Journalists and writers serve numerous purposes in society, one of which is to stimulate thought and make you reconsider some, or all, of your beliefs. A simple way to do this is by providing all sides of an issue, regardless of whether one side is vastly more popular or accepted as true.
Few penmen have been more proficient at making you think than Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, columnist for Slate and author of countless essays, biographies and a memoir.
Unfortunately, last summer, during a book tour for his memoir, “Hitch-22,” Hitchens awoke one morning in sheer agony.
“I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death,” Hitchens, 61, wrote in a Vanity Fair column announcing his illness. “But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little.”
Only Hitchens could describe his bout with metastatic esophageal cancer so vividly.
His book tour, of course, was cancelled as he sought/seeks treatment. His fans were/are looking for a prognosis. In Hitch’s own words, he’ll be extremely lucky to “live another five years.”
But despite what promises to be grim days ahead, Hitch has continued his work. He’s written several follow-up columns in his Vanity Fair space under the heading “Tumortown,” in which he has incorporated his wit into descriptions of the disease and treatment --
“It’s normally agreed,” Hitch wrote, “that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’)”
Somehow, Hitchens has maintained focus and his devotion to journalism and commentary, writing for Slate recently about WikiLeaks, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
When his cancer first came to light, many readers -- both supporters and opponents -- wondered aloud whether his religious views would shift. As the author of “God is Not Great,” Hitch is one of most authoritative atheistic voices, opining that organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”
With death appearing to loom sooner rather than later, readers questioned whether Hitch would attempt to make amends with a God he has never bought into. But that’s far from the case. Essentially, Hitchens says people are welcome to pray for him, but don’t expect him to believe it’ll amount to any miracles.
Then there’s Hitchens’ love of alcohol and tobacco (though he quit smoking in recent years), which along with his atheism, has made up his professional essence. He’s quoted as saying his daily intake of alcohol is enough "to kill or stun the average mule." He says a primary reason for drinking is because it makes other people “less boring,” a statement to which I couldn’t agree more, though I don’t advise taking as heavily to the gas as Hitchens does.
In “Hitch-22,” the author described his daily drinking regimen as follows: “At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker's amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No 'after dinner drinks' -- most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. 'Nightcaps' depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”
In my view, Hitchens has gotten away with outlandish and downright rude behavior simply because he’s typically the smartest guy in the room, something apparent in every piece he writes. Whatever happens in the months or years ahead, as I’ve said before, the world is more tolerant and educated place because of Hitch’s work. For a writer, few compliments are greater.