Influence and Conviction: Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

News of Christopher Hitchens' death -- he would have detested "passing" -- reached me early Friday morning. After a few hours of despair, I felt impelled to record my sense of loss in writing. At first, I was overwhelmed by the usual clichés: "the republic of letters lost one of its outstanding citizens today"; "he was our last great ..." But each canned phrase left me more unsatisfied than the next, compounding my emotional disarray.

Eventually, I turned to Hitchens' own writing and, more specifically, a Vanity Fair piece recounting his 2005 visit to my native Iran. When the essay was first published, I was still very much a twenty-year-old man of the (Trotskyist) left, and Hitchens was remarkable to me only insofar as he had "betrayed" certain inviolable first principles by lending his considerable rhetorical powers to George W. Bush and the American "war machine."

Even so, I recall being awe-struck at the time by Hitchens' masterful prose, at once punchy and poetic. Consider a brief but devastating description of Iranians' scarred psyches in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran's problem, Hitchens explained, "is that the country is afflicted with a vast population of grieving parents and relatives, whose sons and daughters and nephews and nieces were thrown away in the ghastly eight-year war with Saddam Hussein, and who were forced to applaud the evil 'human wave' tactics of shady clergymen who promised heaven to the credulous but never cared to risk martyrdom themselves."

I was even more moved by the author's intuitive grasp of a certain Persian spirit that eludes most non-Iranians. Here was an Anglo-American journalist drinking Persian moonshine and trading verses from the 11th-century poet Omar Khayyam with his local fixer -- all while walking the streets of Neyshabur! Studying Khayyam's poetry, Hitchens wrote,

is not exactly encouraged by members of the theocracy, but they know better than to denounce anything that touches on national pride, and you can visit [Khayyam's burial] site without hindrance. My escort, a quiet man who was slow to commit himself, could quote several quatrains in Farsi, and I was delighted to hear that they sounded exactly the same way as their rhythm fell on an English ear. As we compared notes and recitations, he began to melt a little and accepted a swig from my bootleg flask, and soon I was hearing a familiar story: no prospects, a depraved government, the school friends thrown away in hysterical warfare.

If any paragraph in the English language could crystallize "Persianness" -- that unique amalgam of ancient romanticism, Stalinist modernity, and millennial decline -- this was it.

Soon enough, I was hooked on "Hitch." And as I gradually abandoned my juvenile leftism and came to understand that there are vital, liberal and democratic uses to which American military power could -- and indeed sometimes must -- be put, his voice became an inspiration. But Hitchens' allure transcended specific questions of foreign policy. Long before the Sept.-11 attacks, Hitchens -- like Orwell and Camus before him -- exemplified a certain moral sensibility that always privileges the individual over totalizing ideologies, be they sacred or profane, Islamist or Marxist. Beneath Hitchens' every acerbic comeback and wounding takedown lay a defense of this sensibility -- and of "learning and reason" against "black-draped and forbidding superstition."

"One should not wish to be influenced," Leon Wieseltier has written. "One should wish to be convinced." Hitchens, however, both influenced and -- more often than not -- convinced me, leaving me immensely grateful.