For so long, the man loomed larger than life; those words – the title of this post – sound way too small.
Social philosopher, political critic, agent provocateur, contrarian par excellence: a man who spoke his mind freely, refused to suffer fools gladly, and brought the full weight of his intellect into the formation of his convictions, behind which he stood until the end. Christopher Hitchens succumbed to esophageal cancer just two days ago. He was 62 years old.
Wikipedia is cruel. No sooner had Vanity Fair released the details of his death than verbs were changed to past tense and a new date was appended to his photograph: a flourish of finality that may have even borne a trace of satisfaction. We are all of us slain by time.
What can one say about the man? He never shied from an argument. When, after a long and colourful career as commentator on the major political events of his time (during which he was most famous for having moved from the left into the neoconservative camp), he reinvented himself as a horseman of the apocalypse. After writing God is Not Great, Hitchens went on a tour of America’s bible belt, engaging priests and politicians, evangelists and scholars in debate after scathing debate. It is fair to say that in the game of words, Hitchens was better armed than his opponents. I never saw him falter.
Unlike most people, Hitchens never tired of insulting those whom he despised, even after they were dead. When Jerry Falwell died (a man whom Hitchens labelled a “little toad”, a “faith-based fraud”), he quipped that if he’d only been given an enema first, they could have buried him in a matchbox. While the world mourned Princess Di, Hitchens declared her a childish degenerate, whose sordid relationships and reckless behaviour got her killed. Most famously, if only because he dedicated his The Missionary Position to her, he indicted Mother Teresa as a fanatic, a friend of poverty, a fundamentalist and a fraud.
Let us therefore not spare Hitchens in his own passing. Anything for him but tired platitudes. He was rude, he was self-righteous, he was conceited. He made racist jokes, smoked cigarettes by the carton, believed women incapable of being funny, and was never without a glass of scotch. He was erudite and exceedingly eloquent. An opinionated and highly-gifted raconteur, he was born to be a public speaker, a scholar who spoke truth to power, and in many ways a genius. He was witty, he was forceful, and he was proud. Most importantly, about so many of the issues to which he lent his tongue and his pen, he was right.
Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, composed a variation on the El Male Rachamim (אל מלא רחמים, “God full of mercy”): a prayer, traditionally recited at Jewish funerals. Whether it is perfectly or imperfectly suited to the passing of Christopher Hitchens, I leave up to you. My faulty translation does not in any way reflect the beauty and the cleverness of the original.
אל מלא רחמים
אל מלא רחמים
אלמלא האל מלא רחמים
היו הרחמים בעולם ולא רק בו
אני, שקטפתי פרחים בהר
והסתכלתי אל כל העמקים
אני, שהבאתי גוויות מן הגבעות
יודע לספר שהעולם ריק מרחמים
אני שהייתי מלך המלח ליד הים
שעמדתי בלי החלטה מול חלוני
שספרתי צעדי מלאכים
שלבי הרים משקלות כאב
אני שמשתמש רק בחלק קטן
מן המילים במלון
אני, שמוכרח לפתור חידות בעל כורחי
יודע כי אלמלא האל מלא רחמים
היו הרחמים בעולם
ולא רק בו
God, Full of Mercy
God full of mercy,
If only God were not full of mercy,
There would be mercy in the world and not just in him.
I, who plucked flowers on the mountain,
Who gazed out over all of the valleys,
I, who brought corpses from the hilltops,
I can tell you that the world is void of mercy.
I, who was the king of salt beside the sea,
Who stood against my will before my window,
Who counted the footsteps of angels,
Whose heart lifted weights of anguish
In dreadful contests.
I, who use but a tiny portion
Of the words in the dictionary.
I, who am forced to decipher riddles,
I know that if only God were not full of mercy
There would be mercy in the world
And not just in him.
To a man who declared himself, not an atheist but an anti-theist, a man who believed the very notion of God to be inherently evil, who never despaired of the fact that death was to be nothing more nor less than what the naked logic dictates – a man for whom the very notion of a “deathbed confession” would be a slanderous insult – I wish him, in the strictly etymological sense,
Requiescat In Pace
ינוח בשלום על משכבו
≈ Isaiah 57:3