The death of Christopher Hitchens, the barbed and brilliant essayist and anti-religionist and enjoyer of drink and tobacco, was announced last night. Hitchens’ departure point was the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston after an 18-month bout with esophegal cancer. He was 62.
“You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses…”
Hitchens was a militant atheist, renowned in part for having declared that “the real axis of evil is Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.” He despised Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton and the Tea Party and ignoramuses of all creeds and persuasions, but he also really, really didn’t believe in any sort of soul travel at the moment of expiration.
Now, apart from having finally escaped from the long, agonizing downswirl and diminishment of the last year and a half, he knows the truth of it. Apart from a final and absolute shutting down of all circuits, Hitchens now knows (or knew, at least, for an instant as he gave it up) whether some form or sense of cosmic ecstasy and spiritual transference comes with death, or he now knows (or knew during that same instant) that dying really is nothing more than the flatlining of everything, including the slightest thread or dream of the eternal.
I ran into Hitchens twice — the first time just before at a New York Film Festival panel discussion in late September 2001 called “Making Movies That Matter: The Role of Film in the National Debate” (my account of which I reprinted in an April 2006 article) and the second time in a 59th Street hotel three or four years ago. He was a bit gruff and tart both times, but that’s where great minds tend to go when they’re not lifting themselves and the level of conversation off the ground.
I’m glad, at least, that his pain has come to an end, and that whatever serenity-by-way-of-finality death provides, he has it now. I’m especially glad and grateful that Hitchens was around and punctuating the conversation as long and perceptively and excitingly as he did.