Christopher Hitchens will fade into history, for essays are ephemeral and talk shows and talk shows quadruply so. Still, we shall remember him – “we” being those one-time eager and impressionable young men and women who were inspired by his eloquence, his argumentativeness and his almost intimidating force of personality.
With his personal and ideological behaviour it is easy to imagine him being an optimist – all the smoking, drinking, socialising and promotion of immensely ambitious plans for international progress. Still, in his long, dark nights of the soul he had a deep sense of existential pessimism; of the absurdities of life and death. Not for him the Dawkinsian dream of a secular “paradise on Earth”. “Tragedy is inseparable from human life,” he wrote, at the end of a bleak essay on the politics of abortion, “And no advance in science or medicine is ever going to enable us to evade that.” “History is more of a tragedy,” he wrote, again, musing on communism, “Than it is a morality tale.” Existence itself was tainted by the tragic. When he wrote in his memoirs that man is “born into a losing struggle” he was comparing death favourably to everlasting life but there was real sadness too. Why else would such a bohemian internationalist revere a poet as grim and parochial as Philip Larkin.
Yet Hitchens was an idealist. He thought that liberty and truth (liberty and truth, at least, as he perceived them) were as close to being objectively good as anything could be – principles worth fighting, dying and, indeed, losing for. Stefan Collini wrote justly and humorously on his pub boreish win all arguments he entered into but he had a romantic attachment to the idea of lost causes. He admired the Trotsky who was murdered by Mercader’s icepick. He admired the socialists who lost to Franco. He appeared to think that defending the principles that one believes in is worthwhile regardless of the consequences of one’s efforts. Thus, when Charlie Rose asked him what gave him most pride in life he answered that it was his writings on the subject of Iraq: not because of the effects of the invasion but because of the principle of “sticking by” his friends in the Iraqi opposition. What politician did he most admire? Tony Blair, who had, to his mind, stood up for his ideals and retired “covered in spittle”.
I don’t want to overdo this. I’m sure Hitchens missed the dream of a peaceful, prosperous, democratic Iraq. Yet once the fortunes of his causes began to change he found it too easy to lapse into stalwart admiration for what Samuel Francis called (in a different context) “beautiful losers”. There is a kind of utopian pessimism in some people: an idea that one should fight for progress even if the odds are stacked against it. I can see romance in this. But regardless of the worth of our different principles I see no value in defending an idea if instead of doing good or even doing no good one does actual harm. To die for one’s principles can be a noble thing to do but it can be disgraceful to take others to the grave.