I recently finished reading a little book called Mortality by the inimitable Christopher Hitchens. Although the late author's views on ultimate matters (theism, in particular) are in diametric opposition to my own, he was a man I nonetheless admired, and whose writing moves me for reasons that have less to do with what he believed and more to do with why and how he believed. And yes — his atheism notwithstanding — he believed, even if only in his own lack of belief. I do not say that disparagingly.
Below are some quotes and short excerpts from the aforementioned title, and my own thoughts on the same. I've set off Hitch's words in block-quoted italics to make it easier for you to skip my self-indulgent ramblings, if you are so inclined.
"In one way, I suppose, I have been 'in denial' for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light." (p. 5)
I am drawn to those words, but not as it relates to Hitch's infirmity. While I have never personally engaged in the hapless and all-too-common staring contest with cancer, I have faced a different, less aggressive life-threatening and life-altering diagnosis. However, I relate more to the self-denial and self-destruction. The light they produce is indeed lovely, as is the basking in the glow of it.
"To the dumb question 'Why me?' the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?" (p. 6)
As a theist, I am amused by the personification of the universe. Admittedly, when my Calvinistic Side turns sheepish concerning the evils and calamities of the world, I might in those weaker moments, rather than say that God has decreed any given unpleasant experience, instead attribute it to the cosmos. Like this, "I planned to stop at the pharmacy on my way to the office. But the Universe decided to show me its middle finger and threw a traffic jam in front of me." One could say, when I don't like what God is doing, I resort to name-calling. I'm not proud of it; nor am I justifying it. Just being honest (for now; stick around and, in short order, I will start lying again).
"The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a great deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival." (p. 14)
I live too much in the moment. While some struggle to achieve this, I assure you that the grass over here is not a green as it appears from over there among you planners and reflecters. So when I say that I think a lot about dying, it strikes me as oddly incongruous to my usual pattern, since that event is presumably in the future. Or is it?
Perhaps, having been given the aforementioned life-threatening diagnosis (a degree of liver disease, if you must know. Geez.), those pervasive thoughts are my way of living in the moment, because at this moment I am, per se, dying. Living in the moment, while simultaneously dying in the moment, has had the effect of pushing my thoughts into an unknown future (unknown, that is, by me, says a voice that I recognize as my Calvinistic Side).
"I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies." (p. 17)
I had a good chuckle at the above quote of a quote, and offer no further comment.
What follows is Hitch's description of his relationship with Dr. Francis Collins.
Dr. Francis Collins is one of the greatest living Americans. He is the man who brought the Human Genome Project to completion, ahead of time and under budget, and who now directs the National Institutes of Health. ... This great humanitarian is also a devotee of the work of C.S. Lewis and in his book The Language of God has set out the case for making science compatible with faith. ... I know Francis, too, from various public and private debates over religion. He has been kind enough to visit me on his own time and to discuss all sorts of novel treatments, only recently even imaginable, that might apply to my case. And let me put it this way: He hasn't suggested prayer, and I in turn haven't teased him about The Screwtape Letters. ... Who is Dr. Collins to interfere with the divine design? (pp. 19-20).
I have a dear friend who, like Hitch, is a staunch atheist. His name is Rick Maue, and, my own theism notwithstanding, he is to me a mentor, a role model, an exemplar human being, and — at the risk of using yet another noisome cliché — he is an inspiration.
Yes, it's become a cliché, but it need not be. Here is the definition of inspiration:
The process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative. (Oxforddictionaries.com)
Not unlike Christopher Hitchens, Rick has faced serious medical prognoses. On the other hand, very unlike the late Hitchens' case, my friend has battled such prognoses and their attending "procedures" not as a surprise or as a one-time, end-of-life event, but rather over the course of seemingly innumerable months, years, and decades, and with no end in sight (but one, literally).
Like Hitchens and Collins, Maue and Hilston have engaged in extended debates over religion, and not unlike Dr. Collins, I would never insult our treasured friendship by suggesting prayer, or even by telling him whether I've prayed for him (the latter being, to me, perhaps one of the most self-indulgent, prideful, and nauseous form of religious trumpet-blowing imaginable). While I would never presume to compare myself to Dr. Collins in terms of his inestimable contributions to humanity, I would like to think that I could somehow be, to my precious friend, his very own Francis Collins of sorts.
Hitchens quotes Horace Mann:
"'Until you have done something for humanity,' wrote the great Horace Mann, 'you should be ashamed to die.'" (p. 33)
Nice sentiment but, I assure you, I will certainly be ashamed to die. I'm sort of counting on it.
