Right here above my desk at home is a section of books by Christopher Hitchens, close at hand since they often repay revisiting. The titles will seem eclectic, but in fact there is a tight logic that threads them together: books on Thomas Paine and Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger and Thomas Jefferson, the Clintons and George Orwell, alongside collections on literature and politics. Perhaps these are all tied together in Letters to a Young Contrarian.
Let us not do Hitchens the injustice of wishing him eternal peace. Let’s be honest and honor his memory by recognizing he didn’t want it. Granted, I would certainly be grateful if the witness of Francis Collins and the prayers of many were effective; it would certainly make for interesting conversation in the new heavens and earth. (In which case, let’s hope sardonic wit is not a sin–and that there are still certain latitudes of grace in the kingdom. It’s hard for me to imagine a sober Hitchens being much fun.) But I don’t want to impose my fantasies on Hitchens.
So I won’t retroactively baptize Christopher Hitchens as I mourn his passing today. Better to honor his brash defiance. And no better way to do that than to listen again to his closing envoi to young contrarians:
I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the “transcendent” and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Dont’ be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.I shall leave you with a few words from George Konrad, the Hungarian dissident who retained his integrity through some crepuscular times, and who survived his persecutors by writing Antipolitics and The Loser, and many other lapidary essays and fictions. (When, after the emancipation of his country and society, they came to him and offered him the presidency, he said, “No, thanks.”) He wrote this in 1987, when the dawn seemed a good way off:Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses. … If you don’t like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days.May it be so with you, and may you keep your powder dry for the battles ahead, and know when and how to recognise them.