Christopher Hitchens: Grass in their mouths.
posted at 10:54 am on December 16, 2011 by Jazz Shaw
I suppose it’s both fitting and ironic that in this age of instant communications and social media, I didn’t find out that Christopher Hitchens had passed on until the following morning. But I received the first, frightening hint of the news on Twitter, lodged in my mentions column from the night before. Only moments after I went to bed, a mutual friend had been demanding that Ed Morrissey and I pore through “hours of Hitchens footage” so we could reminisce about it today. A quick flip through a few browser tabs later and it was confirmed. A giant had fallen. (Even as I write this I’m still having difficulty wrapping my mind around the prospect of working either of the words “died” or “dead” into the same sentence with his name.)
I spent the morning plagued by an indescribable sense of sadness, though everyone had known for some time that this day was coming. I never met Hitchens, but it always felt as if he lived around the block from me and only poor timing had kept us from running into each other. Such was the nature of his constant output of notable work; his books upon my shelves, the regular links which popped up in my mail, pointing to this or that column in every major publication which wound up being brilliant, infuriating, or – most frequently – both.
For many years I have either puzzled or enraged my friends and regular correspondents when the inevitable topic among writers would crop up. Who are the greatest writers of our time? I long ago narrowed my list down to four – George Will, James Kilpatrick, Christopher Hitchens and James Wolcott. (That last entry never fails to send conservative friends into apoplectic fits, but he deserves his place on the roster.) Sadly, we have now lost two of the four.
We can, perhaps, learn more about the nature of the man not from what he wrote, but what his friends and enemies wrote about him over the years. (And the ranks of the aforementioned categories are legion.) But even identifying his actual friends can be difficult, since he demonstrated a lifelong propensity to slash at his allies – in a seemingly careless way – with the same vigor he displayed in eviscerating his foes. Even that should have come as no surprise, though. What else should we expect from someone who penned a scathing editorial attack on Mother Theresa? Andrew Anthony of The Observer offered a defense of Hitch’s wide ranging attacks in a jacket blurb he did for one of my favorite books in the Hitchens collection, Love, Poverty, and War:
Among his many weapons… a moral authority that is built on something sturdier than cheap moralizing.
Hitchens wasn’t some overnight success, suddenly appearing after his famous moment of liberal apostasy when he embraced the invasion of Iraq. (A seminal moment which led to a mass upwelling of rage among his legions of followers, including yours truly.) He had always been there, frequently behind the scenes, stirring up trouble wherever he went. I often pictured Hitchens as the quintessential, revolutionary character in all of those movies we all remember. Whether it was Dead Poets Society or The Big Chill, there was always the one rebellious student, striding back and forth on the university library steps, gesticulating wildly and quoting centuries dead monks which nobody else had heard of yet, while a crouched group of future protesters and disaffected youths looked on in awe. Hitchens was that guy. He was always that guy.
I imagine him at the moment of his birth as being the baby who refused to squander his first breaths bawling and mewling after the doctor spanked him. He would have contained himself, storing up his energy until he developed sufficient motor skills to hold a pencil and write his first scathing review – probably a critique of his mother’s womb as a prenatal carrying device. (“All in all a creditable conveyance, though tending a bit toward the damp side and the lighting was simply abysmal.”)
Hitchens moved boldly across the world stage, wandering through places which would paralyze a more cautious man. While he found much to criticize, he still revealed a deep well of empathy in his writings for those who were left out in the cold by forces they could never hope to overcome themselves. In one of the many jewels among his collection of essays, I was particularly moved by the stark image he painted of North Korea following a trip there in the nineties. Titled, “Visit to a Small Planet,” (an ironic homage to the Jerry Lewis film of the same name) he crafted a meticulous, insult laden assault on the late Kim Il Sung and his hapless, seemingly inbred progeny. He describes his visit to the U.S.S. Pueblo with a visceral, white hot anger, but then goes on to convey the shame he experienced for feeling hungry in a land filled with hopeless, starving peasants.
North Korea is a famine state. In the fields, you can see people picking up loose grains of rice and kernels of corn, gleaning every scrap. They look pinched and exhausted. In the few, dingy restaurants in the city, and even in the few modern hotels, you can read the Pyongyang Times through the soup, or the tea, or the coffee. Morsels of inexplicable fat or gristle are served as “duck.” One evening I gave in and tried a bowl of dog stew, which at least tasted hearty and spicy—they wouldn’t tell me the breed—but then found my appetite crucially diminished by the realization that I hadn’t seen a domestic animal, not even the merest cat, in the whole time I was there. (In a Pyongyang restaurant, don’t ever ask for a doggie bag.) Nobody knows how many North Koreans have died or are dying in the famine—some estimates by foreign-aid groups run as high as three million in the period from 1995 to 1998 alone—but the rotund, jowly face of Kim Il Sung still beams down contentedly from every wall, and the 58-year-old son looks as chubby as ever, even as his slenderized subjects are mustered to applaud him. Kim Jong Il, incidentally, has been made head of the party and of the army, but the office of the presidency is still “eternally” held by his adored and departed dad, who died on July 8, 1994, at 82. (The Kim is dead. Long live the Kim.) This makes North Korea the only state in the world with a dead president. What would be the right term for this? A necrocracy? A thanatocracy? A mortocracy? A mausolocracy? Anyway, grimly appropriate for a morbid system so many of whose children have died with grass in their mouths.
Hitchens was one of the few who could pull off the feat of making up his own, new words when a suitable one was not extant in the English language. And the imagery of the North Korean children who, “died with grass in their mouths” while their delusional leaders told them they lived in a land of milk and honey is heart rending. But that was Hitchens in a nutshell. You didn’t need to go to North Korea after that. He had done it for you and you could immerse yourself in the experience without ponying up the cash for a plane ticket and a full suit of body armor.
Hitchens was the party crasher who never made you feel like calling the cops. He was completely unapologetic for the smoking, the drinking, the unhealthy food and his take no prisoners, bon vivant lifestyle. He was The Honey Badger decades before YouTube would be invented to bring the now iconic video clip to us. He simply did not – if you’ll pardon the alteration – give a crap. Hitchens was in technicolor when much of my early life seemed to be playing out in black and white.
And now he’s gone. I’m sure I’m not the first to describe him as a “devout atheist” and I won’t be the last. (Another case where an ironic contradiction in terms is the only suitable way to describe him.) He has either been proven right and sunk back into the cosmic background noise, or found himself to be wrong and is pounding on the Pearly Gates in righteous indignation. If so, somebody will have some explaining to do, and I expect in this case Hitchens will be demanding an answer as to how God could be such an inexcusably obstreperous contrarian as to exist.
Yes, I can bring myself to say it now. Christopher Hitchens is dead. But he most assuredly did not die with grass in his mouth.
Addendum: Hitchens beat the ploughshares of the English language into a sword. And he wielded it mightily.