Saturday, December 17, 2011
The Final Days of Christopher Hitchens
I think Hitchens, or what he represents, is something every serious Catholic needs to reckon with, even if Hitchens never took us Christians seriously.
A young friend of mine who periodically sends me articles sent me this last-days profile of Hitchens by novelist and Hitchens intimate Ian McEwan. It is beautiful as a sign (to me) that even the life of Christopher Hitchens pointed to a Word beyond his words.
Hitchens’s final essay, which he was working on at his last known address, a cancer ward, was a 3,000-word debunking of G. K. Chesterton, in a review of Ian Ker’s 2011 biography. Did Chesterton, the stylish Catholic convert, haunt Hitchens’s imagination to his final days? One does not spend one’s final hours working on something without meaning.
Beyond this irony, there are many details in McEwan’s short sketch that point to the Mystery beyond the mundane. Oh, McEwan clearly wants us to side with Hitchens, noting that the highest building in the medical complex where he died “denies the possibility of a benevolent god—a neon sign proclaims from its roof a cancer hospital for children.” One might as easily say that such a sign proclaims the infinite depth of the human heart.
McEwan visits Hitchens, and together the friends debate the meaning of a final line in a poem by Philip Larkin—whether it is bleak or hopeful, as if there could be any hope worth discussing. The two friends take a walk around the nurse’s station. McEwan says to Hitchens, “Take my arm, old toad,” and Hitchens looks back with “that shifty sideways grin I remembered so well from his healthy days. It was the smile of recognition, or one that anticipates in late afternoon an ‘evening of shame:’—that is to say, pleasure, or, one of his favorite terms, ‘sodality.’’
McEwan writes further on:
“Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature.
“Over the three days of my final visit I took note of his subjects. [He talked] to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese,’ which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain’—he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions toward Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s ‘German Requiem’: ‘How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.’”
Anyone who loves literature can agree here with McEwan and with Hitchens: “How beautiful!”
And in the end, that confrontation with Chesterton—what a conundrum! Did Hitchens attack Chesterton unremittingly, armed with his preconceptions? Or did some glimmer of Chesterton’s genius penetrate a chink in the atheist’s armor at the last?
“Consider the mix,” McEwan writes. “Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review.”
I will indeed read the review, written with “superhuman effort” and “long memory.”
McEwan ends with a tribute to Hitchens’s soul, or the atheistic equivalent:
“His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned ‘with this hard gem-like flame.’ Right to the end.”
And perhaps beyond the end.
Posted by Webster Bull at 8:50 PM