In memoriam: Christopher Hitchens
September 9, 2012
This is an unpublished piece I wrote some time ago. I have admired Hitchens for a long time.
Why Christopher Hitchens was one of the most important intellectuals of the recent past
Rajeev Srinivasan looks back at the career of the formidable journalist and essayist who passed away recently
We shall miss Christopher Hitchens for at least three reasons. First, he was the kind of atheist that even a theist could appreciate and applaud. Second, even though he had strongly-held beliefs, he was confident enough to change them when he was confronted with sufficient evidence. Third, there was the courage with which he faced terminal cancer, seldom losing his cool or his acerbic wit or feeling sorry for himself.
I never met Hitchens, and that was my loss. What his friends and acquaintances have painted in their eulogies is a picture of a famous wit with an extraordinary memory, who could drink a horse under the table, and charm the pants off pretty much any woman he felt like; the life of the party, the man with the razor-sharp intellect.
But Hitchens’ essays, and his videos on YouTube, were enough to give me a flavor of a first-class, formidable mind, one that could turn an opponent into jelly by marshalling the most appropriate argument, or quoting the opponent’s own words back to them in the most deadly manner possible, often rendering them speechless.
He was the consummate essayist, a throwback to an era of Renaissance Men (such as George Orwell, whom Hitchens apparently admired) – people with profound knowledge of classical Greek and Latin texts, and at home in the modern idiom. At a time when Britain is in deep decline, its good schools still produce people like Hitchens who are skilled at the art of rhetoric.
In passing, I mourn the passing of the teaching of classical Sanskrit, including Rhetoric, in India. We no longer produce essayists; we produce second-rate, ignorant pontificators who are pale imitations of the West, Brown (Mem)Sahibs in their worst incarnation. I recall recently one of these proclaiming loudly how Christmas was her favorite festival. Of course, anything will do so long as it is foreign.
But beyond his skill with words, I appreciated Hitchens as a thinking atheist. As a card-carrying theist, I find many Indians atheists to be charlatans. They will only attack Hindu beliefs; any Muslim, and especially any Christian belief (such as the much-touted “miracles”) does not exercise them. Which means they are biased and one-sided, and a disgrace to their professed a-theism. For instance, there were gigantic paper stars in Kerala with the slogan: “Merry Christmas, DYFI/SFI” – silly me, I thought communists were atheists. (But then arguably Communism is a religion, and a deliberate carbon-copy of Christianity, with martyrs and popes and churches.)
Compared to the quasi-atheists, Hitchens was a true atheist, in that he simply did not believe in the idea of god, regardless of whose god it was. And he said so, repeatedly, and with wit and élan. In fact, there was a joke doing the rounds after he died: “If god does exist, Hitchens will be having a very interesting chat with him right now!” Not really, if there is indeed a god, he who created Hitchens would have enough sangfroid to smile indulgently at him, just as he did with the materialistic Charvakas of old.
Hitchens’ ire was, though, primarily targeted at the ‘jealous’ god of the Abrahamic, desert beliefs of West Asia. Along with other leading atheists in the West, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, he was instrumental in re-articulating the Enlightenment [sic] view that the role of organized Abrahamic religions has been largely negative, anti-scientific, and responsible for much human misery.
Unfortunately, Hitchens did not understand the more humanistic Eastern traditions, for instance the Hindu-Buddhist perspective. For instance, he claimed in one of his last essays that no religious tradition had been kind to non-human species; which is incorrect if you consider general Hindu-Buddhist-Jain views. It is arguable that the so-called vanaras of the Ramayana were not monkeys, but a humanoid species: not homo sapiens, but perhaps another such as homo erectus or Neanderthal, which lived alongside homo sapiens for long, but lost out in competition.
Similarly, he suggested that the ideas in modern physics of many alternative, parallel universes would fox all religions. Not so with Hinduism, of course, which can easily deal with the idea of many parallel levels of existence and infinitely large and infinitely long-lived multiverses.
Thus, from a theist Hindu’s perspective, the criticism of the Abrahamic faiths that people like Hitchens articulate (and this goes back, for instance, to Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine of early America) is entirely sensible and are not applicable to the forest faiths of Asia, which are far more humane and gentle.
Besides, I liked his approach: he had a good model of reality, and he articulated clearly and at length why he was anti-organized-religion: it started off with his skepticism as a schoolboy, who rebelled when force-fed dogma. This was a free-thinker, whom one could respect.
My second reason for admiring HItchens had to do with his willingness to change his mind: once again a sign of a logical thinker, a non-fundamentalist, one able to challenge even his own prejudices and dogmas. Hitchens was for long a leftist, supporting many of the usual shibboleths of the left-liberal persuasion.
Therefore, left-liberal types (whose motto might well be, “Freedom of thought is too dangerous for anybody except people-like-us”) were appalled when he broke with them and argued that the American invasion of Iraq was, in sum, a good thing. The left’s dogmatists virtually excommunicated him, because this didn’t fit in with their standard dogmas.
This is a normal tactic for the left – they ostracize and blackball (if not worse: many ex-communists in Malabar have been murdered) any of their own who becomes an apostate. In India, they did this to the great fabulist O V Vijayan, whom they made a non-person, because he abandoned his youthful leftism upon reflection. But they could not do this to Hitchens; for whatever reason, maybe his British accent that always impresses Americans, he continued to have a voice.
This idea that one might change one’s mind is sensible. There is the story of a professor who was accused of doing it, and he famously replied: “Yes, if I am presented with compelling evidence that my theory is wrong, I accept it and change my mind. What do you do?” But of course dogmatists, such as those of the leftist fraternity, cannot change their minds. I appreciate Hitchens’ courage in alienating an entire group of supporters when they showed themselves to be rigid fundamentalist types.
I am reminded of a third-rate leftist, a fascist who may not even realize he is one, from an infamous university in Delhi who rants on a mailing list I am on. He bullies people (his energy and copious free time make up for a total lack of intelligence or knowledge) – and one of his favorite parlor tricks is to demand (how very Stalinist of him!) that others be censored for ‘hate speech’, whereas he himself feels free to spew hatred at his favorite targets. Rules are for others, obviously, not for ‘people-like-us’.
Finally, Hitchens was at the peak of his powers when, at 61, he was struck down by oesophagal cancer. In his essays after he was diagnosed with the disease, he was neither sentimental nor full of bravado; he merely accepted the irony of his impending demise where foes could have claimed that the god he denied was taking revenge on him! He went with dignity; he echoed the famous words,
“Do not go gently into that good night
Rage, rage against the fading of the light…”
While Hitchens should have had another twenty years of productive work ahead of him, the fact that he has died too soon has in a way helped cement his reputation, as we may feel a little sorry that he was not allowed to live out his four-score-and-ten years, and in a sense, he will never grow old. We shall always remember him as that combative, no-holds-barred fighter with the silver tongue. Better that than remembering him as a lion in winter.
1350 words, December 26, 2011