Ian McEwan on the Death of Christopher Hitchens

It is worth mentioning that Christopher Hitchens died. Unfortunately, I must admit to being mostly apathetic to his death, erring on the side of glad.

I have only ever read the introduction to one of his books, The Atheist’s Handbook, a smattering of articles, and I thought he was featured in a RadioLab episode, but now I think that was Richard Dawkins. I also have a copy of Hitchens’ commentary on Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which I am anxious to read.

My trouble with Hitchens is no different than anyone’s trouble with Hitchens (or Nietzsche, for that matter): he was jerk. I might agree with him in broad strokes, I admire and appreciate his passion, but he was a jerk. I was offended by his introduction to The Atheist’s Handbook. His use of pejoratives and crude insults against what he considered to be pejorative and crude religion was more than just hypocritical, it was, and always will be, bad form.

Genius is often associated with an intolerable personality. Galileo, Newton, Jobs, all of these guys are renown for being brilliant and jerks (I just learned that NASA still uses Newton’s Universal Law of Gravity to “calculate spacecraft trajectories, and astronomers still use it to predict the motion of comets, stars, even entire galaxies,” – taken from Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality.)

Worse than that, history prefers to remember the jerks (genius or not.) They’re more dramatic. They’re better stories to tell. A week or two after Steve Jobs died, Dennis Ritchie died. Dennis was the founder of the C language. Dennis created the Operating System. His contributions to the computer world built the soil from which Steve Jobs was allowed to flower. His death was a blip, at best. He probably wasn’t a jerk. His story isn’t as fun to tell. The C language can’t be held in the palm of a hand, even if its ancestor can.

But, being a jerk doesn’t make one a genius, and there are too many people who think that that is true. People will use Hitchens as positive example of the atheist revolution, and if that is the case then the new order will already be as intolerable as the tyranny it opposes. I can’t support jerks. Being a jerk undermines the purpose of the cause. Any cause.

So, I’m glad Hitchens is dead because I want to get past his troubling influence and on to Ian McEwan’s influence.

McEwan’s work here is beautiful. He doesn’t paint Hitchens so much as he strips away layers of Hitchens. He does not describe a Hitchens who rages against the dying of the light, but as a flickering candle, intermittently savoring his passions with no faded enthusiasm, just less frequently or consistently. Here Hitchens comes across as a man who lived every second he was awake.

Neither does McEwan describe any final crude insults to religion or establishments that Hitchens so hated. He simply describes a man who reveled in literature, journalism, and thought. McEwan, by stripping away the angst, gives us a  latent, positive image of Hitchens, a Hitchens who contributed greatly to modern thought, literature, and humanity. McEwan reminds the world that Hitchens was a human being, like anyone else.

This is key because, overall, McEwan’s article is a humanitarian effort. He separates the jerk from the person, and proves that one does not necessitate the other. This is the exact message that Hitchens championed. The goal of an atheist rebellion against religion is to encourage compassionate and intelligent contemplation as a means of striking against and through stubborn, destructive, and antiquated stereotypes and practiecs. One of those stubborn stereotypes is that Hitchens was just a jerk, who didn’t deserve another thought. McEwan provides the context to reconsider Hitchens compassionately, and intelligently.

For that, I am glad.


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