Thursday, August 5, 2010

Christopher Hitchens and the Invisible Foe

Notwithstanding either the inclinations of Journolisters to do concrete damage to their political opposites, or Christopher Hitchens’s suspicion that his intellectual adversaries would take pleasure in seeing him suffer a mortal illness, it is possible to think ill of someone without actually wishing him ill. And thus I’ve been sorry to learn that Mr. Hitchens has lately had the terrible misfortune of discovering he’s got cancer, an enemy that creeps upon you, still as the grave and in the dead of night, so to speak, and, whether bidden—rough living, such as he has done, “knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light”—or not, drops you with a brutal double whack to your knees, first with the news of its existence and then with the cure.

Writing about it in the September issue of Vanity Fair, he boasts “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.” It may be he’s been playing chicken with Death for years. It’s something in any event he seems to want to brag about. Nevertheless, the fierce atheist wants to live, too, just like the rest of us: “Will I really not live to see my children married?” he asks. “To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger?”

As for being bored by cancer, that’s simply ludicrous, and not at all believable, even from such a candle-burner and lover of the “lovely light” as he claims to have been. If it bored him, he wouldn’t be writing about it. Anyway, nobody who has cancer is bored by it. On the contrary: it—or rather escaping it in order to stay alive—becomes the subject of greatest fascination to the people who’ve got it. Indeed, they may often need to talk about it, just as Mr. Hitchens does, though not, on the whole, to catalogue their emetic emissions or the dissolution of their sexuality (“In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice”) with the gusto and flair with which he does so, and not, most of them, certainly, in the pages of a glossy gossip rag featuring a very undressed Lady Gaga on the cover and a “profile” of her inside.

However, that’s his venue and metier, so talk about it there he will, and not without some pathos, and even, dare one say it, not without an indirect though no doubt unwitting appeal to a Higher Power:

I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. . . . Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups.

For to Whom, one can’t help asking, does he think those prayer groups are praying?


  1. "As for being bored by cancer, that’s simply ludicrous, and not at all believable, even from such a candle-burner and lover of the “lovely light” as he claims to have been. If it bored him, he wouldn’t be writing about it."
    That is it! He did not look for some truth. That is a pity, when such a great occasion was to be had for free. It was a real gaffe. He should have prepared a better spiel or ask his secretary to prepare the script. Something like Hamlet talking to the skull. Ah! The ladies would have liked that one.

    Atheists have a real problem with death. The worst worst is when they write letters of condolence to each other. Can't say "I will remember you in my prayers"! So what do they say?

    Maybe "I will remember you in my yoga"

    "I will remember you at sundown" (that's à la Goethe, who was a pantheist)

    and I know some less tasteful one by Shakespeare about a worm that dined of a king, but I won't say it.

  2. Far be it from me to critique the great wordsmith, but I think that "embarrasses" is a better word than "bores." Hitchens has led a flamboyant and exciting life, fueled by a large ego and intellectual brilliance. People with that experience never imagine that they will die of natural causes, but at least cancer has the empathy factor so he can write about it and tug at the emotions of readers. Dementia would be, in a sense, more just, if we believed in a temporal supernatural justice, because it would strip Hitchens of his ability to write and strip him of his ego, making him a pitiable object to those poor slobs who never had big egos or any special talent but who insist on praying to God and valuing his life anyway.

  3. I think the crack about the prayer groups was sarcasm.