Hitchens; Hairless, Hale & Hearty – UPDATED


Hitchens, July 2010 / Photo by John Huba

Chirstopher Hitchens, in the midsts of a poison cure which would befuddle reason and leave most of us whimpering in our safe corners, manages, still to write with great beauty, humor and power. He writes with address.

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.

Doubtless, some will take me to task for including Hitchens’ self-indulgent lines of spite, but I figure he and God can duke that out. We bring our full selves into our sicknesses as well as our joys, so there is no reason to think Hitchens would suddenly become saintly. Some do, of course, find their “come to Jesus” moment in the chemo infusion bag which–from a new perspective–seems too flimsy a thing to entrust with either life or death, but I wouldn’t expect it of Hitchens; he enjoys his atheism much too much for that. He loves it so much that he doesn’t even subject it to his usual withering intellectual rigor. Hitchens throws his weak punch at the pope as a means of demonstrating to us and to himself that he is still in the game, still faithful to his own lights and hearty in combat.

I frankly would be worried about him, had he written anything differently.

What is interesting in the piece, however, is how well Hitchens’ demonstrates a powerful-if-unofficial (and yes, saintly) virtue of willingness that he might himself dismiss.

Christians pray “Thy Will Be Done”
but that is a surrender often uttered while the heart is still busy writing treaties. I had an Evangelical once email me a convoluted exposition justifying the use of artificial birth control because “God can do anything, and if God really wants us to get pregnant, we will, even with spermicides and barriers.”

Well, of course. That happens all the time. Layers of asphalt cannot prevent green shoots of life from breaking through even the most traveled road. But the argument is a great example of the surrender-with-treaty we Christians often offer. In truth, though, surrender comes with an open door, not a barricade, or it is not surrender, at all.

Surrender, in fact, is not the negative, “I give up,” but the positive, “I am willing.” When willingness enters into one’s head and heart, every possibility comes rushing to the fore; there is room for miracles.

What Hitchens demonstrates here, in his gorgeous prose which is so full of the force of life, is the sort of open-handed willingness which too-often escapes us but is the essence of surrender. Because Hitchens is willing–because he is more opened than closed–it would not surprise me to see him still here to do some of those things he writes of. He may not have ascended Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s steps to let his curious mind and open heart explore his new vista, but he has double-timed his way to wisdom.

Whether the wisdom will be “made perfect,” in Christ we may never know. Hitchens is a stubborn cuss, and God knows him well, but the rest of us do not. And no one knows what happens in the deepest recesses of the human heart and soul, in those infinitesimal moments wherein we are still half-here and mostly gone.

Hitchens would hate to know that he is giving deeply Christian instruction, here. That confounding Holy Spirit, again; always using the most surprising of tools, to teach.

RELATED UPDATE:
Margaret Cabaniss at Inside Catholic takes a look at a must-read exposition of how urgently we need to explore our ideas of medicine, life and death.

UPDATE II:
An agnostic friend just emailed me that Hitchens “is not a good person at all.” I don’t know that. I know he is a controversial person who dares to think for himself and even be publicly wrong and stubborn, which is something rare, these days, among intellectuals. And I like him because he dares me not to! :-)

Others writing:
Reason Magazine
Hugh Hewitt
Althouse
Da Tech Guy

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • saveliberty

    Mr. Hitchens remains in my prayers.

  • dry valleys

    Hitchens is vocal because he knows perfectly well that ideas have consequences. Accordingly he denounces thought that is false or will lead to bad things being done. People don’t just sit on desert islands having pure meditations, they act on what they believe. Does anyone doubt that Benedict influences millions of people?

    I never liked Hitchens all that much because of his foreign policy stance & the fact that he persists in defending people like Trotsky, but I agree with his atheism. (I prefer Richard Dawkins for the above reasons). I am less outspoken but that’s just because of who I am rather than because I think it’s wrong to be outspoken. (I certainly don’t).

    My favourite of all the “New Atheists” are Ophelia Benson & Jeremy Stangroom, I am re-reading their books now (well, later tonight, obviously not whilst typing!) They are really forensic in their analysis, & rightly attack certain “leftists” who are pro-faith or otherwise unclear about what they’re doing. While at the same time they naturally outrage conservatives.

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  • Gapeseed

    Hitchens preserves his atheist bona fides in his snide Benedict remark, but his last bit about prayer groups has no doubt caused a small panic in Uncle Screwtape’s dark heart.

  • http://www.anamericanlion.com/ Norman Rogers

    So you endorse the idea that Pope Benedict XVI is an “elderly villain” as mentioned in the piece?

    When did the Anchoress line up against the Pope? I must have missed that.

    [If you think that's what I wrote then you've missed a lot. Unless you actually believe that by acknowledging that someone wrote something, instead of somehow pretending they didn't, one is implying concurrence? -admin]

  • Bridey

    Now, now, the Anchoress didn’t agree with that at all. She called it “spite” and a “weak punch,” and there’s no reason to read agreement into the fact of her having quoted it. Context is all, always.

    I am not as inclined as many to stretch the benefit of the doubt for Christopher Hitchens — and many people I do admire stretch it to the breaking point and beyond — and I believe his atheism extended long ago into plain sloppy bigotry.

