I’m sad to hear of the death of Christopher Hitchens this evening, since we’ll have no more of his cantankerous essays, though I’m not sad for him. He wouldn’t want any of us to be, since as he saw it, he would just be ceasing to exist today. I think it’s probably not inappropriate, and maybe some how Hitchensian, to say that I’m sad for a very selfish reason to hear that he died: he was a contributor to [More], the 1970s journalism review I’m writing about for my dissertation. I would have liked to get the chance to interview him.
I did, however, get a chance to meet him. It was in the fall of 1999, in my first semester at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I took a class on opinion writing (I was probably ten years too young to appreciate that class properly) taught by Victor Navasky, who was then still the publisher of The Nation. Victor brought Hitchens to class as a guest speaker.
I honestly don’t remember much of what Hitchens said that day, though it was just a drop in the bucket of his output. I’m sure it was crotchety and possibly even vitriolic. But I was distracted by the cigarette.
He started out fine. He talked for a few minutes. Then he turned to Victor and said something like, “I assume there’s no smoking here?” Victor affirmed that assumption. Hitchens took out a cigarette anyway. He placed it in the corner of his mouth, and he kept talking, the cigarette bouncing up and down to the rhythms of his speech. A few more minutes passed. Maybe 15, 20.
He stopped talking, took the cigarette out of his mouth and faced the 15 or 20 of us in the seminar room.
“Does anyone in here mind if I smoke it?”
I don’t like cigarette smoke much, but we all looked at each other and more or less shrugged. Victor didn’t object either. And so Christopher Hitchens broke university policy, maybe city code. And smoked.
I don’t know what the link is between cigarettes and esophageal cancer, which is what killed him, finally. But it wouldn’t surprise me if we were watching him killing himself that afternoon. I think he probably knew he was, too. Whatever you think of Hitchens’s ideas, part of the fun of reading him was that he would defend his point to the death (literally), even if he didn’t necessarily believe it. His cigarette, right or wrong.