Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Final Days of Christopher Hitchens

Last night, a group of Catholic friends sitting around a conference table could not help talking about Christopher Hitchens, the poster boy of the New Atheism, now taken down. How could those of us around that table have looked at the same data, the same world, and come to such dramatically different conclusions than he did? From where does faith come? Is faith more than empty dreams?

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.


  1. Is it impossible that rather than "haunting" Hitchens in some sense that he may have been worried about seeing Chesterton through the bars of a heaven that he would be refused entry to, Hitchens was simply keeping on working on articles he wanted to write? Literature was as important to him as politics and the two often crossed over. I find it odd that you have to press a sense of fear of an afterlife or a sense that he may have been approaching a deathbed conversion on him.

  2. Ciaran,
    Thanks for your comment. I am not envisioning a deathbed conversion, although that remains a possibility, always. Rather, I am touched by Hitchens's humanity which, in my case, points to something greater than us humans. Call me crazy.

  3. Atheists are human, therefore God? I suppose to an imagination in which even childhood cancer is a sign of God's love, it's hardly a stretch to assume that the very fact I don't kill you and rape your daughter means I'm under the spell of divine influence. Sorry Mr Bull, nature explains nature, like the fact that Hitchens was much more brilliant than you or me.

    Yours, Michael

  4. To Gorilla Mann (presumably a Darwinian),
    I stand by my gentle intention, “to reckon with [Hitchens], even if Hitchens never took us Christians seriously.” If my post is a kindly act of imagination, or an imaginary act of kindness, I prefer it over your imagining, no matter how rhetorical, of killing me and raping my daughter. Nature does explain nature. Or as the Bible has it, a tree is best known by its own fruits. The fruits of the new atheism are bitter, while the fruits of the Church continue to flourish in countless acts of charity the world over, even if some of the fruit turns rotten.

  5. Far be it from me to seem overly vexed (as I often seem and sometimes am), but no doubt I've missed your point. I too would like to imagine lots of very nice things about life and death, and (despite your innuendo) I would prefer them over the reality of a world devoid of a god who would stop them. As to the fruits of (new) atheism, I'm sure we can (and do) have charity without religion. I'm a case in point, as are some of the most prominent philanthropists in the world.

    What we don't have without religion is the "rotten fruit" acknowledged by you and amply described by the late great Mr Hitchens.

    Anyway, I don't want to hijack your blog. It's really very good, and I admire your style. I'll try not to return for your response to this comment (if you choose to post it and respond), because I've got a chronic case of last-word-itis and I just can't stop.

    By the way my nickname comes from the fact that I'm fat and hairy.

    Best wishes

  6. Dear Gorilla Mann,
    I'll try to leave a comment you don't have to top. (I too have a touch of last-word-itis and sympathize.) A writer who has influenced me and this point too is Fr. Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion and Liberation (see right sidebar). I would love to hear what you think about his book "The Religious Sense," which asks why exactly humans have a hunger for the infinite. (And by the way, it mentions Jesus only once, in the last chapter!) While he was a priest and founder of a Catholic movement (CL) he was extraordinarily open to experience, even experience that contradicted his, noting that we all face life with working hypotheses, as you and I both do, obviously. The danger is that either of us let these harden into preconceptions that shut out experience. Sorry, not lecturing you here, just wishing to intrigue you enough to encourage you to read. Then, once you've read, you can REALLY give me an earful! :-) Peace

  7. "The fruits of the new atheism are bitter, while the fruits of the Church continue to flourish in countless acts of charity the world over, even if some of the fruit turns rotten."

    Please, stop lying. I have seen many atheists doing countless acts of charity the world over. Charity for the sake of humanity, not for the sake of religious propaganda. Your remark is superficial and false. And you should be ashamed of yourself.

  8. Dear Otávio,
    There was "bitterness" in the post to which I was responding--words about killing me and raping my daughter. These are not rhetorical terms I usually hear in church. I responded to that as best I could, and "Gorilla Mann" took it well, I think. We ended with a sort of truce, a fist-bump of "peace."
    So now I'm "lying," "superficial and false," and should be ashamed of myself? Those ad hominem remarks surround your point, that atheists can be charitable (OK, agreed) and perform acts of charity "for the sake of humanity, not for the sake of religious propaganda."
    Let's strip away the term "propaganda," which even you must understand is not why people like Mother Teresa and even the local Knights of Columbus chapter perform charity. Once we get rid of that dismissive term, we are left with the question at the heart of your point: What is it at the heart of man that moves him/her to charity? You call it "humanity," so do I. It's just that I don't throw away the religious impulse in my human heart. I see religion not as something imposed from outside ("propaganda") but as something that is as deep in me as anything else.
    Please note that by acknowledging Hitchens's rich humanity, I was giving him far more credit than your dismissive comments give the Christian position. And allowing for the possibility of reconciliation.

  9. Did Hitchens think about going on sedation with the instruction to the doctors that should his heart stop, it should not be shocked back to beat again, or by any other measures to re-activate it?

    Since this is to my knowledge an option available legally to patients in their last hours, and also doctors are not acting against the law, Hitchens being an atheist could have and should have opted for this passage to total extinction which he saw was his inevitable end.

    It seems he preferred to not be practical, and thus to not enjoy the convenience of no further pain and indignity whatever in the straits he found himself (in).

    Then also what about Pascal's wager, since he was definitely going to die soon, and it would not cost him anything at all if God does not exist, and on the other hand a lot if God does exist, the wiser move would be to tell God that he now wanted to believe in Him, and please to help him be sincere and absolute about it -- as God is merciful and he being human could be sincere and definite?

    Why did he not opt to choose Pascal's wager on the side of believing finally in God's existence, because it would be devastating to this pride?

    Or because he feared that the atheists world would condemn him as a coward?

    But how could being accused of cowardice compare with being wise or acting according to practical wisdom at this most momentous and last chance to act with a pure dose of wisdom or being wise?

    Atheists in the same situation as Hitchens in his last days and hours I think will be more wise on practical considerations to first choose sedation after putting all one's affairs in order, and secondly the much more important act, accept the existence of God and Jesus as one's Lord and Savior, that is the most wise turn of wisdom to act in one's last days and hours for an atheist, unless for his fear of being ridiculed during his last days and hours, and not being exemplary to the very end, to his fellow atheists who are still not in the same situation as he is, or his fear of being scorned as a coward in his last days and hours and even after his death?

    Which is all most contrary to practical wisdom, very fatally foolish and most stupid.

  10. Why would a man give up the principles he has held for a lifetime, in a last ditch effort to gain favor at the last minute? What kind of god would be impressed by such an action?


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