It feels uncanny. My column (It’s not about the economy), published just this morning in Mint, mentions Christopher Hitchens, and his face on his collection of essays, all his hair blasted away by the chemotherapy he was undergoing for esophageal cancer. And now he is dead. He was 62.
How do you describe one of the most interesting and influential essayists of our times? Fearless, caustic, erudite, combative are some of the words that spring to mind. Like few in his profession, he could be infuriating and illuminative at the same time. He called Henry Kissinger a war criminal, was contemptuous of fellow Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton (“liar”), and savaged Lady Diana and Mother Teresa (Anyone who has read his impeccably researched and brutally and lucidly argued book “The Missionary Position” will never be able to look at Teresa as a saint). In recent years, his work on “Islamist fascism” and the existence of God (He was a militant atheist) riled as many feathers as they drew widespread support and applause—of the type: “Yes, this is a guy who’s not afraid to say the bitter truth, without caring a fig for either public opinion or political correctness.”
Christopher Hitchens. Photo: Reuters
Yet, he also wrote on smoking and drinking, on language and etiquette, on his favourite authors—Nabokov, Wodehouse, Waugh, Bellow—and the American obsession with the blowjob. As essayist, George Orwell was his hero—another razor-sharp mind that could cut through the smokescreens of the world and celebrate free will, individualism and the rights of the underdog—and he never failed to acknowledge that.
And whether he was talking about Thomas Jefferson’s war on Muslim pirates or fellatio, the depth of erudition and the rapier-precision of his language would always awe and delight.
Take, for example, his critique (2010) of the Ten Commandments. Let’s look at No 4: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Over to Hitchens: “Nobody is opposed to a day of rest. The international Communist movement got its start by proclaiming a strike for an eight-hour day on May 1, 1886, against Christian employers who used child labour seven days a week. But in Exodus 20:8:11, the reason given for the day off is that “in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day.” Yet in Deuteronomy 5:15 a different reason for the Sabbath observance is offered: “Remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day.” Preferable though this may be, with its reminder of previous servitude, we again find mixed signals here. Why can’t rest be recommended for its own sake? Also, why can’t the omniscient and omnipotent one make up his mind what the real reason is?”
On Pakistan after US troops killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad (2011) and General Kayani made angry noises about “reviewing” the relationship between the two countries since the US had not informed Pakistan of the raid on its soil: “How pitiful it is that a Pakistani and not an American should have been the first (and so far the only) leader to say these necessary things. If we ever cease to swallow our pride, so I am incessantly told in Washington, then the Pakistani oligarchy might behave even more abysmally than already does, and the situation deteriorate even further. This stale and superficial argument ignores the awful historical fact that, each time the Pakistani ledareship did get worse, or behave worse, it was handsomely rewarded by the United States. We have been the enablers of every stage of that wretched state’s counter-evolution, to the point where it is a serious regional menace and an undisguised ally of our worst enemy, as well as the sworn enemy of some of our best allies. How could it be “worse” if we shifted our alliance and instead embraced India, our only rival in scale as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy, and a nation that contains nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan?”
On humour: “The plain fact is that the physical structure of the human body is a joke in itself: a flat, crude, unanswerable disproof of any nonsense about “intelligent design”. The reproductive and eliminating functions (the closeness of which is the origin of all obscenity) were obviously wired together in hell by some sub-committee that was giggling cruelly as it went its work…The resulting confusion is the source of perhaps 50 per cent of all humour. Filth. That’s what the customers want, as we occasional stand-up performers all know. Filth, and plenty of it. Filth, in lavish, heaping quantities.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps his finest essay was written from “the land of the sick” as he contemplated death. I’ll quote only a few lines: “The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have 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.” For a glimpse of a courageous mind fighting the inevitable without flinching and without self-pity, one can read the whole piece at Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011.
As he was in his writings, so he seemed to have been in life: with hypocrisy and chicanery of all forms as his most loathed enemies. The prospect of death did not change anything for him in the least.
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