When someone close dies it’s not uncommon to imagine them still alive, still there. It can happen in the most banal of circumstances. For example, when the phone rings, one imagines it might be them on the line, ready to talk, as before. The realisation that it isn’t them – can’t be, won’t ever be – follows quickly after. In this way, we may feel their death many times over.
The same is true of Christopher Hitchens, who has died from cancer. It is hard for me to accept anything other than he is still there. But unlike the example above, I didn’t know him at all in person. Like many, I ‘knew’ him, whatever that might mean, from reading his books and articles, and from listening to him in argument and debate. As I’ve said before, feeling that you know someone you have never met is often most acutely expressed by how we refer to them. For especial intimacy, we might use the first name, or a nickname, of someone who is otherwise a stranger to us. For many, he became simply ‘Hitch’ – or perhaps ‘The Hitch’, the definite article reflecting our unspoken understanding that the likes of him cannot be found elsewhere, or again.
Like the bereaved waiting by the phone, suffice to say that I keep thinking that, when the next edition of Vanity Fair is published, there will a new article written by him. Perhaps, for a short while, there will be: we know that a posthumous publication, provisionally entitled Mortality, will collect Hitchens’ thoughts on death and dying, drawn from his final articles for Vanity Fair. Eventually, however, publication of new writings will stop and those times we listen to him will be from the archive.
How should I remember him? Certainly not to say ‘rest in peace’ since, like Hitchens, I don’t believe he is ‘resting’ anywhere. Annihilation doesn’t offer such a cosy future. Nor in hagiography. Like many, again, I disagreed with some of what he wrote. I think he made mistakes, inevitable perhaps if you consider his scope and engagement. Besides, thinking of him in godlike terms would have a perverse irony given his infamous dismantling of deities in god is not great. I don’t think it would have been the kind of irony he would have enjoyed. Once again, and as I have said before, it is his passing – the irreversible loss of the potential to live more, enjoy more of his only life – that I regret, as much as I regret the pain to his friends and family and all who benefitted from his work.
So, instead, I bought a bottle of his beloved Johnnie Walker Black Label, poured myself a glass, and listened to him read his autobiography, Hitch-22. He spoke of his mother, Yvonne, in ways beautiful and touching. When I had drained the glass, I went downstairs and stacked his books into a pile alongside those that I will read next, to read again.
Reading Hitchens has been in education in learning how to live. In the final months of his life, reading him has been an education in learning how to die. No writer, no one, can hope for anything more.
And now – to life.