I remember when Christopher Hitchens first said that if you gave Jerry Falwell an enema you could bury him in a matchbox. The combination of pugnacity, imagery and wit in that single phrase was what made Hitchens the most formidable debater of our time. Having debated with him a number of times across the country, I was often on the lash end of that wit.
Yet I cherished our time together and am immeasurably saddened that he is gone.
Hitchens was someone who reveled in giving what he reckoned to be justified offense. Not that he would be boorish (though I have seen him turn on questioners he disliked with an unseemly ferocity) but he would deploy his wit and learning with glee. Even when he was generous there was a sting in the tail.
Once in a debate in San Diego I said something about the limitations of science to which he objected. “I have been at many podiums with the Rabbi” he said, “and this is so egregious a statement that I am going to give him a chance to retract it before I have to refute it.” That is generosity, Hitchens style.
The singular combination of British baritone and brio that was Hitchens lived on the page, but was even more vivid in person. As stylish a writer as he was, his gifts were not those of the study hall alone; he was not a myopic, bookish scholar. Hitchens traveled to the most dangerous places on the globe. When he spoke about the world it was as most people spoke about their home towns; he knew everything from the government to the restaurants to – God knows – the bars.
Once in Boston before the debate I found him in the bar. He urged me to sit down and have a drink. I told him he certainly didn’t need that advantage, too – drink had (if anything) an energizing effect on his cerebral cortex; it just made me sluggish. “Well then” he said, conceding the point, “just have a beer – that’s only water anyway.” So I did, matching him one for five.
Hitchens was not always judicious, he was not always accurate and sometimes he could raise one’s blood pressure with the turn of a barbed phrase. But what a remarkable galaxy of gifts and passion he has left us. The poet Yeats once said that the worst thing about some people is that when they are not drunk, they are sober.
Hitchens was never sober, not in this lifeless, dry sense. He was drunk with passion, with words, with experience – with life. A grand spirit has left us and we should all feel his loss.