This will be as useless and banal as any obituary or tribute, not only because memorializing a person's life is, in its own way, an act of barbarism, but because I am limited in what I've read of Hitchens's work to his last eight or so years' worth of essays. I've not read God is Not Great, nor have I read Arguably. I will, but that's not the point. Reading one Christopher Hitchens essay should be enough for any reader to realize, without doubt, that they are drinking deep the work of a virtuoso, a true master of written English, and a wit unparalleled by any of his contemporaries. When he died last night, the world lost perhaps its finest living prose writer.
I have always marveled at Hitchens's fearlessness. A person can be born with intelligence, can then cultivate that intelligence with the requisite hours of reading, writing, and deep thinking; Hitchens certainly exhibited both this staggering raw intellect as well as the drive to put it to good use. But it was his bellowing confidence in the soundness of his position that, I think, proved his most important trait. Atheists like me will never forget his unapologetic challenges to the very concept of religion, the ferocity of his defense of reason and reality in the face of a world that mostly didn't want to hear it. It is important to note that on the night Christopher Hitchens died, for good, without promise of Heaven or Hell, well over 6 billion people on the planet earth went to sleep that very same night believing in a god. Such was, and is, the sheer force against the realities of our existence.
From a political standpoint, Hitchens was always challenging, and often frustrating. As an unapologetic liberal during my college years, having bought wholesale many myths peddled by the Left that held any supporter of the Iraq War as a blithering dolt, reading Hitchens's cogent and informed (and yes, sometimes troubling) affirmations of U.S.-led armed conflict in the Middle East spurred the first tremors of my own crisis of opinion, a radical uncertainty in all the moral shibboleths I had, up until that time, taken for granted. I still don't agree with Hitchens on Iraq. I never will. But dissent is the whetstone upon which logic is honed... and hell, let's just up and throw progress in there as well. For, to calcify ideologically to the point of surrendering to the nearest and most convenient pair of blinders is to render oneself irrelevant. It is to die before dying.
There is little else for me to say about the man that won't be said in much more worthy fashion by those who knew him well. His death has been picking at me since last night, though, and I've been walking around fending off small panicked waves of sadness. The world seems a slightly emptier place without Christopher Hitchens. To think that he will never write another word, a loathsome realization in a land that badly needs the sort of perspective Hitch dealt regularly, with seeming ease.
Yes, Hitchens is gone now, and with him goes an irreplaceable force. It's almost surreal, really: I always half-expected him to beat the odds, to emerge from the harrowing shroud of cancer a physical exception as well as an intellectual one, a corpus of raw and honest essays about his own flirtation with death nestled underneath his arm as a reminder of his trial instead of a self-composed requiem. I thought he would make it. But he didn't. He was just a human being, after all, and our chaotic universe, unlike gods, does not bestow its favor upon any person.
Still, who can believe it when a titan falls?
UPDATE (12/17/2011): Having now reread this thing with the benefit of a little distance, I realize my third paragraph comes off as a bit fawning, and perhaps dismissive of the subject it deals with. I thought some of Hitchens's writing on Iraq and Islam bordered on jingoism, even if I sympathized with those strains of his criticism that had more to do with atheism than with a hawkish war machine. I feel just about as badly about Iraq now as I did six years ago, and, while I meant what I said about his opinions forcing me to reevaluate my own, I do regard his views on the war as a major chink in his armor. He was a flawed human being—too sure of his own opinions, arrogant and dismissive, at times even unduly caustic. Regardless, my other comments stand. I will miss the hell out of him.