In my freshman year of high school, I wrote a paper for Honors English on Oscar Wilde that came back with angry red marks across the page. Each time I had affectionately referred to the author as ‘Oscar,’ my teacher had crossed it out. At the bottom of the page, in the same red pen, he had written “use only a full or last name unless you know the subject personally.” At the time, I was affronted — with the influence that Oscar Wilde’s words had had on me, I felt that he was at least important enough to fall in the first name basis category. Of course, years of writing essays taught me that one doesn’t, in fact, speak so casually in essays.
Christopher Hitchens, however, is my exception to this rule.
Truthfully, I was appalled the first time I saw him debate. I remember thinking that he was making points that his opponents wouldn’t even understand, let alone concede. He was not, to put it mildly, soft-spoken, in phrase or opinion. But his words were so masterful, and so obviously coming from him rather than a party line, that I couldn’t look away. I’m sure Christopher won the debate — he seemed to win them all, right or wrong. When he was right — when he grabbed on a point that he felt so strongly about, that was absolutely central to his heart, it was impossible to hear anything but the words he was speaking.
I don’t often write of my beliefs, although I do not hide them either. That was not always the case. There’s a strange kind of experience that comes with changing spiritual beliefs. It was an irritating little flicker, at first, things that just weren’t quite right. I asked many questions, outwardly and inwardly, and went on a sort of hunt, giving myself permission to re-evalaute every given that I had taken for granted. For a long time, this was one of the loneliest and most terrifying things I’ve ever done. When you have lived with a certain social and cultural definition of what is right and what is wrong, and who you are, it’s probably the most scary thing of all to realize that you don’t believe that after all.
So, almost two years into this journey of sorts, I began to read. I read scientific books, and they all made sense to me. I respected their processes, their answers, and most of all, their questions. But it was Christopher’s books and articles — and I read them all, from the Vanity Fair archives to his recent memoir, Hitch-22 — that truly spoke to me. They instilled me with a sense of wonder that real life nearly beat out of me, a thirst for history, politics, philosophy, and conversation. Perhaps most importantly, he made me feel wonderfully at peace. I was not alone in what I was feeling and thinking, but even if I had been, my thoughts would not be any less important. There is a great freedom in learning to value the process of really thinking about things, of looking for answers inwardly and of having passion for the written — and spoken — word.
In Hitch-22 Christopher said “A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’ except if the person living it is also an existentialist and elects to call it so. It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.” It was science, and my own loudly questioning mind that brought me to Christopher’s writings. But it was passages like this one which took away the guilt I had for such thoughts, and instead gave me the gift liberation from how I was supposed to think.
A few months ago, I watched Christopher in a small debate at a private, religious school. He had been called to argue, I believe, the existence of God. The debate was formatted so that in the midst of initial arguments and rebuttals, students were also allotted a short time to ask questions. Some related directly to the debate points, others merely asked for book recommendations. Near the end of the debate, Christopher simply asked the moderator if he could forgo his conclusion in favor of answering more of the students’ questions. The moderator denied him, but Christopher strove to answer the questions anyway, encouraging the children to read, recommending the greats — classic and modern; I was delighted to see the Harry Potter books on the list he gave a young fan — and fostering a fire for knowledge in anyone willing to listen.
Christopher, more than anything, valued that fire that comes with thinking freely. He encouraged those who thought differently, and lauded ideas well thought out. He was certainly never boring, and surely a champion of a certain school of thought — that individualist thinkers are to be encouraged, not derided — that has fallen short in our time. In one of his earlier books, Letters to a Young Contrarian, he wrote: “The noble title of “dissident” must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement.” Certainly, Christopher earned this title many times over, his writings took him all over war-stricken lands and into situations where he was shot at, threatened, and risked his own life many times over. He volunteered himself for the silly, the strange, and the scary, all for the sake of living and writing words that he could stand behind. He will be greatly missed, but he leaves behind one of the finest collections of writing of our time, and an insatiable fire for thought.