Cancer weakened but did not soften Christopher Hitchens. He did not repent or forgive or ask for pity. As if granted diplomatic immunity, his mind’s eye looked plainly upon the attack and counterattack of disease and treatments that robbed him of his hair, his stamina, his speaking voice and eventually his life.
“I love the imagery of struggle,” he wrote about his illness in an August 2010 essay in Vanity Fair. “I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”
Hitchens, a Washington, D.C.-based author, essayist and polemicist who waged verbal and occasional physical battle on behalf of causes left and right, died Thursday night at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston of pneumonia, a complication of his esophageal cancer, according to a statement from Vanity Fair magazine. He was 62.
“There will never be another like Christopher. A man of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar,” said Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. “Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls.”
He had enjoyed his drink (enough to “to kill or stun the average mule”) and cigarettes, until he announced in June 2010 that he was being treated for cancer of the esophagus.
He was a most engaged, prolific and public intellectual who wrote numerous books, was a frequent television commentator and a contributor to Vanity Fair, Slate and other publications. He became a popular author in 2007 thanks to “God Is Not Great,” a manifesto for atheists.
“Christopher Hitchens was everything a great essayist should be: infuriating, brilliant, highly provocative and yet intensely serious,” said Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. “I worked as an intern for him years ago. My job was to fact check his articles. Since he had a photographic memory and an encyclopedic mind, it was the easiest job I’ve ever done.”
Long after his diagnosis, his columns and essays appeared regularly, savaging the royal family, reveling in the death of Osama bin Laden or pondering the letters of poet Philip Larkin. He was intolerant of nonsense, including about his own health. In a piece that appeared in the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, he dismissed the old saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
“So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion,” he wrote. “It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.”
Eloquent and intemperate, bawdy and urbane, Hitchens was an acknowledged contrarian and contradiction — half-Christian, half-Jewish and fully nonbelieving; a native of England who settled in America; a former Trotskyite who backed the Iraq war and supported George W. Bush. But his passions remained constant and targets of his youth, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, remained hated.
He was a militant humanist who believed in pluralism and racial justice and freedom of speech, big cities and fine art, and the willingness to stand the consequences. He was smacked in the rear by then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and beaten up in Beirut. He once submitted to waterboarding to prove that it was indeed torture.
Hitchens was a committed sensualist who abstained from clean living as if it were just another kind of church. In 2005, he recalled a trip to Aspen, Colo., and a brief encounter after stepping off a ski lift.
“I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition,” he wrote. “What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. ‘Sir, that would be inappropriate.’ In what respect? ‘At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level.’ In that case, I said, make it a double.”
An emphatic ally and inspired foe, he stood by friends in trouble (“Satanic Verses” novelist Salman Rushdie) and against enemies in power (Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini). His heroes included George Orwell, Thomas Paine and Gore Vidal (pre-Sept. 11). Among those on the Hitchens list of shame: Michael Moore; Saddam Hussein; Kim Jong Il; Sarah Palin; Gore Vidal (post Sept. 11); and Prince Charles.
“We have known for a long time that Prince Charles’ empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant,” Hitchens wrote in Slate in 2010 after the heir to the British throne gave a speech criticizing Galileo for the scientist’s focus on “the material aspect of reality.”