Published On: Sat, Dec 17th, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Courage to be Contrarian

The passing of Christopher Hitchens this week leaves a deep intellectual hole in the English speaking world. A contrarian by nature, he first made his mark as an anti-imperialist Trotskyite of the 1968 stripe before breaking with the Left over 9/11 and moving into unchartered waters somewhere between neo-conservatism and celebrity liberalism. Many tried to claim or disown him depending on the subject matter. (His support of the Iraq War elicited howls of traitor from the Left and glad-handing from the Right. His evisceration of Mother Teresa produced calls of heretic from Roman Catholics and high-fives from atheists). To his everlasting credit, however, Mr. Hitchens defied easy categorization and managed to stake an intellectual claim of his own.

As a prose stylist, he had few peers in the English language. A master of the written word, his essays were cherished by readers and writers alike. As a debater, he possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of facts, figures and quotations that both disarmed his opponents and entertained spectators. The one gap in Mr. Hitchens’ otherwise impressive resume is that he never translated his wit, style and famous combativeness into literary form.  His clear lineage to such writers as Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, both of whom wrote acclaimed novels, is slightly tarnished by this lapse.

Hitchens did manage to dust off Thomas Paine from the dustbin of history and reclaim him as an indispensable member of the Founding Fathers. While his screed, God Is Not Great, will probably not last its initial novelty, his compendium of atheistic writers, The Portable Atheist is a worthy contribution to the endless debate about god and man.

A Casanova of atheism, he nonetheless attracted a loyal following amongst fervent believers. (I know several Catholic women who prayed novenas in hopes of a deathbed conversion. Alas, sweet Marians, unless his soul is in purgatory, he may be beyond your reach.) Many detected a showman in his militant hostility toward religion. Admittedly, there was a carnival barker aspect to Mr. Hitchens’ atheism. Yet, by all accounts, Mr. Hitchens had the courage of his convictions and took his godless show pony to the grave.

A product of his generation, he never apologized for his hedonistic ways (smoking, drinking, women and youthful forays into homosexuality). In fact, he celebrated those excesses in his autobiography, Hitch-22. Ironically, it was during a book tour for this bestseller that Mr. Hitchens was diagnosed with the throat cancer that ultimately consumed him, even after several experimental treatments which he wrote about so starkly and movingly in Vanity Fair.

You will read many tributes to Hitchens in the coming days from people who actually knew him and can say more about his character and legacy than I ever could. But I sense that the intellectual landscape has been deprived a sacred bird. Today, when so many intellectual birds of a feather flock together, Mr. Hitchens stood out as one of those rarest of birds: a contrarian.

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About the Author

- Robert Maley has worked in publishing, banking and – as incongruent as it may seem – the theatrical world. After many years of living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, he now resides in the more pastoral setting of Virginia. A playwright with an MFA from Columbia University, he has had several plays produced off-off-Broadway. Presently, he is a critic of the Cultural Marxism to which he once allied, especially as it pertains to the arts, faith and academia.

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  1. Hank Reardon says:

    Left or Right, who didn’t admire Christopher Hitchens?

  2. paulejb says:

    Atheist or not, Christopher Hitchens won my allegiance when I read this paragraph in his Vanity Fair article on Baby Boomers.

    “I don’t quite know why one detail should be so suggestive, but I was pacing the banks of the Potomac River the other day, and witnessing many people of my generation as they rode their bikes along the towpath. A couple here, and a group there, and a brave single every now and then—and all of them wearing crash helmets! Each and every one of these intrepid voyagers, setting out for a spin along the river, had decided not to chance it without an expensive casque which, though it appeared to be made of designer Styrofoam, was probably constructed of some costly synthetic substance. They looked like a clutch of badly packed eggs. Their bicycles, too, were overdone and overequipped, like all-terrain vehicles for some trip across the Sahara. And I wanted to shout, “Who do you think you are? What do you think you look like, taking such precautions for such a nothing trip? If you failed to return from this hazardous expedition, who do you suppose would miss you?” ”

    A more apt description of the callowness of that generation has not been written.

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