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Christopher Hitchens Traveled a Long Road

One of the essays in Christopher Hitchens’ 2004 book, Love, Poverty, and War, began with a portion of W.H. Auden’s elegy for William Butler Yeats, which perhaps Hitchens had in mind for himself:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honors at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

The facing page of Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22, published a few months before he learned he had cancer, set forth an excerpt from another Auden poem, “Death’s Echo,” which Hitchens probably thought was a description of the life he had led, but is perhaps an even better description of his last year, which he spent writing, speaking and debating ultimate issues as his cancer ravaged him:

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
The dance’s pattern; dance while you can.

Dance, dance for the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Dance till the stars come down from the rafters;
Dance, dance, dance till you drop.

John Podhoretz may not be correct that Hitchens was the bravest ideologically-driven writer since Norman Podhoretz; David Horowitz may have a claim to that title, and Norman belongs in a class by himself, for reasons beyond the scope of this post. Hitchens also had an extraordinary blind side when it came to the Palestinians, which perhaps came from what Benjamin Kerstein describes as anti-Semitism, but that seems to me too strong a judgment. He traveled a long road in his life. Here is part of the last paragraph of the penultimate chapter in Hitch-22:

So I close this long reflection on what I hope is a not-too-quaveringly semi-Semitic note. When I am at home, I will only enter a synagogue for the bar or bat mitzvah of a friend’s child, or in order to have a debate with the faithful … When I am traveling, I will stop at a shul if it is in a country where Jews are under threat, or dying out, or were once persecuted. This has taken me down queer and sad little side streets in Morocco and Tunisia and Eritrea and India, and in Damascus and Budapest and Prague and Istanbul, more than once to temples that have recently been desecrated by the new breed of racist Islamic gangster … I hate the idea that the dispossession of one people should be held hostage to the victimhood of another, as it is in the Middle East and as it was in Eastern Europe. But I find myself somehow assuming that Jewishness and “normality” are in some profound way noncompatible. The most gracious thing said to me when I discovered my family secret [that my mother was Jewish and that therefore so was I] was by Martin [Amis], who after a long evening of ironic reflection said quite simply: “Hitch, I find that I am a little envious of you.” I choose to think that this proved, once again, his appreciation for the nuances of risk, uncertainty, ambivalence, and ambiguity. These happen to be the very things that “secularity” and “normality,” rather like the fantasy of salvation, cannot purchase.

There is a lot in that last paragraph, and it can serve as a testament to the courage and complexity of the man. Will time pardon him for writing well, to use the terms of Auden’s poem? If writing well is the source of pardon, he has already been pardoned. But great writing, as Peter Wehner notes, is a gift, not a virtue. The pardon we all need comes from a much more profound source, a much more mysterious place, a place that may or may not exist. As Allahpundit tweeted last night about Hitchens, now he knows. May he rest in peace.



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