The figure of Christopher Hitchens was so overdetermined, by himself and others, in life and in death, that he has taken on the status of a fictional character, or maybe a comic-book personality. He is … the Tendentionator! Can he really produce an otherworldly volume of contrarian writings? Yes! Is he indeed possessed of superhuman talent for pissing people off? Yes! Is he, despite the bullying righteousness in every entertaining sentence he writes, as often wrong as right? Again, yes!
The views themselves are such that no complete set of them could be rationally held by anyone besides the man himself. By my lights, he was right about religion but wrong – disastrously, stupidly wrong – about the invasion of Iraq. (Editor Graydon Carter, introducing this book, twice uses the word “curious” to describe Hitchens’s ill-considered lurch to the pro-war right, an adjective the subject would have scorned as feeble.) It is no particular distinction of my range of acquaintance to say that I know people who would reverse that polarity. The same could be said of his excoriations of Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton – though not, it seems to me, of his graceful appreciations of literary heroes such as P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, which remain among the best things he wrote in a cancer-shortened life of avid scribbling.
On public stages, he had no equal in recent memory, even if he was not quite “the greatest orator of our time,” as Richard Dawkins once said. More apt is good pal Martin Amis’s suggestion that he was, on the analogy of the grandmaster-busting chess program Deep Blue, an unbeatable wall of rhetorical force: Deep Speech. To take just the Toronto appearances in his final days, I was lucky to be among those who saw Hitchens trounce former British prime minister Tony Blair in a debate without breaking a sweat – even while conspicuously ill – just as, earlier, he had gleefully driven sensitive persons from the hall of a Royal Ontario Museum lecture by denouncing the shameful Catholic record of priests molesting children.
Hitchens’s wit and acuity never deserted him, nor did sentimentality or remorse visit, during what was invariably described as his “battle” with cancer. This short book, drawn from his Vanity Fair columns of the period before his death in December, 2011, makes it clear that he distrusted the trite martial metaphor, just as he reserved amused skepticism for the insistent optimism, euphemism, unsolicited advice and multifarious healing regimes that populate the territory between what he calls, with typical Hitch-y irony, Wellville and Tumortown.
“The new land is quite welcoming in its way,” he muses of the latter region. “Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited.”
The book offers a wry running meditation on the existential fact of being, not merely having, a body. Hitchens notes that he carried off two public appearances the very day he learned he had esophageal cancer, “though I did vomit two times, with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence and profusion, just before each show.” He considers the elusive nature of pain (“discomfort” or “distress” in the language of Tumortown) as well as the banal but unforgettable detail that chemotherapy deprives one of nose hair, inducing the infantile indignity of a constantly running nose.
In other business, there is a brisk logical dismantling of those who would, and would not, pray for Hitchens in his dying days, a poignant meditation on losing one’s voice and a somewhat jejune assessment of the cliché, usually attributed to Nietzsche, that whatever does not kill me makes me stronger. (Hint: It’s not true.) The tone falls somewhere between the prickly intellectualism of Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of and the sad, funny pathos of David Rakoff in the final section of his last book, Half Empty, two superior efforts on the topics of mortality and cancer, respectively.
There is courage on every page, of course, for Hitchens was a very brave man. But he was also wise enough to know that stoical detachment is finally no more than a writerly dodge. At a certain point, even fearlessness is beside the point. The final instalment is a scatter of notes, ideas and arguments, all sadly unmade. The Tendentionator goes down swinging. But he goes down.
Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. A collection of his essays on politics and human imagination, Unruly Voices, is published this month.