Always with the New Year’s beginning are there people who view it as a mark for new and better things to come. We see room to move forward, and we allow the old and worn to fade so the new and fresh can redefine and reshape us. Personally and collectively, most of us envision how the year will turn out, where it will take us and who we will be at the end of it. But few of us, if any, have seen the dawn of a new year knowing it likely to be our last.
In late June 2010, Christopher Hitchens, arguably the greatest essayist of our time and one of the most brilliant thinkers, was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer. He once remarked, explaining the severity of his cancer, that “there is no Stage V.” On Dec. 16, 2011, his cancer won out, sapping his last breaths, leaving us in a world devoid of his staggering wit and intellect and his spectacular humanity.
Never before had I cared so much for the death of a man I hadn’t met. Not one word was shared between us, but I nevertheless feel quite familiar with the kind of man he was. From his writings in Vanity Fair to his blistering critique of religion in God Is Not Great, to his many speeches, orations, talks and lectures recorded at length and viewed in the archives of YouTube, I came to revere him as a role model, my paragon of the good life. He enthralled me first merely by speaking — his command of the language, the way he used words and the strength he infused them with were dazzling and mesmerizing. He probably won more arguments than I could muster in three centuries.
Sometimes I can’t help but feel life is dimmer, wearier and drearier without him. I used to wonder, in quiet moments reading his words, what he was thinking about right this second, and I’d say to myself, “Probably something awesome.” But I can’t do that anymore. I can, however, imagine what he’d say if I tried.
“Mr. Gallagher, please cease with your fatuous thoughts of my death and go live! And then if you’re lucky, an admirer of your own will think fatuously of you as you did of me.”
Brian Gallagher is a fourth-year philosophy major.
Shortly after this past winter break began, Christopher Hitchens’ battle with cancer finally ended. Due to the nature of his condition, it had been a virtual certainty; esophageal cancer is nearly un-survivable. This, of course, made the news no less awful.
For months, I and so many others who admired (and sometimes agreed with) him watched Hitchens physically shrink in each subsequent interview as the illness marched forward. We heard his voice morph from the deep, rich orator’s tool to the strangled gasp of his last months. But as quiet and as strained as it became, the voice did not go silent. It could no longer fill a room, but still he spoke and wrote, as his body slowly failed him.
But then, Hitchens was always unafraid in a way I cannot even approach. He took nothing for granted; he didn’t allow the society and culture in which he lived to determine how and what he thought, and was always willing to make a statement that he knew would be unpopular. In a sea of politically liberal atheists, he supported the invasion of Iraq because he believed that the Hussein regime was the United States’ mess to clean up, having installed the dictator in the first place. He tore Mother Teresa’s image to pieces with The Missionary Position, exposing her as a tyrant-schmoozing opportunist who lead a cult of suffering, profiting off of the pain and death of the poor and opposing those who sought to provide real poverty relief and medical care. He wrote God is Not Great, a collection of anecdotes and arguments that strove to prove that not only were the metaphysical claims of religions unsupported, but that their effect on the human condition throughout history has been overwhelmingly detrimental.
He was brilliant, encyclopedic and witty to the end. When I heard the news of his death, I found myself in tears, but could not help laughing through them at the memory of his quote from the September 2010 Vanity Fair, wherein he wrote, “I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
Connor Oakes is a fourth-year political science major.