On Christopher Hitchens, a decade after his death
Some brief thoughts on his spiritual life or lack thereof
[Cover of Mortality. The expression on his face is resignation itself. It nearly breaks me every time I look at it for more than an instant.]
Last December marked a decade since Hitchens’ death from esophageal cancer.
Who, honestly, could not admire the man’s facility with language? The content of the argument could be sidelined as needed, depending on one’s agreement or disagreement, and the pure form of the argumentative rhetoric still enviously examined and appreciated. He was a superb stylist, with an easy brilliance every writer covets.
He was venomously unfair with respect to some public figures who did not merit such insults. Mother Teresa and Pope Benedict were among the good people he savaged, using his impeccable writing skill and argumentative flourish to say atrociously false and malicious things about them. He also wrote in his final book a snidely mean-spirited criticism of another man bravely struggling as best he could through a dreadful death sentence, Randy Pausch.
But I easily forgive him all this and more, knowing how much like Hitch I am in this business of thoughtless opprobrium and how many times I have said awful things about people who did not deserve such treatment.
I had the occasion (perhaps more on what that occasion was shortly) this past weekend to look again at his last book, Mortality. I am fascinated by accounts of how people go about the task of facing impending death, especially when I know them to be superlative writers.
There was a charged back-and-forth a few years after his death when a book was published, by someone who had become Hitchens’ associate in the last years of his life, claiming that he was on the verge of a religious conversion in his final days. That this mattered very deeply for some on both sides was obvious. You don’t write whole books about things on which your feelings are mild. And you don’t denounce said books in the form of vituperative, personalistic 4,000 word reviews unless you feel rather strongly about the matter.
I have not read Taunton’s book and have no immediate plans to do so, though I don’t see any reason to suspect the character flaws in him that are charged by some of those who did not like his book. I am guessing—without sufficient reason, perhaps, just based on seeing a few clips of Taunton talking about the book—it is too narrowly a book by a partisan in a debate for me, for I haven’t a lot of energy for that kind of agonism on this matter. Debating the existence and fate of your soul and mine strikes me as too potentially cruel an enterprise by a good stretch. Friendly discourse, non-adversarial conversation, warm collective meditation with plenty of mutual goodwill, by all means, and over black coffee and shortbread cookies, please. But I just don’t have it in me any longer to try to prove wrong what other people do with their own destiny.
I admit though that I do have a great degree of curiosity about what ideas might have passed through Hitchens’ mind about the nature of mortality in the year and half between his diagnosis and his death. I find it hard to believe that people easily arrive at a final, really final position on the only question that really matters, and perhaps especially people who make their living in the world of ideas. I have been all over the place on this, including at various times in a position I imagine was fairly close to what I understand to have been Hitch’s, and at each point along the trajectory I have felt fairly confident in the soundness of my decision, only to change it, and sometimes so abruptly that I could still acutely remember the certainty that I had felt in belief A even as I now adhered fiercely to belief B.
I have no idea of course about the truth concerning the object of my curiosity. I do not and cannot know what he thought over those final months. Oh, there are accounts of his friends and family, and they all seem to suggest that he did not waver. And his own writing suggests the same. I have no reason to disbelieve any of that.
I do know however how much that passes through my own mind is never communicated to anyone, even those closest to me. Some of it would shock even those others who know me better than anyone who is not me. And I know too that much of that never finds its way into even my journals or notebooks. It is too intimate for anyone else ever to come across, even posthumously. It is nonetheless an essential part of who I am and what I can be reasonably said to believe about life, death, and what might lie beyond both.
I find it of tremendous hopefulness that Hitchens and Francis Collins became friends during Hitchens’ effort to treat the disease that eventually took his life. That these two men, on opposite ends of “the question,” could come to understand, respect, and even love one another raises my spirits when they are low.
In an interview, Pierre Hadot mentions a passage in Charles Péguy that describes an anecdote from Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (so you are getting it at the third level removed from the source!). As a child, the latter was asked what he would do if he were told he would die in an hour. “Continue playing ball,” came the response. The title of the book in which I found this comes from a line of Goethe: The present alone is our happiness.
Please be happy in your present, friends, and I promise I will try to do the same. And may we all have lots of presents!