enlightened doubt: christopher hitchens 1949-2011

Renowned author and journalist Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday, after a year long struggle with cancer. Left behind are a modern legacy of articles and essay collections projecting his solemn passion for Enlightenment values of reason and human rights. It is a passion keenly felt and shared here at iModernReview.  In reading his works it would be difficult to find a more eloquent spokesman or fiercer champion of its values in contemporary journalism.

‘Hitch-22: Confessions and Contradictions’ (2010) by Christopher Hitchens

‘Contradiction’ was a term that often followed in his wake. His bestselling memoir Hitch 22 , and Letters to a Young Contrarian focus on his much remarked shift from any easy labels of left and right-wing, liberal and conservative in his analysis of world events. His fierce critiques fix on an array of targets, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Theresa. Taken as a whole however, it is consistency that encapsulates his allegiance to the reasoning mind. Through his own, there lies its proof in the tremendous output of his journalistic career, where his decisive commentary is more the hard-won result of first embracing his doubt over easy certainty.

The modern Enlightenment, with its corollary values of scientific inquiry and individual rights he argued, are a sustained outcome of continuous criticism. So long as a society embraced free speech, it would continue to seek the best explanations and correct its mistaken paths. It’s darkest errors were never more apparent than his discomfortingly close analysis of the war zones he witnessed.

We lose something important if we forget Kosovo and the harrowing events that finally led to the self-determination of its nearly 2 million inhabitants. Long deprived of even vestigial national and human rights, then forced to retreat at gunpoint onto deportation trains and threatened with the believable threat of mass murder, these people were belatedly rescued by an intervention that said, fairly simply, there is a limit beyond which law cannot be further broken down and conscience further outraged.

(‘Why Kosovo Still Matters, 2010)

A self-described Trotskyist, he denounced any totalitarian regimes’ – be they Left or Right – crackdown on dissent.

Spare me the letters that remind us all that Cuba has a good healthcare system and has abolished illiteracy. A healthy literate people do not need to be told what they can read.

(‘Minority Report’, 1989)

A journalist for liberal publications such as Slate and The Nation, he decried the Left’s pacifism and instead championed the US conservative government’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. He visited for himself the chemical storehouses and the Kurdish mass-graves of the Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. He also won an equal share of enemies on the Right. While many liberal publications including The New York Times would euphemistically adopt along with conservatives new coinages like ‘enhanced interrogation‘ Hitchens condemned water-boarding as torture, underwent waterboarding – himself as victim – so that he might objectively describe its horrors for readers of Vanity Fair.

Hitchens argues for humanist values in literature and art in ‘god is not Great’ (2007)

Hitchens’ notoriety and fame rose in 2007 with god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Here again, Hitchens argued for Enlightenment values of doubt and continuous criticism. In embracing the ‘certainties’ of faith, he argued, people disarm themselves from a lifeline of continuous re-evaluation and reasoning thought. In the concluding chapter ‘The Need for a New Enlightenment’ he writes,

Of course it is better for the mind to “choose” the path of skepticism and inquiry in any case, because only by continual exercise of these faculties can we hope to achieve anything.

Therein lies both the virtue of an Enlightenment project and of Hitchens’ writing, identifying the ‘enemy’ of the modern as the uncritical and totalitarian mindset (See also his interview with Richard Dawkins for The New Statesman). The Enlightenment, were it to hold any fixed element, would be to codify the freedom to doubt, change, think, alter, criticise and pursue. Hitchens found his enlightened place on Earth, fiercely expressing himself through this consistency.

Imagine a state of bliss and perpetual happiness and harmony, and you have summoned a vision of tedium and pointlessness and predictability, such as Huxley with all his gifts was only able to sketch. Only one other sacred text mentions “happiness” without embarrassment. But even in 1776, this concept was thought to be mentionable only in the consequence of a bitter struggle, just then being embarked upon. The beautiful word “pursuit,” however we construe it, would be vacuous in any other context.

(Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2001)

‘Pursuit’ finds worthy and serious meaning in the life of Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant thinker, eloquent writer, and humanist who found his permanence in the Enlightenment search ♦

Hitchens’ essays are also found in collected works, including For the Sake of Argument (1994)  Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays (2004), and most recently Arguably (2011). iModernReview had previously reviewed his editor role for Best American Essays 2010.

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essays unassailable

The Best American Essays 2010 Christopher Hitchens, Ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Pub. Co

The Best American Essay series has released its 25th edition, a collection of long form journalism pieces sourced from amongst American journalists, thinkers and scientists.

Each year, a prominent writer in their field is awarded the task of winnowing, as the title suggests, the most exemplary shortlisted pieces into the annual collection’s book form. This year- a troubling one for him in terms of his health- the task fell to iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, arguably one of the most provocative thinkers this decade.  In a period when series editor Robert Atwan ponders in the Foreword whether essay form is in a kind of inexorable decline itself, it’s heartening that Hitchens’ introduction brandishes from the barricades, the case in this 2010 edition for the vital work that essays accomplish.

 As Hitchens notes in the introduction,

An essay is really a try, an attempt, even an adventure.

America is for him, a uniquely suitable source,

Somewhat like the word ‘intellectual’, the word ‘essayist’, and its cousin ‘pamphleteer,’ has a natural kinship with the idea of dissent… may this kinship flourish and bring forth numerous and vigorous descendants.

Of unexpected pleasure among the 21 essays collected are those that deal with specialist and scientific subjects. Specialist John Gamel’s ‘The Elegant Eyeball’, an article first published in The Alaska Quarterly Review is especially engaging. Gamel treats his subject with passion and precision, using a mix of specialist terms explained in clear layman’s language. In doing so, Gamel not only educates with great respect to reader intelligence, but beckons, like an intrepid explorer inside an ocular adventure of mountains, ravines and channels; an inner world that from this miniscule vantage looms impressively.

There before me lay a stunning image- a lacework of arteries and veins delicate as a spider’s web, spread on a burnt umber palate swirled and streaked with shades of ochre. Most spectacular of all was the retina, a transparent wafer that gleamed…in the center the optic nerve shone like a risen sun. I was in love.

Only writing of this kind can serve more entertainingly and practically than any news piece to demonstrate the importance of scientific research, an attempt this essay fully accomplishes.

The adventure of this and Steven Pinker’s ‘My Genome, My Self’ go some way to answer Hitchens’ plea, made himself in writing over a decade ago, that more be written to bring scientific advances, in areas such as bacteria research and DNA to the wider awareness of a reading public. At no time in history has the physical sciences surged so far ahead and is yet more needing of general understanding, and its corollary respect, in the wider culture.

As might be more expected, but with no decrease in pleasure, Hitchens has also selected those writings of a more literary bent. Elif Batuman’s ‘The Murder of Leo Tolstoy is history written as murder mystery. Like any good novel, this ‘dead body’ is thrust to the beginning, the first piece in the collection. David Sedaris’ ‘Guy Walks Into a Bar Car reminds us that essays can serve a lighter purpose by highlighting the ordinary in extraordinary detail. The characters described in a train’s bar compartment are delimited so finely (and as such, so hilariously) here, you begin to appreciate all over again what John Gamel wrote about in ‘The Elegant Eyeball’. Nothing escapes David Sedaris’ merciless retina.

Zadie Smith’s ‘Speaking in Tongues’ pokes at the connections between voice and Identity. Here her pen serves just as eloquently to bridge cultural divides with empathy, knowledge and a breadth of personal experience.

Christopher Hitchen’s masterful selection has shown us the powerful need for this kind of literary form. The essay, as with the examples chosen for The Best American Essays 2010 will hopefully span the generations to come.