Christopher Hitchens, Death, Writing and the Literate Mind

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

Toby Young, you WISH

Creationists, Fundamentalists and Anti-Interventionists may have 99 Problems, but now the Hitch ain't one. Stop all the clocks: he is no more. Death punctuates all of us with its terminal period, and whether beyond that point lies the dissipation of the space bar, or a transfiguration into chapters unknown, is a question with little evidence to scaffold either option. We all choose our uncertainties.

But one thing is certain; he is not here; he does not sleep, to borrow Mary Frye's valedictory balm. We should be wary of tearing our shirts too devoutly at the departing of anyone not connected to us by association; the real wound of loss is only felt by those close to the absent, the family, the friends. Fans and devotees must guard themselves against celebrity grief. True, by doing so we rehearse and explore our own reactions to the Great Ending, but importantly we can do as much through art or music, shedding tears for people that we have not only never met, but never could, until that other great curtain, between fact and fiction, melted away.

So: the Death of the Artist is a private grief for his circle; but we are permitted to doff our caps or raise a glass at the end of an impressive life. Probity demands that death ameliorates a man's character, and we draw a discrete veil over his faults. By his own admission, he flourished more as a man of letters than a patriarch; his political see-saw is well known, and it is perhaps one of his greatest achievements that he could so solidly offend and consternate allies and foes on the left and right equally. He was the darling of the libertine in his devotion to the sensual; the hawk's spokesman on Iraq and Islam; the Humanist's avatar in his daisy-chain firebombing of faith and the faithful.

There is nothing to be surprised about by this. How eager some people are to ally themselves under a banner, to declare their allegiance to a bag of beliefs- perhaps it answers some need in themselves to belong, for their beliefs to cohere. Yet sometimes, how undernourished are those ideologies that demand unswerving loyalty or none at all? Much of the debate- political, academic, religious- in this country revolves around this brainless dogma; that you are either with us or against us. That if you are an atheist you must also be this, if you are on the left you must also be that. The articulate, scornful Hitchens epitomised the belief that ideas can cohere in a million different ways, equally valid. A socialist who embraced Bush's American Exceptionalism could hardly be anything other than a fascinating example of free thought.

Perhaps because of this ability to hold chameleon beliefs, he appealed to a broader church than otherwise. But never in the history of eulogies have I so often seen the line, 'I didn't agree with everything he said, but...' than with the Hitch.

Redundant, redundant phrase; is there ANYONE with whom you are in complete agreement? If so, marry them; or smash the mirror before you. It is often said that we should never meet our idols; they will only disappoint, because there will always be a departure point, however remote, between the incarnation of your aspirations and the real thing. Every mind is unique; every life is a fingerprint, indistinguishable from itself, infinitely unique. It is the ability to acknowledge that another's views might be superior to yours, no matter how firmly they are held, that marks us as civilised. It is the essence of tolerance, liberalism, the relativism necessary for us to endure the existence of others, to refrain from demurring the ideas of others simply because they are foreign.

Reading Christopher Hitchens reinvigorated my desire to be a writer, which had been burdened with the ballast of years in the wilderness, failure and cynicism. Life is too complex to claim any man as an inspiration, but his pen was certainly part of mine. I missed his extraordinary gift for oration at a recent event at the South Bank, a few weeks ago, and instead we were 'treated' to a stream of the literati eulogising him as he wasted on his death bed. But in reality nothing was missed; the desire to see one's heroes, while perfectly human, is a somewhat sickly aspiration.

In a week in which it is revealed that thousands of teachers have to sit the basic QTS standard tests in literacy, numeracy and IT proficiency several times before they pass, it is entirely apposite to raise questions about the quality of the written thought in schools, and how we communicate the importance of this skill. Here, surely, is a matter of fundamental importance in education, and it is a grisly realisation to know that even as I mention this, it proves to be, for some, a shibboleth that marks me as reactionary and redundant.

But literacy cannot ever be allowed to be a taboo; it is the vehicle for intelligence. It is the engine that propels thoughts into the minds of others; it is the surgeon's tool kit that furnishes scalpels and sutures for concepts both subtle and coarse. It is a foundational skill, and few things can replace its position of importance in the aims of education. The anxious debate of what and how to teach our children  withers before the sacred task to communicate literacy. To that end, I despair when I see how children enter secondary schools with the functional skills of an infant, yet they are still expected to keep pace as the Key Stages roll on, and they fall farther and farther behind into apathy and failure.

Take every child out of every other lesson until they are literate and numerate. I teach non-core; I would happily see children devoid of education about Easter and the Five Pillars of Islam if I thought they could write their names and express themselves with care, in print. My God, look at what people like Hitchens can do with 26 letters. In the beginning was The Word, you will note. How true that is. When I write- and I claim no proficiency- it can feel, at the best of times, like fire pouring from your fingertips, and all is right with the world, merely by the successful sequencing of one letter after another. PAL lessons, Citizenship, The Ecosystem, everyone take a ticket and get in line. The kid needs to write.

Which brings up the subject of legacy. You may subscribe to the transcendent sweetness of an immaterial meta-existence. My judgement on this is quiet, and I affect mutism in the presence of mystery as my defence. Devout atheists like Dawkins claim that the absence of evidence can prompt only a conclusion of rejection; I sense another option- silence. That which can be neither inferred from logic nor demonstrated by example, is beyond our poor capacities for conversation.

I have two responses to death, which I find helpful. One is to consider that the departed are, like any pattern or atomic form, a temporary structure, a house built of straw. Before they appeared, they were the constituents from which they came; afterwards, they form part of something else. In this way, we live on, not just in the thoughts of others, which is surely no less magnificent, but also as part of an endlessly rocking tide of creation. Our atoms transmigrate in  way that would satisfy the most committed reincarnationist.

The other is a personal one that I have written about before; Herr Einstein sketches, in a manner permitted even for the layman like myself to appreciate, that time is relative; that on some level, all time co-exists, and it is only our mortal perception of its mystery that divides its ocean into arbitrary sectors we call 'past' and 'present'. In the same way that 'over there' and 'here' both exist at the same point in time, so too can all points in time be seen as enjoying an eternal existence, although considerations of eternity lose all meaning when considered from this angle. What this means is that everyone you have ever loved, or ever will love, coexists in an enormous tide of proximity, separate yet perpetually unified.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
Mary Frye


  1. "Take every child out of every other lesson until they are literate and numerate. I teach non-core; I would happily see children devoid of education about Easter and the Five Pollars of Islam if I thought they could write their names and express themselves with care, in print."

    Amen to that. What upsets me is as a drama teacher I would never express these thoughts in school for fear of being banished from the department . . .

  2. An outstanding obituary you give for Hitchens. I'll come across as a philistine saying this, but I have never read any of his work; worse, I didn't even know of him until last week when his name was mentioned in the news. I'll try and read some of his literature, "Hitchens for dummies" perhaps, over Christmas.

  3. @ Anonymous

    I always find that the more I express myself, the easier I sleep at night. We need more people to speak up for these kinds of things :)

    Merry Christmas

  4. @ Colin

    You should! He's a terrific writer, and IMO an even better orator. Try Youtube for some of his more blistering exchanges.

    Merry Christmas


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