Dead at 62, Christopher Hitchens taught us how to live, and how to die

Hitchens’ anti-totalitarian impulse sometimes took him to what could be viewed as reckless extremes. During a trip to Lebanon, for instance, he defaced a political party sign because it featured a swastika on it. He narrowly escaped a potentially deadly pummeling at the hands of the party’s apparatchiks.

“Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only — to be defaced,” he later wrote, explaining the kerfuffle.

In recent years, Hitchens positioned himself as one of America’s leading atheists. His campaign against the Almighty often enraged conservatives. But on this issue, like every other Hitchens cared passionately about, he was willing to debate his side against the most expert opponents, often on their territory.

And, indeed, he seemed at home at the debating stage, where hours of YouTube footage will forever show him crushing opponents with carefully chosen, power-laden words.

Even after he was diagnosed with cancer, Hitchens continued to debate and write, despite the great limitations his illness inflicted upon his body. He also did us all a service by chronicling, as only he could, his own demise in the pages of Vanity Fair.

It is hard to imagine how this could be anything but a morbid task, but it didn’t read that way: His wit shone through. In one installment, Hitchens discussed what it was like to get letters from religious believers saying they were praying for him. He appreciated it, but it was the letters that said he was going to hell that really got him going.

He laid into one correspondent who said God had deliberately given him esophageal cancer as a punishment for blasphemy.

“The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former ‘lifestyle’ would suggest that I got,” Hitchens replied. “While my so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”

Hitchens was noted for his bon vivant lifestyle, which he conceded may have given him the cancer that ultimately took his life. Yet he couldn’t imagine his life “without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”

He didn’t regret “burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light.”

Dimmed and then darkened far too early, Christopher Hitchens taught us how to live — and how to die.

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