I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Living Hugely, Dying Gracefully
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS died yesterday of esophageal cancer at the age of sixty-two. Famous or infamous – depending on your view – for his atheism among other things, he is an example of one who lived hugely, was unapologetic, and died gracefully.
I don’t agree with a lot of what he wrote and said, but how dull when there are no differences. Life would be an intellectual wasteland. As long as we take our differences to the debate halls, the blogs, and the voting booth and not to the killing fields, it’s okay.
I admired his sharp mind and wit. Nonsmoking teetotaler I am, yet I appreciate the spirit in this – quoted from his New York Times obituary – “He also professed to have no regrets for a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. ‘Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that…’” He honored himself right to the end even as he admitted that his lifestyle contributed to his illness. Hitchen’s attacked our sacred cows and some of them deserved attacking. He made us examine our dusty old assumptions in the privacy of our minds and indeed some came up lacking. I admire him enormously.
Perhaps more than anything, I admire the grace with which he lived with dying. He did a more honest and dignified job of it than many of us in our faith communities. He was diagnosed in June of 2010 and wrote about this journey in his Vanity Fair columns. The “cynical contrarian” had heart, perhaps even a kinder more generous heart than many an avowed theist.
I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”
He wrote that the
Prospect of death makes me sober, objective.”
He pursued his craft right to the end.
Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic,” Hitchens wrote nearly a year ago in Vanity Fair, but his own final labors were anything but: in the last 12 months, he produced for this magazine a piece on U.S.-Pakistani relations in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a portrait of Joan Didion, an essay on the Private Eyeretrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a prediction about the future of democracy in Egypt, a meditation on the legacy of progressivism in Wisconsin, and a series of frank, graceful, and exquisitely written essays in which he chronicled the physical and spiritual effects of his disease. At the end, Hitchens was more engaged, relentless, hilarious, observant, and intelligent than just about everyone else—just as he had been for the last four decades.” Vanity Fair
He wrote with excruciating honesty.
Like so many of life’s varieties of experience, the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.
On a much-too-regular basis, the disease serves me up with a teasing special of the day, or a flavor of the month. It might be random sores and ulcers, on the tongue or in the mouth. Or why not a touch of peripheral neuropathy, involving numb and chilly feet? Daily existence becomes a babyish thing, measured out not in Prufrock’s coffee spoons but in tiny doses of nourishment, accompanied by heartening noises from onlookers, or solemn discussions of the operations of the digestive system, conducted with motherly strangers. On the less good days, I feel like that wooden-legged piglet belonging to a sadistically sentimental family that could bear to eat him only a chunk at a time. Except that cancer isn’t so … considerate.” MORE [Vanity Fair]
Thank you, Mr. Hitchens, for making me think and rethink.
Thank you, Vanity Fair, for hosting his work so regularly.
© 2011, Jamie Dedes All rights reserve
Photo credits ~ all the book covers are courtesy of Barnes & Noble. Hitchens at the podium at Portsmouth, England courtesy of ensceptico via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0Generic license. Hitchens at third party protest at the Presidentical Debates Commission, Washington, D.C. September 28, 2000 via Wikipedia courtesy of Carolmooredc under the Creative Commons Attritubtion-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Hitchens in debate “Is God Great” with John Lennox at Samford University in Bermingham, Alambama March 3, 2009 via Wikpedia courtesy of stepher via Wikipedia under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.