Thursday, July 1, 2010

Be Well, Christopher Hitchens

Oh damn, this is distressing:

Christopher Hitchens has suspended the book tour in support of his bestselling memoir "Hitch-22" after receiving a diagnosis of cancer. According to a brief statement by Hitchens released today by his publisher, Twelve, Hitchens says he has received medical advice to undergo a course of chemotherapy on his esophagus.
May he recover quickly and fully. Ophelia Benson has tidily summarized his singular contributions:
Christopher Hitchens is a standing reproach to people who write the odd essay now and then. He is like some sort of crazed writing machine, he seems to average three or four longish essays a day, along with reading everything ever written and remembering all of it, knowing everyone worth knowing on most continents, visiting war zones and trouble spots around the globe, going on television and overbearing even noisy Chris Matthews’ efforts to interrupt him, and irritating people. And what’s even more painful is that this torrent of prose is nothing like the torrents of people like Joyce Carol Oates or Iris Murdoch, badly written in proportion to the torrentiality – no, this is a torrent of learned, witty, informed and informative, searching, impassioned history on the hoof. If Hitchens is a journalist then so were Gibbon and Thucydides.
Here, here. Keeping up with his book reviews for The Atlantic, which are only a fragment of his energetic and expansive output, proves quickly to be only be an aspiration -- a cherished one. He is a model of the possibilities of a broad, deep, cross-disciplinary, wide-ranging intellectual engagement with human affairs, and, as if that weren't enough, an exceptional wit and a great stylist.

As a quick example -- picked almost at random -- this is from Hitchens's review of a 2009 biography of Samuel Johnson:
Not that Johnson was by any means incapable of cynicism. He made quite a little income by writing anonymous sermons for a two-guinea fee, and he assured a friend’s newly ordained son:
“The composition of sermons is not very difficult. Invent first and then embellish … Set down diligently your thoughts as they rise in the first words that occur … I have begun a sermon after dinner and sent it off by the post that night.”
He was quite as able to be terse and memorable when in conversation and, like Oscar Wilde (who was, like him, disconcertingly vast when seen at close quarters), seems seldom to have been off duty when it came to the epigrammatic and aphoristic. The urge felt by so many of Johnson’s contemporaries—not James Boswell alone—to keep a record of his doings and utterances has placed him among the first figures in history whom we feel we “know” as a person. Indeed, so well are even his tics and mannerisms and symptoms conveyed that Martin can confidently say that Johnson more probably suffered from emphysema than asthma, and Oliver Sacks was able some years ago to make a fairly definite retrospective diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome.
Aside from Christopher Hitchens, does anyone living today possess the erudition and boldness to write that?

The loss of Christopher Hitchens would be a tremendous loss to contemporary thought, but if Hitchens is anything, he is eagerly combative, and I trust he will bring his passion, intensity, and stubbornness to turning back this illness.

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