Critic and writer Christopher Hitchens died last night at the age of 62 from complications of esophageal cancer.
“My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends,” he wrote in the June 2011 issue. He died in their presence, too, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. May his 62 years of living, well, so livingly console the many of us who will miss him dearly.
Although I suspect there will be posthumous writings to come, Hitchens’ final piece for Vanity Fair, published in the January 2012 issue, is a rumination on pain and death.
Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
This Wednesday, FORA will host an online video conversation between Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens.
For over forty years Christopher Hitchens has written and spoken with passionate commitment on matters that others fear to broach. His life has been one of defiance, wit and humility. Now his life is threatened by cancer, but his devotion to the truth and his extraordinary courage are undiminished. In this special event for Intelligence^2, Hitchens will be in conversation via satellite in Washington D.C. with his friend Stephen Fry who will be onstage at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall, London, in front of a sell-out audience of 2,500. Don’t miss this chance to hear one of the great public intellectuals of our age discussing politics, literature and, as he puts it, “the things that make life worth defending - foes like faith and false consolation”.
It’s £5 for a live-stream and 30 days of unlimited on-demand viewing.
Update: Nuts, Hitchens has pneumonia, so Fry will be joined instead by Martin Amis and Richard Dawkins.
They will be examining their own and Christopher’s ideas of what constitutes the good life and the good death — seen against the backdrop of Christopher’s career, the causes dear to his heart, the controversies that he has so enjoyed provoking and the things that make life worth defending.
From Lapham’s Quarterly, Christopher Hitchens on capital punishment in America.
Since then no country has been allowed to apply for membership or association with the European Union without, as a precondition, dismantling its apparatus of execution. This has led states like Turkey to forego what was once a sort of national staple. The United Nations condemns capital punishment-especially for those who have not yet reached adulthood-and the Vatican has come close to forbidding if not actually anathematizing the business. This leaves the United States of America as the only nation in what one might call the West, that does not just continue with the infliction of the death penalty but has in the recent past expanded its reach. More American states have restored it in theory and carried it out in practice, and the last time the Supreme Court heard argument on the question it was to determine whether capital punishment should be inflicted for a crime other than first-degree murder (the rape of a child being the suggested pretext for extension).
Hitchens, as you may have guessed, pins much of the blame on religion…after all, the US is the most (or only?) fundamentalist country in the West. (via ★interesting-links)
Roger Ebert on Christopher Hitchens, illness, medicine, religion, and death:
He was in the hands of medicine. He was hopeful but realistic. He will come to feel increasingly like a member of the audience in the theater of his own illness. I’ve been there. There were times when I seemed to have nothing to do with it. One night, unable to speak, I caught the eye of a nurse through my open door and pointed to the blood leaking from my hospital gown. She pushed a panic button and my bed was surrounded by an emergency team, the duty physician pushing his fingers with great force against my carotid artery to halt the bleeding. I was hoisted on my sheet over to a gurney, and raced to the OR. “Move it, people,” he shouted. “We’re going to lose this man.”
Anderson Cooper asked Hitchens whether he’d been moved by the prayer groups supporting him to pray himself:
“No, that’s all meaningless to me. I don’t think souls or bodies can be changed by incantation.” There was a catch in his voice, and the slightest hint of tears. That was the moment — not the cancer or the dying — that got to me. Prayer groups also prayed for me, and I was grateful and moved. It isn’t the sad people in movies who make me cry, it’s the good ones.
Hitchens added that if there should be reports of his deathbed conversion, they would be reports of a man “irrational and babbling with pain.” As long as he retains his thinking ability, he said, there will be no conversion to belief in God. This is what I expected him to say. Deathbed conversions have always seemed to me like a Hail Mary Pass, proving nothing about religion and much about desperation.
I wrote this at Snarkmarket at the beginning of the week:
Recent efforts by Tony Judt, Christopher Hitchens, Atul Gawande, following on slightly older ones by Joan Didion and Phillip Roth, make me wonder whether we’ve achieved a new breakthrough in our ability to write about death — perhaps especially protracted death, death within the context of medical treatment, in a secular context, which as Gawande reminds us, is comparatively new and certainly much more common.
Here’s the section of Gawande’s recent New Yorker essay I was thinking of:
For all but our most recent history, dying was typically a brief process. Whether the cause was childhood infection, difficult childbirth, heart attack, or pneumonia, the interval between recognizing that you had a life-threatening ailment and death was often just a matter of days or weeks… [A]s the end-of-life researcher Joanne Lynn has observed, people usually experienced life-threatening illness the way they experienced bad weather—as something that struck with little warning—and you either got through it or you didn’t.