"Debating and lecturing are part of the breath of life to me, and I take deep drafts whenever and wherever possible." (p. 37)
God, does that statement resonate with me.
"It's normally agreed that the question 'How are you?' doesn't put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, 'A bit too early to say.' (If it's the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, 'I seem to have cancer today.')" (p. 40)
I love Hitch's sense of humor.
"... there was an unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable [about cancer to a cancer victim]. Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic." (p. 42)
I think I get that.
Hitchens quotes Eliot:
"'I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
and I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.'"
(p. 45, quoting T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")
Sublime; and frightening. My own eternal Footman is holding my liver.
[On writing and talking] "The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions." (p. 50)
Just brilliantly funny; on the part of the quotee, as well as that of the quoter. (Yes, I just neologized; get used to it).
"The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed." (p. 50)
Anyone who writes gets this.
"... A good conversation is the only human equivalent: the realizing that decent points are being made and understood, that irony is in play, and elaboration, and that a dull or obvious remark would be almost physically hurtful."
Genius observation — especially that last clause — not only the thought itself, but the way it is articulated.
Mr. Hitchens uses the term, "mot juste," which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "the exact, appropriate word." He used it like this:
"All of the best recollections of wisdom and friendship, from Plato's "Apology" for Socrates to Boswell's Life of Johnson, resound with the spoken, unscripted moments of interplay and reason and speculation. It's in engagements like this , in competition and comparison with others, that one can hope to hit upon the elusive, magical mot juste. For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off; the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one." (emphasis added, pp. 52-53).
I am truly and immeasurably fortunate to have known such "moments of interplay and reason and speculation."
"My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends." (p. 54)
No comment here is necessary, except to say that it is a masterful use of a literalized hendiadys.
Mr. Hitchens offers a comment regarding the refrigerator magnet banality, "There but for the grace of God go I." He rightly recasts and boils it down to its essential elements: "The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man." (p. 60)
On the subject of that cloying platitude, "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Hitch writes:
"[S]o we are left with something quite unusual in the annals of unsentimental approaches to extinction: not the wish to die with dignity but the desire to have died. (p. 66)
No comment required.
Mr. Hitchens recounts having been invited onto a Christian radio station to debate religion after his diagnosis became public knowledge. He writes:
"My interviewer maintained a careful southern courtesy throughout, always allowing me enough time to make my point, and then surprised me by inquiring if I regarded myself as in any sense a Nietzschean. I replied in the negative, saying that I had agreed with some arguments put forward by the great man but didn't owe any large insight to him and found his contempt for democracy to be somewhat off-putting. ... The questioner pressed on, asking if I knew that much of Nietzsche's work had been produced while he was decaying from terminal syphilis. I again responded that I had heard this and knew of no reason to doubt it, though I knew of no confirmation either. Just as it became too late, and I heard the strains of music and the words that this would be all we would have time for, my host stole a march and wondered how much of my own writing on god had perhaps been influenced by a similar malady!" (pp. 61-62)
You're probably thinking it, so allow me to say it out loud for you: That "Christian" was a dick.
Describing his inability to bleed enough to provide a blood sample to his doctor — due to the sad state of his veins after so many repeated blood-lettings — Mr. Hitchens writes, as only he can:
"This illustrates the whole business in microcosm: the 'battle against cancer reduced to a struggle to get a few drops of gore out of a large warm mammal that cannot provide them.'" (p. 73).
The penultimate chapter of the book contains what are described in a publisher's note as "fragmentary jottings [that] were left unfinished at the time of the author's death." (p. 85).
"Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can't run away from.
I can't say that I'm exactly sure what Hitch meant in that previous remark. But I do think that true bravery and/or courage occurs when someone does have the choice to run. In other words, when one is faced with a situation from which one cannot run, I think it boils down to a singular matter of survival, and everyone has a different — but no more or less brave — threshold for what they can and will endure. But when one has the option to engage or run, and they choose to engage, in my humble estimation, that is true bravery and courage.
The final chapter is written by Mr. Hitchens' widow, Carol Blue. It is a beautiful and fitting tribute to her husband of 20 years. It is unequivocally clear in her words how absolutely she cherished him, warts and all. She shared some of Hitch's scribblings that he wrote while having been intubated and unable to speak:
"[H]e wrote what he wanted me to bring him from our guesthouse in Houston: 'Nietzsche, Mencken and Chesterton books. Plus all random bits of paper ... Maybe in one hold-all bag. Look in the drawers! Bedside, etc. Up and downstairs.'"
I'm pondering perhaps composing a similar note, pre-written — for when/if I should find myself in a hospital bed, intubated and unable to speak — except, when I set down my own list of authors, Christopher Hitchens will be among them.