Christopher and I last saw each other on the first day of this year–he was in California, clearly, although none of us said so, saying goodbye–and we spent the afternoon together.  We talked over lunch, and then on and on, until long after sunset, about–well, about everything.  History, politics (we disagreed), religion (we disagreed still more), the Sixties, contemporary novelists, the last movie he had seen (“The King’s Speech,” which he had loved, despite the crude portrayal of Churchill), his experiences at Oxford, in Cuba, in Iraq, in Prague.  And about America.  Odd though this may seem to say about someone who remained so completely English, but Christopher Hitchens loved this country with the same abandoned, head-over-heels love that I saw in Ronald Reagan.

Christopher’s integrity was, as always, on display.  One of the physicians who had been most helpful to him in his illness was a devout Christian, and Christopher admitted that this had given him pause.  He also mentioned that, although it remained speculative for now, there was some thought that a stem cell therapy might help him.  That too gave him pause–more than pause.  Sacrificing embryos for his good?  “Can’t have that, I don’t believe, can we?”

Just as I was about to leave, Chesterton somehow came up.  His favorite Chesterton poem, Christopher remarked, was “Lepanto,” Chesterton’s account of the great sea battle of 1571 in which Don Juan of Austria, commanding the Holy League, defeated the Ottoman Empire, saving the West.  No sooner did he mention the poem than Christopher began to recite the second stanza:

     Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,       Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,       Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,       The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,       The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,       That once went singing southward when all the world was young.       In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,       Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.       Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,       Don John of Austria is going to the war,       Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold       In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,       Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,       Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.       Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,       Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,       Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.       Love-light of Spain–hurrah!       Death-light of Africa!       Don John of Austria       Is riding to the sea.

I repeat my side of our old argument, insisting that what Christoper experienced today was not, as he insisted it would be, extinction–and that, just as I told him he would–told him as he shook his head in amused disbelief–he has now had a happy if temporarily embarrassing surprise, finding himself in the presence of the only Being with the capacity to love him even more than did his friends.  I repeat my side–but never–never–have I so regretted having the last word.

Christopher Hitchens, knight and troubadour, who so thoroughly enjoyed going to the war, and who held his head up for a flag of all the free.  Requiescat in pace.

  1. derek

    Remember the trip he and others made to Lebanon a few years back, where he got into a fight with some fascists?

    He will be missed.

  2. Tommy De Seno

     Of all the atheists who pass on, I imagine him having the least trouble talking his way through St. Peter’s gate.  If only God would publish the transcript of the exchange.

    A nun once told me the Lord loves the passionate as much as the devout.  Hitch is surely in paradise now.

    So sorry for the loss of your friend Peter.

  3. Leslie Watkins

    Did you take this picture, Peter? It is absolutely one of the best I’ve ever seen. He seems to be actually smiling rather than posing. … I am so glad I went to DC in February 2006 on the spur of the moment, yes in solidarity with the Danes but also to see him. He made the case for regime change in Iraq so perfectly, it seemed to me. … He also enraged me with his condescension toward the Tea Party (Jefferson would have approved! Why can’t you see this?? I’d silently yell at my computer screen), and I felt it was because, though he loved America, one foot was stuck back in the Old World and that this kept him from completely crossing over to the new, where the individual became the model to live by, not the collective. I envy your friendship with him, Peter, and I so appreciate you sharing it with us.

  4. Scott R
    Christopher Hitchens loved this country with the same abandoned, head-over-heels love that I saw in Ronald Reagan.


    Toward the end of Hitch 22 he recounts the funeral of a Marine who’d been inspired to fight by his writing. It’s a tear-jerker and as emotional a defense of “America in the world” as you’ll find.

    What a life, and what a drag that life is so short. 

  5. Eric Blair

    Let us also not forget that he died on the same day the Iraq War officially ended.  The people of Kurdistan, and Mr. Talabani, knew him well.  At a time when forgetting that the Kurds even existed had become so fashionable, Hitchens never once faltered in arguing for their rights to basic human dignity.  RIP

  6. Publius

    I’m sorry to hear that your friend died, Peter and Rob. He struck me as man of good humor and sharp intellect and I always looked forward to reading what he had to say about the events of the day even if I didn’t agree with his atheism. 

  7. Sisyphus

    Christopher Hitchens was so stuck on the wrong side of my pet peeves (Vietnam, atheism) that, until Peter reintroduced him to me here on Ricochet, I never expected pleasures such as his sharp views on Trotsky and the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin, warts and all. 

    I saw a headline just the other day that suggested Mr. Hitchens might be about to reconcile with the Eternal in some form, but did not chase it down knowing that the real news, if there were any, would be found here immediately.

