Andrew Sullivan posted this excerpt from Martin Amis’ foreword to The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism–The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens. Amis and Hitchens were very dear friends for nearly their entire lives. And while I think he here misunderstands the distinction between an agnostic and an atheist, I think his affection for his friend and the mastery of the written word that he shared with him shines through.
“My dear Hitch: there has been much wild talk, among the believers, about your impending embrace of the sacred and the supernatural. This is of course insane. But I still hope to convert you, by sheer force of zealotry, to my own persuasion: agnosticism. In your seminal book, God Is Not Great, you put very little distance between the agnostic and the atheist; and what divides you and me (to quote Nabokov yet again) is a rut that any frog could straddle. ‘The measure of an education,’ you write elsewhere, ‘is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance.’ And that’s all that ‘agnosticism’ really means: it is an acknowledgment of ignorance. Such a fractional shift (and I know you won’t make it) would seem to me consonant with your character – with your acceptance of inconsistencies and contradictions, with your intellectual romanticism, and with your love of life, which I have come to regard as superior to my own.The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a ‘higher intelligence’ – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.
Anyway, we do not know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars. Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so brightly. The parent star, that steady-state H-bomb we call the sun, will eventually turn from yellow dwarf to red giant, and will swell out to consume what is left of us, about six billion years from now.”
Regardless of the disagreement over semantics, I’m just in awe of Amis, as I always was with Hitch, and his exceptional wordcraft.