On the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most.
[On the use of cluster bombs by the US in Afghanistan] If you’re actually certain that you’re hitting only a concentration of enemy troops…then it’s pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too. So they won’t be able to say, “Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.” No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.
I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.
Hitchens had a reputation for being an internationalist. Yet someone who gets excited by mass murder—and then invokes that excitement, to a waiting audience, as an explanation of his support for mass murder—is not an internationalist. He is a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all.
Only a writer of Hitchens’s talents could do justice to the culture that now so shamefully mourns him.
Update (11:45 am)
Many seem to view Hitchens’s undeniable talent as a writer as a mitigating factor in their assessment of his legacy. Such arguments have a long history. On this question, I take my cues from one of our finest critics:
The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize. We have little proof that a tradition of literary studies in fact makes a man more humane. What is worse — a certain body of evidence points the other way. When barbarism came to twentieth-century Europe, the arts faculties in more than one university offered very little moral resistance, and this is not a trivial or local accident. In a disturbing number of cases the literary imagination gave servile or ecstatic welcome to political bestiality. That bestiality was at times enforced and refined by individuals educated in the culture of traditional humanism. Knowledge of Goethe, a delight in the poetry of Rilke, seemed no bar to personal and institutionalized sadism. Literary values and the most utmost of hideous inhumanity could coexist in the same community, in the same individual sensibility….
…I find myself unable to assert confidently that the humanities humanize. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text which is the substance of our training and pursuit diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response. Because we are trained to give psychological and moral credence to the imaginary, to the character in a play or a novel, to the condition of spirit we gather from a poem, we may find it more difficult to identify with the real world, to take the world of actual experience to heart…The capacity for imaginative reflex, for moral risk in any human being is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room. Thus there may be a covert, betraying link between the cultivation of aesthetic response and the potential of personal inhumanity.
—George Steiner, “To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” in Language and Silence
Update (December 18, 3:15 pm)
I’ve written a follow-up post to this one. Punchline: “Last, that people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the war to his other virtues…tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, that sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.”