An unexpected cost of the secularization/medicalization of death is that we lose the language we need to talk our way through it:
Dying used to be accompanied by a prescribed set of customs. Guides to ars moriendi, the art of dying, were extraordinarily popular; a 1415 medieval Latin text was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe. Reaffirming one’s faith, repenting one’s sins, and letting go of one’s worldly possessions and desires were crucial, and the guides provided families with prayers and questions for the dying in order to put them in the right frame of mind during their final hours. Last words came to hold a particular place of reverence.
These days, swift catastrophic illness is the exception; for most people, death comes only after long medical struggle with an incurable condition—advanced cancer, progressive organ failure (usually the heart, kidney, or liver), or the multiple debilities of very old age. In all such cases, death is certain, but the timing isn’t. So everyone struggles with this uncertainty—with how, and when, to accept that the battle is lost.
That’s one of the stunning things about Gawande’s essay — how much of what it describes is a failure of language. No one can speak, at least directly; we can only watch.
In a re-read of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Christopher Hitchens notices that there’s no Lenin pig.
The social forces represented by different animals are easily recognisable — Boxer the noble horse as the embodiment of the working class, Moses the raven as the Russian Orthodox church — as are the identifiable individuals played by different pigs. The rivalry between Napoleon (Stalin) and Snowball (Trotsky) ends with Snowball’s exile and the subsequent attempt to erase him from the memory of the farm. Stalin had the exiled Trotsky murdered in Mexico less than three years before Orwell began work on the book.
Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens want to arrest the Pope when he visits Britain in September.
Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, the atheist author, have asked human rights lawyers to produce a case for charging Pope Benedict XVI over his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. The pair believe they can exploit the same legal principle used to arrest Augusto Pinochet, the late Chilean dictator, when he visited Britain in 1998.
Update: The Times article quoted above is a little misleading says Dawkins.
Needless to say, I did NOT say “I will arrest Pope Benedict XVI” or anything so personally grandiloquent. You have to remember that The Sunday Times is a Murdoch newspaper, and that all newspapers follow the odd custom of entrusting headlines to a sub-editor, not the author of the article itself. What I DID say to Marc Horne when he telephoned me out of the blue, and I repeat it here, is that I am whole-heartedly behind the initiative by Geoffrey Robertson and Mark Stephens to mount a legal challenge to the Pope’s proposed visit to Britain.
Nonetheless, there is a legal challenge involving the Pope’s visit underway, initiated in part by Dawkins and Hitchens. (thx, lots of people)
Christopher Hitchens reviews a new book about North Korea by B.R. Myers: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters.
Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult.
Christopher Hitchens has travelled the world debating religious people. Here’s what he has learned.
I haven’t yet run into an argument that has made me want to change my mind. After all, a believing religious person, however brilliant or however good in debate, is compelled to stick fairly closely to a “script” that is known in advance, and known to me, too. However, I have discovered that the so-called Christian right is much less monolithic, and very much more polite and hospitable, than I would once have thought, or than most liberals believe.
From Freed Journalists Return to U.S. in the NY Times:
“Thirty hours ago, Euna Lee and I were prisoners in North Korea,” Ms. Ling said in brief remarks to reporters, blinking back tears. “We feared that at any moment we could be prisoners in a hard labor camp. Then suddenly we were told that we were going to a meeting. We were taken to a location and when we walked through the doors, we saw standing before us President Bill Clinton.”
One could imagine a chart of the possible range of human experiences from negative to positive circa 2009; near one end would be “prisoners in a North Korean hard labor camp” and near the other, “personal meeting with President Bill Clinton”.
Update: Christopher Hitchens says that Clinton’s trip did little but gratify and flatter Kim Jong-il.
The Kim Jong-il gang was always planning to release them. They were arrested in order to be let go and were maintained in releasable shape until the deal could be done. Does this not — or should this not — slightly qualify and dilute our joy in seeing them come home? Does the Dear Leader not say to himself, That was easy? Are the North Korean people not being assured, through their megaphone media, that the sun shines so consistently out of the rear end of their celestial boss that even powerful U.S. statesmen will appear at the airport to bring apologies, pay tribute, and receive custody of uninvited guests in the workers’ paradise?
I often enjoy what Christopher Hitchens says and how he says it. Here he wades smartly into the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest.
It is the U.S. Constitution, and not some competitive agglomeration of communities or constituencies, that makes a citizen the sovereign of his own home and privacy. There is absolutely no legal requirement to be polite in the defense of this right.
Christopher Hitchens endorses Obama for President.
