Against the baleful backdrop of the postmodern professoriate, Christopher Hitchens stood as the personification of true intellectual seriousness – of what used to be called the life of the mind. He was the “man of ideas” par excellence, a thinker and writer who made intellectual disputation seem like the very breath of life. He was living proof that reading, learning, critical reflection, and the vigorous exchange of opinions could be a source of joy – that one could, indeed, build a life around these things, and make a very full and rich life of it indeed. For students who may have grown up worshiping athletes, he demonstrated that quickness of mind could be as exciting to witness as fleetness of foot; for students who made idols of pop singers, he showed that urgent, vigorous prose could be as energizing as the last Billboard chart-topper. And for young people alienated by the vapid, pretentious, obscurantist jargon that is de rigueur in the sundry identity- and grievance-based “studies” that make up so much of the modern humanities curricula – and by the insistence of professors that such writing is the hallmark of seriousness and professionalism – Hitchens, a student of Orwell and a critic and journalist in the very best English tradition, served as a reminder that the most important and complex thoughts can be expressed in direct, lucid, and graceful prose.
Not least, for students deadened by the cosmic humorlessness of the politically correct professoriate, Hitchens showed that higher seriousness is not inconsistent with humor – that, on the contrary, humor is a vital tool in any serious writer’s armamentarium. No one in our time more effectively repudiated the humorlessness of political correctness, and the deadness of the academic, than Hitchens did. It is hard to believe that such a force of life – such a force for life – is gone. Let us hope that his influence on the young will help breed, in spite of every effort by the academy, a generation of original thinkers who stand up as bravely as he did for human freedom and dignity.
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