Josh: Today, we’re excited to have a guest poster, Pat Andriola, who is elegizing famed author, atheist, and (unfortunatey) cancer sufferer Christopher Hitchens.
To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
The news of Christopher Hitchens having esophageal cancer, a disease that Hitchens describes as “not a good cancer to get,” hit me hard. If you’ve ever heard Hitchens speak, you probably have an opinion of him. His English wit, high intelligence, and propensity to say what he feels have made him somewhat of a polarizing figure. A former Trotskyist who now aligns more politically with the moderate right, Hitchens has written for Vanity Fair since 1992. A passionate atheist who has been entirely critical of religion, Hitchens rose to fame mostly for his persistent attacks on adored pubic figures. He once called Ronald Reagan a “stupid lizard,” wrote a scathing book on Mother Theresa entitled The Missionary Position, and said on the day of the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s death that he “wished there was a hell” awaiting the late pastor in the afterlife.
Hitchens has led a fascinating life that is seemingly coming to a very mundane ending; he calls his cancer “boring,” and the always cool-headed author has been exceedingly rational throughout the process, even though the cancer has most likely been brought on by decades of drinking and smoking. “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. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason.”
Hitchens may best be known for his stance regarding religion during 2006, when many publications began touting him as one of the Four Horsemen of the “new atheism,” alongside evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, Stanford graduate student and best-selling author Sam Harris, and one of my professors at Tufts University, Daniel Dennett. Hitchens began debating theists such as Dinesh D’Souza and Al Sharpton across the country, completely blunt in his criticism of Christianity. He threw down with the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox News and called the newest Roman Catholic Pope, Joseph Ratzinger, an “elderly criminal.” As the news of his imminent mortality spread, many began wondering if the devout antitheist (as he calls himself) had softened his position on the irrationality of belief in the divine. When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked him of a potential deathbed conversion, Hitchens said that it were only possible if a combination of drugs and pain made him delusional. “Not while I’m lucid, no.”
But as much as Christopher Hitchens ripped on every pious person across the globe, he was an entirely endearing and charming figure to many others. His intellectual arrogance and ever-present glass of scotch gave him a “bad ass” demeanor that wooed the hearts and minds of fans from all over. For me, reading Hitchens’ 2007 best-seller, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was an eye-opening experience, one I began as a passionate Catholic and ended as a non-believer. As I struggled with the realization of losing my faith, which was an integral part of my identity, I was consoled by the words of Hitchens:
Thus, dear reader, if you have come this far and found your own faith undermined—as I hope—I am willing to say that to some extent I know what you are going through. There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.
But now, Christopher Hitchens is dying an ugly death that has made one of the most proud thinkers of our generation a literal shell of his former self. Still, he says he hopes to live long enough to read, or possibly even write, the obituaries of “villains” such as Henry Kissinger and Ratzinger. He says he sees no irony in his manner of demise, but one cannot help but sadly and pathetically chuckle at Hitchens’ description of drinking alcohol, one of his favorite pastimes, from early 2009:
What the soothing people at Alcoholics Anonymous don’t or won’t understand is that suicide or self-destruction would probably have come much earlier to some people if they could not have had a drink. We are born into a losing struggle, and nobody can hope to come out a winner, and much of the intervening time is crushingly tedious in any case. Those who see this keenly, or who register the blues intently, are not to be simplistically written off as “dysfunctional” cynics or lushes. Winston Churchill put it very squarely when he defined the issue as, essentially, a wager. He was a lifelong sufferer from the depression that he nicknamed his “black dog”, but he could rouse himself to action and commitment and inspiration, and the brandy bottle was often a crucial prop. I have taken more out of alcohol, he said simply, than it has taken out of me… But something in the Puritan soul is committed to making and keeping people miserable, even when it is *not* for their own good. Some of us have at least an inkling of the pursuit of happiness, as well as of happiness as a pursuit.
Hitchens pursued happiness throughout his life, in the end succumbing to the consequences of relying too heavily on that pursuit. Hopefully, he has a few more obituaries to write and bad guys to get. To me, Christopher Hitchens is what we classically think of as a superhero, but he uses words and reason instead of lasers and guns; throughout his life, those have been his true weapons. I watched him take on evildoers and defend truth during my atheistic adolescence, at one point even being waterboarded to show just why and how it’s torture. So when Batman or Superman dies such a humiliating death, it’s truly shocking. But Hitchens detailed long before his battle with cancer the beauty behind his life:
Our place in the cosmos is so unimaginably small that we cannot, with our miserly endowment of cranial matter, contemplate it for long at all. No less difficult is the realization that we may also be quite random as presences on earth. We may have learned about our modest position on the scale…but then, the awareness that our death is coming and will be succeeded by the death of the species and the heat death of the universe is scant comfort. Still, at least we are not in the position of those humans who died without ever having the chance to tell their story, or who are dying today at this moment after a few bare, squirming minutes of painful and fearful existence.
The potentially abrupt end to Christopher Hitchens’ life, denying society of an important presence and the scholar of deserved decades more of living, is certainly tragic. But the man both told his story (finding out about his cancer during his book tour for his memoir) and certainly lived his life to the fullest. Raise a glass to him.