Friday, December 30, 2011

(No.183) Christopher Hitchens: unworldly fluency

One of the pleasures in my life has been reading or listening to the words of highly articulate, thoughtful people. Disagreeing with a particular point of view need not diminish one's enjoyment of its expression.

There are people whose words I will always try to find an opportunity to read or hear. Those who are highly articulate writers are often not as fluent when it comes to verbal presentation. Among my favourite columnists is Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin (formerly with The Globe and Mail). More articulate as a speaker than as a writer is Stephen Lewis, the former Ontario NDP leader and Canadian UN ambassador as is the English satirist and director Jonathan Miller from Beyond The Fringe.

Then there is the type far less frequently encountered: those who are as skilled verbally -- in debate, discussion or interview --as they are when writing a column or essay. In this category my longtime favourite was Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), English writer, editor and television host. Another is the journalist and former editor of Harper's Magazine, the American Lewis Lapham.

My notional group among whom I regard Muggeridge and Lapham as charter members has another who figured in the news recently. On Dec. 15 of this month Christopher Hitchens died, age 62, after a life of heavy drinking and, as most obituarists seemed anxious to emphasize, even heavier smoking. He was, as was Muggeridge in his day, one of the most accomplished and controversial people in Anglo-American letters.

The views argued with ferocious energy by Hitchens were often controversial and as a polemicist he annoyed many right the way across the political spectrum. He wrote hundreds if not thousands of columns for publications as diverse as The New Statesman, The Nation, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair and Slate. He willingly appeared on American cable news, Fox as well as CNN, when they were not afraid to have him on.

From Hitchens' sharp criticism of targets such as Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa and Diana, Princess of Wales through his support for Margaret Thatcher's Falklands War to support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, perhaps nothing aroused his critics as much as his frontal assault on religion laid out in his bestseller "God Is Not Great".

As the years passed Hitchens became more difficult to categorize politically. He gained his early English reputation as an Oxford University Trotskyite but he became far less predictably left wing on issues, especially after he moved to the U.S. in 1981.

Nothing tested Hitchens' courage, beliefs and principles as did the esophagael cancer with which he was diagnosed while in the midst of a book tour promoting his 2010 memoir "Hitch 22". However he never wavered in his atheism nor in the forcefulness and articulateness of his writing and speaking, virtually to the end of his life.

Those who waited for and in some cases wanted to see him turn to religion during his public dying were disappointed. He declared: "Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute. I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice."

I among many, many others will miss Christopher Hitchens. I cannot improve on what his longtime friend, the English novelist Ian McEwen, has written: "His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment [to writing] was passionate, and he never deserted his trade."

by Alastair Rickard




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