Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011)

I could hardly believe my eyes this morning when I opened up my homepage and saw the headline: "Christopher Hitchens Dead at 62". I knew he was gravely ill, but only yesterday I read this just-published indomitable and chilling essay on the hellish experience of pain and cancer, in which Hitchens detailed his resolve to stay combative in the face of radiation and the like. Reading it made me physically uncomfortable (hospitals and needles make me cringe in the best of circumstances). I got the impression that Hitchens had a few more rounds left to go in his battle, but as it turns out it was quite possibly the last piece from this magnificent writer and courageous man. Yes, courageous. To unblinkingly face suffering and death in the way that he did, without the hope found in Christ, takes a better man than I.

Here are his concluding paragraphs.

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.

These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.

I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.

Hitchens spent much of his prodigious intellectual and literary capacity mocking the beliefs of people such as I. Nevertheless, I mourn his passing. The words of John Donne come to mind: "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee." (Meditation XVII)

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