    For my own part, I picture Mr. Hitchens at the base of the Throne at this very moment, filibustering against its very existence in the face of all evidence. (The latest clips being distributed among the Heavenly Host every hour on the hour.)

    In any event, he certainly has his answers now.

    Thank you for sharing, Peter.

  8. Brian Watt

    Despite some of his provocative and sometimes incendiary rhetoric it was always clear that Hitch had come to his positions after a life of deep immersion in a vast library of literature, philosophy, and history or after visiting some of the more dangerous, oppressive and war-torn places on the planet. Whenever some new conflict flared, I, and I would suspect, others quickly scoured The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Slate or did a quick Google search to see if Hitch had commented on it.

    What I also found fascinating is that while he was supremely confident in his own point of view I would argue that he wasn’t arrogant about it. During the course of debates he was concerned that there would be time to address an audience’s questions because I think he sincerely wanted to know what others were thinking. It seems to me that his love of engagement wasn’t to hear himself pontificate but to test the veracity or the logic of his own ideas.

    The man couldn’t be ignored in life and shouldn’t be ignored in death. Thanks, Peter, Rob…and thanks Hitch.

  9. Leslie Watkins

    Exactly! Hitchens probably wouldn’t agree, but this event makes me an even bigger believer in fate.

    Eric Blair: Let us also not forget that he died on the same day the Iraq War officially ended.  The people of Kurdistan, and Mr. Talabani, knew him well.  At a time when forgetting that the Kurds even existed had become so fashionable, Hitchens never once faltered in arguing for their rights to basic human dignity.  RIP · Dec 16 at 5:56am

  10. Boots on the Table

    An exemplary man of character who stood by his convictions in the face of all adversaries.  I will miss his thoughtful and insightful commentary.  The world has lost one of the great thinkers, debaters, and character driven men God gives us the pleasure to experience.  May he enjoy the pleasure of the debate with God himself.

  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    I ran across this quote by him in the WSJ the other day:

    [O]ne thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

    In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. . . . I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than “There but for the grace of god go I,” which in turn is to say no more than “The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.”

    In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.

    So true. So honest. So moving.

  12. Western Chauvinist

    This is just beautiful, Peter.  I can see why you and he were friends.

  13. Jan-Michael Rives

    It’s cliche, but I really feel this is the end of an era. There’s no one else like him.

  14. Duane Oyen

    A perfect example of how people of different views can have friendships and “respectships” if they are people of genuine good will and intellectual curiosity.  Mr. Hitchens was the best polemicist of our generation, and that description is not in any way pejorative- Tom Paine was a polemicist, so were Ben Franklin, HL Mencken, William F. Buckley Jr, and Mark Twain in prior generations.

    Rest in peace, and I pray that Dr. Collins reached you.

  15. Misthiocracy

    I really enjoyed the headline for The Onion’s tribute to Hitch:

    Fumbling, Inarticulate Obituary Writer Somehow Losing Debate To Christopher Hitchens

  16. flownover

    I read a number of articles today about Hitch’s passing. Most ended with poetry. That kind of sentiment is indicative of his literary mark and the poetic pen which he used to etch into the memories of his friends ,admirers, and readers. I have met others that knew him and they were pretty unanimous in their appraisal of his wit, his love of life, and sense of adventure. How cool that you knew him. December 15,2011 looks to be a remarkable day.

  17. kesbar

    Thank you, Peter for the warm post about your friend.

    Hitchens was one of the most courageously moral thinkers I’ve ever read or heard debate. 

  18. Kervinlee

    An expected, yet still terrible loss. Today is a sad day.

  19. Ben Domenech

    One of my favorite poems – I had no idea it was his. My favorite passage comes later – the slave ship, broken open:

    And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs, And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs, Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines. They are lost like slaves that sweat, and in the skies of morning hung The stair-ways of the tallest gods when tyranny was young. They are countless, voiceless, hopeless as those fallen or fleeing on Before the high Kings’ horses in the granite of Babylon…

    But then, when hope and faith is lost, rescue comes:

    Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds, Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds, Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty. 

    It reminds me of Bonhoeffer: “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.”

  20. Peter Robinson
    Leslie Watkins: Did you take this picture, Peter? It is absolutely one of the best I’ve ever seen. He seems to be actually smiling rather than posing. …. · Dec 16 at 5:47am

    Alas, no–this was simply the picture I was able to find on the Internet late last night that looked (to me) the most like Christopher in conversation.  But you’re quite right:  He did like that flat-affect, earnest pose.  When we’d had dinner the evening before, someone pulled out a camera.  Hitch’s wife more or less commanded him to smile, which, of course, he’d been doing all evening–until the moment the camera appeared.  Odd.  He somehow thought that looking bleak best fit his view of his own role in the world of letters, when, of course, he was constantly uproarious.

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