Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011
Credit: Photo by Brooks Kraft/Corbis.
Slate Magazine has just done us a service by publishing some of Christopher Hitchens “unpublished” jottings just prior to his death on December 11 of last year at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Here are a few of those jottings and along with them a few of Slate editor, David Plotz’s annotations:
David begins by writing, as a kind of first response to these “unpublished” jottings: How could anything have gone unpublished? How could there be any stories, any jokes, any insults, any perfect Wodehouse citations that were never silver-tongued out into the world? Yet despite writing as much as he did, [Christopher] left some behind, either for friends and family, or, in this case, as notes.
Christopher: “Remember, you too are mortal”—hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau. My two assets my pen and my voice—and it had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends, I’d been “straying into the arena of the unwell” and now “a vulgar little tumor” was evident. This alien can’t want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in its purpose. No real irony here, though. Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centered…. but all the sleep-aids and blissful dozes seem somehow a waste of life—there’s plenty of future time in which to be unconscious.
David again: In Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer explains how to use your memory to extend your life. Routine days and nights leave no lasting impression—they pass, and it’s as though they never happened. Unusual events—exotic travel, strange encounters, new experiences—plant durable memories and make life actually seem longer. Essentially, the more you remember, the more you feel you have lived, and thus, the more you actually have lived. Hitchens was the embodiment of this idea. He constantly sought sensation—traveled everywhere, drank everything, met everyone, got waterboarded—and he remembered it all, as well as everything he read.
Christopher: Trying not to think with my tumor, which would not be thinking at all. People try to make it sound as if it were an EPISODE in one’s life…. ONCOLOGY/ONTOLOGY: Under the old religious dispensation, heaven would simply sentence you to be lavishly tortured and then executed…. Montaigne: “Religion’s surest foundation is the contempt for life.”…[and then there are the] ordinary expressions like “expiration date”…will I outlive my Amex? My driver’s license?… People say—I’m in town on Friday: will you be around? WHAT A QUESTION! COLD FEET (so far only at night): “peripheral neuropathy” is another of those words like “necrotic” that describe death-in-life of the system….
If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.
David: This last is my favorite line…. It’s a kick in the face to all those people who nagged him to accept God on his deathbed. I also like that it takes a few seconds to get the joke. I read it once, was baffled, and only laughed after I read it again.
In these few short pages [jottings], Hitchens manages to cite: Montaigne, Hegel, Waugh, Wilde, Orwell, Hume, Lucretius, Larkin, Szymborska … Is there anything he hadn’t read?
Finally, Christopher, taking for himself a paragraph from Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905 writes:
With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.
Although Christopher is not a “relative who never died,” is no longer here with us, and although that which was during his lifetime a seemingly infinite series of occasional writings has in fact reached an end or limit, all this has not made us who do remain any freer. And in my own case Christopher’s writing and presence was a non negligible factor in my own coming of age.