions? You sound like you might have a few favorites.