Christopher Hitchens - How Should He Be Remembered?

19/12/2011 22:28 GMT | Updated 18/02/2012 10:12 GMT

It's almost tragicomic that only death brings people the recognition they deserved whilst alive.

This is true for Christopher Hitchens who, though increasingly famous in his last days, will only now have his vast catalogue read by the many it should already have reached. As eulogies mount, praising a distinguished writer's wit and wisdom, one can't help but wonder what Hitchens would have made of them all.

Before the charge is made, let me declare now that sycophancy is as disrespectful to the memory of the dead as indifference. Death demands honesty and people must be remembered for who they were, not for who we would have liked them to be. Hitchens himself would have wanted no more and no less.

Grief can gild memories with generosity and Hitchens has, in some obituaries, been likened to Voltaire and Orwell. But these comparisons are unsustainable and on two levels.

Firstly, there's the banal fact that history has yet to certify Hitchens' work. Even so, Hitchens was many things but philosopher and social commentator he was not. Despite his self-assurance 'Hitch' was a humble man and after being flatted by these comparisons he would have swiftly dismissed them. Voltaire, Orwell and Wilson were his inspirations, not his equals and Hitchens said as much in his most recent published exchange.

Secondly, 'intellectual' seems an oddly ill-fitting 'job title' for someone whose aim it was to provoke us into discussion. It wasn't Hitchens' stated aim to enlighten, elucidate or educate. He didn't cultivate knowledge for the sake of being knowledgeable and Hitchens is better understood as an intellectual pragmatist. The understanding that knowledge should be used not stored is characteristic of Hitchens' work. What we got when we read or heard from Hitchens was Hitchens. Quotes, facts and arguments were all deployed to inform, test and express his opinions. Erudition was simply a by-product of this reflection.

Notwithstanding the claim that Hitchens doesn't belong to the esteemed group of enlightenment figures he so admired, we must not diminish his accomplishments as a commentator in an era increasingly defined by sound bites and twitter.

For aspiring writers Hitchens is a role model. To present journalists he should serve as an example. In both capacities what Hitchens represents is the pursuit of perfecting the writer's craft. During his career, his writing was criticised for at times being boring and at others being overstated. Nevertheless this process of refinement was as important a message for Hitchens as the indictment of religion or the dismissal of depots. It is for this reason that poor journalism has never been more intolerable than when lazy hands wrote lazy obituaries for a man whose ability as a writer deserved better.

It's offensive to the rigour of his work to describe him as having "scribbled" articles.

To do so is to practice the poor journalism that Hitchens' prolific and incisive work cast a deep and dark shadow over. And to describe Hitchens as a "devout atheist" is to use the sort of obvious and inaccurate oxymoron that would have triggered his irascible rage.

But the BBC we were worse, facilely describing Hitchens as "controversial". "Controversial", through overuse, is at risk of becoming meaningless. It's an adjective fit for X Factor scandals, scandal being another overused hyperbole. Of course the context in which words are used is important but Hitchens was masterful enough to appreciate that connotations are crucial too.

"Controversial" both misstates and understates what Hitchens achieved. More than controversial, Hitchens was an iconoclast. He didn't merely provoke disagreement; he shook complacently held assumptions at their very foundations. Hitchens deserves respect for relying on reason, not rhetoric and it is for this reason that in a debate Martin Amis said he would back Hitchens over Cicero. If I were on my bottom dollar, I'd do the same.

Between his politics and his prose we must not overlook his personality. Lynn Barber described him as "one of the greatest conversationalists of our age". He could also, with what Ian Parker at the New Yorker called "the sudden, cutthroat withdrawal of charm", wound deeply. Youtube is full of videos of 'Hitch-slaps', capturing instances where Hitchens deployed both wisdom and wit to strike down opponents.

What of his legacy? Jason Cowley in the New Statement predicted that Hitchens would be remembered for his prodigious output, his swaggering, rhetorical style and his lifestyle. I'm inclined to be less pessimistic. Peter Hitchens said that courage is the quality that best defined his brother. To that I would add clarity. Combined, Hitchens' legacy is obvious and simple but powerful.

Throughout, he urged us to be courageous: to test our beliefs and to voice our convictions. Equally he encouraged us to be clear, not merely when expressing our courage, but when deciding to what our courage should relate. I'll explain.

That Hitchens knew himself is obvious to anyone who begins to read his work. If Hitchens served as an example for anything, it would be introspection. What might seem like hubris in his writing is instead an acute self-awareness, the kind of unapologetic commitment to one's views that results from having defined oneself. When reading or listening to Hitchens', this clarity has the effect of a mirror, forcing us to reflect ourselves on our views. It is this that gives value to his courage and it is this that should be Hitchens' legacy.