Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

December 16, 2011

Even with the living—let alone the dead—it can be difficult to recall a person fully and precisely in detail, to reassemble his or her presence. With the death of Christopher Hitchens, I am having the reverse difficulty. I cannot disassemble the detail to imagine the absence.

Seventeen years ago, I was in Washington, knowing nobody and nothing and Christopher picked me up, introduced me to the British ambassador, told me who to call, made introductions, fed me drinks, gave me stories to write, recited limericks or Protestant revolutionary verse, quoted verbatim from old conversations with Jorge Luis Borges or Norman Mailer, predicted how the “left would split” over Bosnia, invited me to a family Thanksgiving and didn’t care one way or the other when I made an idiot of myself. I can still quote from the conversations I have had with him then and since like I can with no-one else I have ever met.

It wasn’t kindness, exactly. Susan Sontag’s word for him has the explanation: it was his “avidity.” If you came into his field of attention, the energy of it was ferocious. I wasn’t a close friend. I belong to a very large and disparate confederacy of younger, glaze-eyed admirers on whom Christopher bestowed his incredible hospitality and fearsome attention. We acolytes came and went, sometimes wrote about him, tried to measure up or muscle up, celebrated him and, in the occasional attempt to break with his influence, betrayed him.

For the 40th anniversary of 1968, I sat with him and various bottles of whisky for three days—with his wife Carol and daughter Antonia accepting the routine while figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Sean Penn and the son of the president of Iraq came and went—and wrote 20,000 unpublishable words about the conversation. 8,000 of these were eventually published in Prospect, along with a tract of “out-takes” in a dark corner of the magazine’s website. Hitchens’s worldwide network of followers, lovers and haters, turned this rather esoteric account of a journey through the Trotskyist left into the most widely read article the magazine had published.

I gave up trying either to agree or disagree with him. His arguments and writing had a rebarbative brilliance that didn’t, in the end, seek or permit fellow travellers. He was a torchlight procession of one.

More Christopher Hitchens in Prospect:

How to be a public intellectual Voted the world’s fifth best public intellectual, Christopher Hitchens takes on the uses and abuses of the term

Pinochet, Milosevic… Henry Kissinger?Christopher Hitchens and David Rieff exchange frank views on politics, personalities and what constitutes a war criminal

The legacy of the sixties Was the sixties the start of a slide into moral and political nihilism or a flawed but authentic progressive convulsion? Brothers Peter and Christopher Hitchens debate

VIDEO: Peter and Christopher Hitchens discuss the Abolition of Britain in a Prospect debate chaired by John Humphrys

Profile: Christopher Hitchens From '68 agitator to staunch supporter of George W Bush's Iraq war—what explains Hitchens's political journey? Alexander Linklater spent three days with him in Washington trying to find out

The art of the essay Christopher Hitchens is the embodiment of the well-informed essayist, Philip Hensher writes. The others aren't even worth disagreeing with