Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Publisher's Letter: Will Christopher Hitchens Matter?Publisher's Letter: Will Christopher Hitchens Matter?

Publisher's Letter: Will Christopher Hitchens Matter?

Even on his death bed, the anti-theist crusader could not see the power that being changed can give.

Peter Stockland
5 minute read

Novelist Ian McEwan's requiem for his friend Christopher Hitchens is the most revealing of the published farewells to the anglo-American controversialist who died of cancer in December.

Its revelation lies in McEwan's perspective next to Hitchens as his days on earth ended. It lies in showing Hitchens as a vulnerable human being now at the hour of his death.

Most obituaries focused on a particular acolyte's delight in having been able to briefly share Hitchens' spotlight. They relied on retelling stories of that part of his life as a writer that required posing, not composing: his persona as upper-crust carouser, as Oxford intellectual roustabout, as devil-may-care anti-theist.

Such anecdotal tapestries created an effective contrast between Hitchens' insalubrious insobriety and his great capacity to debate all comers at all hours in all conditions. They also led to an overstatement of his prospects as a writer who will endure.

Even those dismayed—insulted?—by Hitchens' adolescent denigration of religious faith must acknowledge that he was a genuinely skilled verbal antagonist. Absorbing him at his best could inspire nostalgia for the days when whole populations seemed able to argue like that. He was also a newspaper columnist particularly gifted in the timing of the turn—that point where preamble gives way to the fact or argument that seals the deal. He was never, however, more than a slightly above-average prose stylist. His limitation as a wordsmith is most evident when his writing is contrasted with the lyricism of his brother, Peter, in The Rage Against God.

Convivium editor-in-chief Father Raymond J. de Souza makes the case powerfully, in this issue's "Sea to Sea," that on at least one occasion, Christopher Hitchens ignored or falsified material facts on the public record—he lied—just to win a polemical point. The urgency to win regardless of the cost to truth or the harm caused to others reflects what Hitchens' friend Julian Barnes bluntly called his love of cruelty.

Of course, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of the God that Hitchens raged against acknowledging. It is here that Ian McEwan's obituary revelation comes in. We see, brought to his room in a palliative care ward, a man not only implacably resistant to any form of personal conversion but unable to grasp its power in a literary context.

The moment comes during a discussion of Philip Larkin's great poem "The Whitsun Weddings," which Hitchens disliked for what he read as its gloomy and despairing final lines.

In fact, "The Whitsun Weddings" in its language and structure is a hymn to human transformation. It rises from the poet's horizontal perspective of railway platforms and his fellow passengers on a London-bound train to a vertical axis that allows us to look down on the city as "postal districts packed like squares of wheat."

Then his gaze returns again to earth and the train itself becomes a "frail/Travelling coincidence; and what it held/Stood ready to be loosed with all the power/That being changed can give."

Hitchens' failure to understand those lines is not just a lapse in literary judgment or imagination. It is what makes him emblematic of a mentality, and especially a journalistic mentality, that feverishly favours contest over content, that pulls back reflexively from anything that approaches understanding, much less "the power that being changed can give."

Or as Rex Murphy puts it in his inimitable way in "The Conversation," we are educated people who have lost the ability to put things in a "context and therefore de-energize the raw emotion of the moment and allow [one another] to talk . . . I don't know why we're screaming all the time." Murphy makes the point that his role as host of CBC's Cross Country Checkup and his place as one of the most recognized journalists in Canada, through his commentaries on The National and his column in the National Post obliges and permits him to do the hard work of actually listening to what his fellow citizens are saying.

Listening is the antithesis of the kind of journalism Christopher Hitchens came to practise as the need to pose rather than compose took hold of his career. It is also a key to convivial existence, that is, to faith in our common life.

Listening—observing—leads us to memory of the kind Senator Hugh Segal brings so evocatively to this issue's pages with his essay about how, as an eight-year-old in 1950s Montreal, he watched his rabbi shake hands with a young Queen Elizabeth, Sovereign of Canada and head of the Church of England.

Segal's attention to the meaning of that moment elevates us high above pedestrian nostalgia and provides a wondrous and wide view of the interplay between the human and the institutional.

The panoramic evidently extends beyond the political to the artistic as photographer Christophe Potworowski, a professor of Catholic studies at McGill University, illustrates in his photo essay. As Potworowski writes, what began as a project documenting the churches of Lamont County, Alta., through the transformative power of still, intense staring at his subjects, became an opening into a new way of seeing photography and, ultimately, the Church itself.

None of which is to suggest an approach that is dogmatically solitary or collectively quietist. Indeed, that would contradict the very definition of Convivium. Before history, certainly before the democratic State, we are duty bound to speak, and speak firmly, when our deepest beliefs are under assault, as Douglas Farrow and John Zucchi assert they are in Quebec.

In companion essays, Farrow, professor of Christian thought at McGill, and Zucchi, chairman of McGill's history department, maintain that the Quebec government is forcefully imposing a strict secularist religiosity on all strata of life in the province, threatening the very ideal of religious freedom that is a cornerstone of the Quebec and federal charters. They urge action—now!—as Zucchi has in fact done by using the courts to beat Quebec at its own game.

Again, though, as Father de Souza writes in "Sea to Sea," we must be cautious in seeing action for its own sake as the answer even to things such as institutionalized child sexual abuse that horrify us. Certainly, Father de Souza writes, the law must be engaged, criminals pursued, justice obtained. But we must not let that blind us to the root of evil that lies at the heart of such acts. Conviction is one thing. Conversion is what God calls us toward.

Or in the concluding words of Philip Larkin's poem, which Christopher Hitchens misunderstood even as death turned the corner into his room:

" . . . We slowed again, And as the tightened
brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain."

Peter Stockland

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