Hitchens, Havel and Kim

Still another thing to regret about losing the lovably confounding and unsurpassingly life-affirming Christopher Hitchens (1949 -2011) is wondering what new heights of passion and virtuosity he would have reached in writing about the near-simultaneous passing of Kim Jong-Il and Vaclav Havel, two looming icons of of 20th century communism. We are poorer for being deprived of that essay.

No one expected a deathbed conversion from one of our era’s most rhetorically invigorating atheists. But in the NY Times, Hitch’s close friend Ian McEwen revealed something I found terribly ironic, if not the next best thing. Hitch apparently spent his last days and hours immersed in the work of G.K. Chesterton, preparing a review of a new biography. On the other hand, it seems he was equally preoccupied with Philip Larkin, a poet renowned for vigorous unbelief (even if for myself, poems like Aubade, in the depth of their seriousness about the religious vision, count as deeply inspirational works. Perhaps our disenchanted age, in other words, gets the devotional works it deserves.)

Scores of young writers from my generation saw Hitchens as an Olympian and living example of what the engaged writing life could be. Two of my favorites — Benjamin Kunkel and Morgan Meis — pay tribute with graceful, yet admirably sober accounts of the Master’s example and influence. Although I probably should’ve suspected it, I was surprised and touched to find that I shared both their admiration and their frustrations. I too, regrettably, followed Hitchens into Iraq, and more or less solely on his authority did I justify my position. Because of this, perhaps Hitchens more recently was an influence one dared not name. Yet for that it was all the more profound.

He was among our age’s greatest characters, in the largest sense of that term. We were lucky to have known him and can only hope the future will produce more of his rank.