“Eloquent” is such an easy word, you feel like you need to coin something special just for Christopher Hitchens. It would have to combine “eloquent” with “erudite” and “deliberate” and “devastating” and “shocking” and “unflinching” and “élan” and “delightful,” all twirled up together into an irreducible whole. I suppose “Hitch” would do, only now that he’s gone we have no one to apply it to.
Years ago, I watched my best friend wage a losing war with cancer. Hitchens’ essays on his own fight were somehow more illuminating, more intimate than my actually having been there all those years ago. He wrote his essays without ever sounding maudlin, yet without false hope or cheap cheer. Hitchens wrote about his own dying process the same way he wrote about everything else: perfectly “Hitch.”
I didn’t know the man, never so much as bumped into him by chance at some conference or meeting or watering hole. I would have liked to. As something of convivial drinker myself, I like to think we’d have been able to hit it off, if only for a few hours. Anything longer than that, and I fear I’d stop being interesting to him. And that’s OK: What an unforgettable experience that would have been, if only for me.
Hitchens lived big, thought big, wrote big, drank big, and smoked big — which was, of course, his eventual undoing. We watched him fight and die, just as big and as publicly as he did anything else, and we knew this coming. Looking at all the columns and remembrances and blogs this morning, you can tell many people had their obits in the can weeks or months ago, awaiting this day to fill in the proper dates and add a few final thoughts or details.
I didn’t do that. I couldn’t do that. Because while I know he’s gone, I don’t yet miss him. There are still works of his I haven’t read. For as long as I want it to, there will always be new Hitchens available to me, in the way I knew him best: On the printed page. He left, as the late Steve Jobs used to say, “a dent in the universe.”
The English-speaking world lost two of its most daring thinkers in the last few months, men brought down by their own bad habits. I suppose there’s a lesson in there. I don’t suppose we’ll learn it any time soon.
Like Hitchens, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I hope we’re both wrong. And if there is a heaven big enough to squeeze in Hitch, it had better have a smoking section.
If doesn’t, it soon will.