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Remembering Hitchens

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They came to mourn Christopher Hitchens yesterday in the Great Hall of New York's Cooper Union, where Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that launched his campaign for president in 1860.

The hall was filled by family, friends and readers; intimates of 40 years' standing and those who knew him only from the printed page and stage appearance; all still wounded by a loss that remains fresh at four months' distance.

Most of the memorial took the form of readings from Christopher's own works, occasionally enlivened by editorial comment. The biggest laugh was claimed by the writer, actor and gay-rights exponent, Stephen Fry.

Christopher, he said, had condemned as more trouble than they were worth: champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics. "Three out of four, Christopher," said Fry.

The piano was played -- beautifully -- by one of the directors of the National Institutes of Health, who also proudly identified himself as "a follower of Jesus Christ." He had guided Christopher through some experimental therapies for the esophageal cancer that killed him. He and Christopher had many fierce debates over Christopher's assertive atheism. He reminded the audience of the words of Proverbs: as iron sharpeneth iron, so a friend sharpens the mind of his friend.

The readings covered almost every aspect of Christopher's life and work, with one very notable exception: his advocacy of the overthrow of Saddam and the liberation of Iraq. If Christopher had been present in person to guide the ceremonies, I doubt he'd have spared the sensitivities on that score of his liberal, literary New York and London admirers. He lived to provoke, without inhibition and without regret.

Even when he changed his mind -- which on Iraq he never did -- he very seldom if ever expressed regret for his previous view. He saw in his life a fundamental moral and intellectual continuity -- even when that continuity eluded the eyes of those who knew him best and longest.

Martin Amis, who delivered the climactic eulogy, joked about Christopher's mock-vainglorious references to himself in the third person by his nick-name, "the Hitch": "not usually a sign of unclouded mental health," said Amis. And then he quoted the 20-something Hitchens' pledge, "wherever there is oppression, immiseration, or exploitation, the pen of the Hitch will flash from its scabbard." That's how they talk at British universities perhaps, and it's more than a little embarrassing to hear such words recalled in later life, even understanding the saving veneer of irony. And yet more than most who say such things, Hitchens did live up to that creed -- imperfectly, as is inescapable for any human person, and yet not so imperfectly as to invalidate the promise.

Before and after the service, the loudspeakers played The Internationale, the old anthem of the socialist movement. (The lyrics were mercifully sung in the original French, so as to spare us all the incongruity of hearing the words, "Arise ye workers from your slumbers; Arise ye prisoners of want" boomed out a ceremony sponsored by Vanity Fair magazine, names checked at the door by attractive young people in all-black clothes.)

Hitchens himself said of his early socialism, "I miss it, the way an amputated man misses his arm." But he never looked back either. I once asked him to describe the stages of his rejection of his old beliefs. He described the experience as like that of a man tumbling down a hill, grasping at branches and shrubs in hope of stopping his fall, every one breaking in his hand.

Yet perhaps the chosen anthem was not so incongruous after all. A friend recently proposed this description of Christopher's political evolution. "He began as a socialist, a Marxist and a Trotskyist. First he abandoned the socialism. Then he abandoned the Marxism. But he remained a Trotskyist to the end -- meaning a believer in emancipatory revolution; a believer that neither oppression nor liberation stops at national borders; a believer that the realm of politics must never be conceded to the pragmatists and pessimists."

In an amazing montage of old interviews and speeches compiled by Alex Gibney, Hitchens at one point said that while most of us always remember our first loves, it can be much more invigorating to remember our first hates. His hates never changed, just as he promised Martin Amis all those years ago.

Those of us who loved him for his brilliance, his charm, his genius for friendship did not always share every aspect of his politics. I could spend a day talking about the issues I think he got wrong, even horribly wrong; of the people he misjudged, sometimes cruelly misjudged. But even if he did not always correctly aim his ordnance, Christopher Hitchens at the most fundamental level knew which were the right targets.

And as the turnout today in New York continues to prove, for that knowledge, the memory of Christopher Hitchens is now -- and will long be -- respected, honoured and cherished.

This blog is cross-posted at the National Post.