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A Flower of Chivalry: Berlinski on Hitchens, 1949-2011

William Marshall.jpg

Christopher Hitchens's friends loved him without reservation, and at his death, they have praised him without restraint. I knew Hitchens only slightly. We had met over the course of four days in Birmingham, Alabama, where we participated in a debate. Hitchens was already gravely ill. I do not think he was yet in pain, but plainly he was suffering from the effects of chemotherapy. He walked slowly, and when he spoke in his rich plumy baritone, he spoke from a place far away.

The debate between us was far less a debate than a celebration of his determination again to appear in public. Before the debate, Hitchens found himself surrounded by well-known figures from New York and Washington, D.C. He enjoyed their attention, and if he had on this occasion earned it by approaching the doors of death, I rather suspected that he thought earning it in this way was better than not having it at all.

Christopher Hitchens's reputation rests on his literary works, his panache as a public speaker, and on his defiant atheism. He wrote on a very wide range of subjects, and his book reviews were often very fine. He liked to praise the writers and poets he loved: Oscar Wilde, Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden, Wilfred Owen, James Fenton, many others. He read closely and he read well. As an essayist, Christopher Hitchens is often compared to George Orwell. The comparison is careless, and it is one that in his final interview with Richard Dawkins, he rejected. Hitchens wrote fluently, Orwell, unforgettably. The difference is very considerable, but it is not to Hitchens's discredit. No man is obliged to be what he might have been.

Hitchens was an engaging public speaker, and he had the gift of gracefully holding an audience. His intimate interviews were often wonderful because invariably, he was more elegant and far more articulate than his interlocutors. When faced with a rhetorical bruiser like George Galloway, his natural register failed him, and he did not have the dexterity to secure by means of an ironical divagation what he was otherwise unable to secure by matching bruise to bruise.

With the publication of God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens reached a mass audience. He became celebrated. When he discovered how well he had been received by the public, he tended to regard his own religious beliefs with the indulgence of a man who on discovering that he has been lucky in attracting admirers very naturally concludes that he has been justified in attracting them.

In conversation, he lapsed into agnosticism, arguing only for a theological variant of who knows? His inability to draw a sharp distinction between affirming that God does not exist and wondering whether he does was a source of discomfort, with Hitchens, in his debate with philosopher William Craig, at last taking refuge, and, I suppose, comfort, in the declaration that certain religious asseverations are so much "white noise."

His atheism nonetheless had a kind of shambling boisterousness that made Christopher Hitchens seem a Mirabeau to Richard Dawkins's Saint Just or Sam Harris's Robespierre. Hitchens was uninterested in subtle analysis. On the masthead of the Daily Hitchens, there is the legend: What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof. The difficulty with this assertion is straightforward. If it has been asserted without proof, why should it be believed, and if not, where is the proof?

I asked Hitchens about this during a break in our debate. We had retreated to a forlorn hotel loading ramp in order to have a cigarette. "Well, yes," he said, "it's just a sentence."

What elicited Christopher Hitchens indignation was no very refined sense of the inadequacy of theological arguments. He thought they were equally good, or equally bad, and never paid them any attention. But far more than Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens had a vivid sense of the demands that religious belief must enforce. The Christian heaven he once dismissed as a celestial North Korea, and while this remark is flippant, it is not foolish. Christopher Hitchens found objectionable the very idea of a source of authority, and so of power, greater than his own. This has seemed to some of his readers all of the time, and all of his readers some of the time, both defiant and uplifting. The very same idea is at work in the terrible crimes of the twentieth century. It is inseparable from them.

Christopher Hitchens chose to greet death publicly. Had he thought of it, he might well have invited an orchestra. We signed books together after our appearance in Birmingham, and to admirers on his very long line inquiring after his health, Hitchens replied that he was dying. It was a response that inevitably took his interlocutor aback, the more so since it was true. I followed his interviews and read his essays about cancer and death. I found them moving. But they do not evoke the man. In his portrait of William Marshall (Guillaume Maréchal), The Flower of Chivalry, Georges Duby describes William "advancing calmly toward death" in full public view, his friends and retainers at his side, "proud of having been the instrument of the final, the fugitive, the anachronistic triumph of honor."

Having contracted a terrible illness in the twenty first century, Christopher Hitchens returned to the thirteenth century in order to have it be seen to its end.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke, Temple Church, London.