To summarize what little I learned from all this: A candidate may well change his or her position on, say, universal health care or Bosnia. But he or she cannot change the fact — if it happens to be a fact — that he or she is a pathological liar, or a dimwit, or a proud ignoramus. And even in the short run, this must and will tell.
To hammer home his point, Hitchens compares McCain to Admiral James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992. Oh yes, he went there.
Christopher Hitchens is an expert on the tumbrel remark.
A tumbrel remark is an unguarded comment by an uncontrollably rich person, of such crass insensitivity that it makes the workers and peasants think of lampposts and guillotines. I can give you a few for flavor. The late queen mother, being driven in a Rolls-Royce through a stricken district of Manchester, England, said as she winced at the view, “I see no point at all in being poor.” The Duke of St. Albans once told an interviewer that an ancestor of his had lost about 50 million pounds in a foolish speculation in South African goldfields, adding after a pause, “That was a lot of money in those days.” The Duke of Devonshire, having been criticized in the London Times, announced in an annoyed and plaintive tone that he would no longer have the newspaper “in any of my houses.”
Someone please start a Tumblr of tumbrels. (via clusterflock)
Christopher Hitchens writes about getting waterboarded for the July issue of Vanity Fair.
You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning-or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered.
As you can see in the video, Hitchens maybe lasted 15 seconds or so.
Maybe I should institute a recurring feature on kottke.org…the Christopher Hitchens Quote of the Week or some such thing. This week’s installment comes from an article on the media’s over-exuberance in reporting on the death of Tim Russert and the “miracles” (bipartisanship, Springsteen, a rainbow) that followed.
No benign deity plucks television news-show hosts from their desks in the prime of life and then hastily compensates their friends and family by displays of irradiated droplets in the sky
Christopher Hitchens, worried about tall buildings carelessly built in the West Village of Manhattan, makes his case for non-gentrification.
It isn’t possible to quantify the extent to which society and culture are indebted to Bohemia. In every age in every successful country, it has been important that at least a small part of the cityscape is not dominated by bankers, developers, chain stores, generic restaurants, and railway terminals. This little quarter should instead be the preserve of — in no special order — insomniacs and restaurants and bars that never close; bibliophiles and the little stores and stalls that cater to them; alcoholics and addicts and deviants and the proprietors who understand them; aspirant painters and musicians and the modest studios that can accommodate them; ladies of easy virtue and the men who require them; misfits and poets from foreign shores and exiles from remote and cruel dictatorships. Though it should be no disadvantage to be young in such a quartier, the atmosphere should not by any means discourage the veteran.
We were talking about the cocksure Christopher Hitchens at lunch today and when I get back to my desk, a link to an interview with Hitchens appears in my newsreader.
Oh, and I do not “profess” to despise religious extremists. I really do despise them.
Christopher Hitchens has written a pair of articles for Vanity Fair on the growing self-improvement industry for men, offering himself up as a guinea pig for our education and entertainment. In the second article, he gets new teeth (before photo, after photo…only 6 hours between the two) and gets his nethers waxed…the male version of the Brazilian. The description of his “sack, back, and crack” epilation is too good not to share at length:
Here’s what happens. You have to spread your knees as far apart as they will go, while keeping your feet together. In this “wide stance” position, which is disconcertingly like waiting to have your Pampers changed, you are painted with hot wax, to which strips are successively attached and then torn away. Not once, but many, many times. I had no idea it would be so excruciating. The combined effect was like being tortured for information that you do not possess, with intervals for a (incidentally very costly) sandpaper handjob. The thing is that, in order to rip, you have to grip. A point of leverage is required: a place that can be firmly gripped and pulled while the skin is tautened. Ms. Turlington doesn’t have this problem. The businesslike Senhora Padilha daubed away, took a purchase on the only available handhold, and then wrenched and wrenched again. The impression of being a huge baby was enhanced by the blizzards of talcum powder that followed each searing application. I swear that several times she soothingly said that I was being a brave little boy… Meanwhile, everything in the general area was fighting to retract itself inside my body.
Hitchens’ first article is here.
Christopher Hitchens on his forced contemplation of Paris Hilton. “Hilton is legally an adult but the treatment she is receiving stinks — indeed it reeks — of whatever horrible, buried, vicarious impulse underlies kiddie porn and child abuse.”
Christopher Hitchens takes Garrison Keillor to task for slamming Bernard-Henri Levy’s take on the US, American Vertigo. I’m patiently waiting for someone to take on Hitchens on Keillor on Levy on America.
Near the end of his article entitled A War to Be Proud Of, Christopher Hitchens offers 10 reasons why the war in Iraq was successful. (via 3qd)