Something I read in the news today has had a strange effect. Not quite sad, but sobering, sort of deflating. And I can’t help writing about it. So if you’re here for the usual load of bad jokes, pointless rants and general nonsense, you might as well skip this one.
No, it’s not the absurdity about Bin Laden. It’s something you would in fact fail to find mentioned in the usual news sources. It’s about Christopher Hitchens. At 62, suffering from Stage 4 oesophageal cancer, he has lost his voice. As he puts it, there is not Stage 5.
It is difficult to define who Hitch, as he is often called, really is. Martin Amis describes him as one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen. He writes about him here far more eloquently than I would (obvious, I know).
“In debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes.
Whereas mere Earthlings get by with a mess of expletives, subordinate clauses, and finely turned tautologies, Christopher talks not only in complete sentences but also in complete paragraphs. Similarly, he is an utter stranger to what Diderot called l’esprit de l’escalier: the spirit of the staircase. This phrase is sometimes translated as “staircase wit” – far too limitingly, in my view, because l’esprit de l’escalier describes an entire stratum of one’s intellectual and emotional being. The door to the debating hall, or to the contentious drinks party, or indeed to the little flat containing the focus of amatory desire, has just been firmly closed; and now the belated eureka shapes itself on your lips. These lost chances, these unexercised potencies of persuasion, can haunt you for a lifetime – particularly, of course, when the staircase was the one that might have led to the bedroom.”
Ah, l’esprit de l’escalier. I still sometimes think, for instance, of outrageous responses to a question I was asked over 9 years ago, at our version of the prom night.
Apart from the terrifying rhetoric, it’s the blunt honesty of the man. Whether talking about “Mother” Teresa (a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud) or vigorously supporting the Iraq War, he speaks and writes with no regard for conventional ‘wisdom’ or respect for established views or authorities. You may disagree with what he says, but it won’t be easy. You better be prepared to study the matter in as much details as he has, and condense it to a simple, indestructible truth like he does. And that’s just to convince yourself that he’s wrong. In a real debate, none of us stand a chance.
Many things I come across in the papers remind me of this honesty, make me wonder what he would have said. The beatification of the former Pope, for example. He might have repeated his famous quote, the motto he assigned to the Church: No child’s behind left. He might have had something to say on Robert Mugabe being given special permission by the EU to fly in for the event.
It’s just a little sad to know that I’ll not be hearing him tear apart any more pretentious, ignorant idiots in suits and robes; hitch-slapping them, as many call it.
But it’s also heartening to see how he has handled his misfortune with dignity and courage. I was moved by the words, and the poignant expression on his face as he said them, in a recent interview: “If you can hold it down on the smokes and the cocktails, you might be well advised to do so”.
When pointed out that it was one of the subtlest anti-smoking messages ever, he responded, “Well, the other ones tend to be rather strident, and for that reason, easy to ignore.”
For some reason, it has stuck with me. And had a significant effect. Like many, many other things he has said over the years. For that I’m grateful, Mr. Hitchens.
“I burned the candle at both ends, and it gave a lovely light.”