Christopher Hitchens (1949 — 2011) was not a force of nature. He would be akin to a tornado but more organized. A tidal wave but more deliberate. A high wind but less gentle. And he had so much high intelligence that, really, he could only be human. Extraordinarily human.1
To call the collection of essays in And Yet… a contrarian’s manifesto would also be incorrect, despite the title. But that is perhaps what Hitchens is most famous for: contrarianism.
Contrarianism is an art. It must ascend petulant criticism. It is perfected by constant vigilance and unrelenting rejoinder to any whiff of authoritarianism or hypocrisy.
Also critical is a clear, upfront statement of one’s ideological principles and assumptions. Hitchens begins And Yet… with lines from his 2005 book Letters to a Young Contrarian:
One should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of scepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganizing it.
From the West’s shallow applause of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk to the savage cult of Che Guevara to Charles Dickens’ idolization of childhood, the most frequent recipient of Hitchens’ irascible common sense is religion. Christianity, in particular. Modern Christianity. Christianity as it exists in reindeers and Douglas firs spread across public spaces like bulk-buy salad dressing.
This was a useful demonstration of what I have always hated about the month of December: the atmosphere of a one-party state. On all media and in all newspapers, endless invocations of the same repetitive theme. In all public places, from the train stations to the department stores an insistent din of identical propaganda and identical music. The collectivization of gaiety and the compulsory infliction of joy.
Contrarianism must also come from a place of genuine interest in knowledge and history, deeply thoughtful consideration for the well-being of humans and the preservation of the critical aspects of society. (Critical to our society is the separation of church and state, not ubiquitous plastic reindeer.)
Hitchens’ prose is so fast and furious that it is difficult to find what I call the “emotional soul” underneath, but it’s there. Strong and true and even tender.
From his 2011 review of Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, her chilling and immediate account of grief following the death of her daughter.
Like the experience of warfare, the endurance of grace or terminal illness involves long periods of tedium and anxiety, punctuated by briefer interludes of stark terror and pain. This endurance need not necessarily be one’s own: indeed, the experience of watching over a sibling or mate in extremis can be even more acute. But nothing, according to the experts, compares to the clutching, choking nightmare that engulfs the one who is slowly bereft of a child. […] In this supremely tender work of memory, Didion is paradoxically insistent that as long as one person is condemned to remember, there can still be pain and loss and anguish.
I’m a firm believer in making this site a physical space where everyone is welcome and safe.
Thus, I keep it emotionally neutral. No politics (except things I believe are beyond politics). Hitchens and his And Yet… is perhaps the most controversial writer I’ve published. And yet he’s needed. Here and in any society that wants to better itself.
We must cultivate and protect contrarians—those who fight against one-mindedness. (While simultaneously being vigilant about what that one-mindedness is. Who has the power these days? It seems to be shifting and dispersing. It feels like all extremes tend to one-mindedness. As much as we protect contrarians, we must also hold them to the same standards they hold others.)
My favorite essay in this collection, “On the Limits of Self-Improvement,” a series of essays for Vanity Fair where Hitchens checks into a spa. It sounds a bit tame and domestic, but then you remember it’s Hitch. Hitch in fluffy robes, in salt rubs, and in painful therapy sessions that tried to get him to quit smoking (only to fail miserably).
About all the downsides—the shame of being conned by the tobacco companies, the disgrace of being an addict, the suspension of one’s reasoning faculties in the face of self-destruction—I already knew. […] Anyway, I left my pack and my lighter in O’Hara’s care and for a couple of days didn’t smoke and didn’t much miss it either. But then I hit a difficult patch in an essay I was writing and turned again to the little friend that never deserts me.
Read Hitchens’ essays alongside Alan Lightman’s thoughts on whether there is space for God in the universe or Marilynne Robinson’s call for civic-mindedness in today’s culture. I also gravitate to the beautiful poetry of American poet Mary Oliver or German writer Hermann Hesse, deeply empathetic writers who saw beauty and sought its source, divine or otherwise.