Goodbye, Mr. Hitchens
Memories of an unusual and rewarding acquaintanceship

Christopher Hitchens


Victor Davis Hanson

Although we communicated even less after his illness, I remember writing something to him to the effect that it did not matter what he believed in, since he had tried to live his life according to truth and candor, courage being the classical virtue without which others cannot exist.

And of course, those were historically Christian values as well, and would be so acknowledged in the Socratic sense of nothing bad ever happening to the good person. I meant that, and prayed to the Christian God both for his cure and for his soul, at least as well as any doomed sinner could who neither had been baptized nor currently attends church.

I remember one of our last meetings, which I think was in the spring before his illness was diagnosed. It was on the Stanford campus. He was limping, with a foot in a bandage, from what he said was a “spider bite” he had gotten on his lawn in Atherton. I told him the chances that a black widow or brown recluse had crawled up his leg on a California lawn were almost nil (as someone who does his own plumbing under a 140-year-old rural farmhouse could attest), and that the boil-like welt, and accompanying stiffness, were more likely from a bacterial infection misdiagnosed as a black-widow bite. (The same thing would later happen to my son.)

He looked too white and a little ill, but he mentioned that a doctor had prescribed him medicine. I assumed that it was an antibiotic and would do the trick, whether the problem was an infected spider bite or a more organic staph infection. But I regret to this day that I did not force the issue with him, and so worried later that his “bite” might in fact have been an early indication of an immune system taxed with undiagnosed cancer.

My dinners and meetings with Mr. Christopher Hitchens were oddly formal, though in spurts frequent. There were plenty of reasons he gave for not liking him, all of which I’ll pass on, but I did like him a lot. I admired his photographic recall, his mastery of recitation, his quick barbs and Johnson-like wit, the zeal with which he tried to take down bullies and pretension, and his deliberate and at times too studied emulation of Orwell’s courage. I often suggested, as I have mentioned here, that he was wrong about much and unfair to too many, and yet was met with kindness and courtesy in all those rebukes. I learned that expressing such stereotyped reservations to Hitchens was all part of the game; and without a need for such reservations there could be no game.

I suggested that while pounding so-called national treasures in theory at least prompted needed revisionist examination that few were willing to undertake, the meanness of the attack often nullified any good that could come of it. He smiled with a “Well, now . . . ” as if he thought I was from Mars — or Selma.

Since he has passed away, for all the supposed Hitchens adulation, I have met a surprising number of people who have scoffed with something like “Good riddance!” or “What a clever opportunistic con artist!” or “What did the alcoholic expect?”

Expect? Why, I think he expected to live far, far longer than he did, and to be remembered as someone who told the truth as he saw it, and did so with style and erudition as few others could, all with an acknowledgment of our own biases and vanities. For a supposedly mean person, he could be awfully kind.

I miss talking to Mr. Hitchens and reading him, in a way I don’t miss most others. And I think I’ll feel the same in five or, God willing, ten or 15 years as I do today about one of the most unusual and disconcerting people I have ever met.

NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of the just-released The End of Sparta, a novel about ancient freedom.