    But I would say it’s best to call “good person” or “bad person” on a fellow sinner with great reluctance. Not even all saints — and most of us are decidedly not saints — have the gift of reading hearts.

  • Brad

    If Hitchens was as clear headed and rational as he purports to be, he would have had the courage to follow his convictions rather than live in the most religious of advanced nations that has foundational documents, philosophies, and sentiments abhorrent to him. I guess that is something he will have to work out with his maker, oops sorry, his therapist. To notice that the planet is full of thugs, brutes and injustice, however witty one may be is not much of an insight.

  • cathyf

    I don’t know if Hitchens is a good person or a bad one, but I do know that he is being pursued by a Lover of infinite wit and charm.

  • F

    Well, at least he called Kissinger a villain. That was honest.

    I am still praying for him. Hitchens kind of reminds me of the guy who wrote, “The Gurus, the Young Man, and Elder Paisios” about his spiritual and philosophical questing. (Dionysios Farasiotis). I call it a spiritual thriller as its all true.

  • Ernest

    Good Lord. Hitchens as demonstrative of some sort of a “saintly” willingness. That is almost as patently meaningless, not to say ridiculous, as James Wisman arguing, at the most recent CTSA meeting, that the two-bit fascist Richard Dawkins is a prophet.

    So Hitchens has a bit of the classical Stoic in him, though he is not nearly the philosopher or the rhetorician as the ancient Stoics. As they say, “big deal.” I am sure Marcus Aurelius is smiling in the midst of the inferno.

    The Christian pundrity is striving awfully hard to be liked these days. I’m sure that a genuine saint, such as, say, Athanasius, is not smiling. Karl Rahner, on the other hand…

    Abject hatred of all things Christian is apparently, for the new Christian punditry, in no way a disqualification of one from the Mystical Body of Christ, or from an exemplary Christian life.

    Lies and calumnies about the pope should in no way cause us to lose our admiration for the fact that Hitchens has, at least as he tells it, given himself over to some inevitable cosmic destiny over which he has no control. Marvelous. Heroic. It’s as if Christ’s resurrection from the dead has in no way transformed our thinking and living from out of its pagan fatalism.

    In fact, his message is not the Christian message. His fatalism is not Christian hope or “willingness,” unless these realities of the Christian life have lost all meaning.

  • http://breadhere.blogspot.com/ Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Beautiful post, truly beautiful. Thanks for having the insight and grace to put this out there in this way.

  • Piotr

    Beautiful prose? Review of English literature is something you would benefit from.

  • http://westernchauvinist.blogspot.com Western Chauvinist

    “he enjoys his atheism much too much for that. He loves it so much that he doesn’t even subject it to his usual withering intellectual rigor. Hitchens throws his weak punch at the pope as a means of demonstrating to us and to himself that he is still in the game, still faithful to his own lights and hearty in combat.”

    Best description of Hitchens yet.

    Odd that I love him for that… for still being in the fight. Really, I think he is an anti-theist. He opposes God for the terrible paradox we Christians face in accepting and worshiping a loving God who allows the innocent to suffer. It is Hitchens sense of justice which is offended, I believe.

    I am offended and wounded for our pope by Hitchens terrible mischaracterization of him. If only Hitchens would apply his considerable intellect to fighting real evil, rather than the religions and religious he so despises. Ah well, God isn’t finished with him yet… and I sometimes imagine He is touched by Hitchens passionate flailing at Him.

  • Ellen

    Well, maybe the Hound of Heaven will catch Hitchens yet. In the meantime, I will continue to pray for him.

  • http://datechguy.wordpress.com datechguy

    It’s very hard not to like Hitchens, he is an honest man but when he’s wrong he’s very wrong.

  • Fu

    What Hitch demonstrates here is his petulance, his childish anger (against God, his father, who knows/who cares), and his meanness. To be going through what he is going through, to have surely seen others suffering around him in the chemo ward, and all he can come up with is giving in to a crumby desire to slip in an insult to Catholics and to Pope Benedict? Anchoress, you are too kind. This man, if he had any power whatsoever (his powerlessness being demonstrated for him in a most horrible manner these weeks apparently insifficiently persuasive), he would destroy the Church (and churches) you love, outlaw prayer, and burn the Gospels. Please consider this. Pray for him, yes. Praise him, no.

  • Fuquay Steve

    Ernest – bravo, good and faithful servant.

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  • Marjorie Campbell

    “I know he is a controversial person who dares to think for himself and even be publicly wrong and stubborn, which is something rare, these days, among intellectuals. And I like him because he dares me not to!”

    And this is why he is wrong, and wrong-minded, because he perceives his life as a personal, autonomous experience. His thinking, writing, represents the apex of male, atheistic perspective. It’s all and entirely about “him”. God bless him, as he moves toward the final event he’s denied significance, except as a point of battle. Worthy, compare Tony Snow’s cancer to death essay. link

    It matters how we think. Or not.

  • http://www.mysteriousthings.com Marc

    I point out that Mr Hitchens originally called the Roman Pontiff and Mr Kissinger “criminals” but, apparently, he or the editors at VF inserted “villains” instead. Cf Damian Thompson at the Telegraph; link. I don’t read the man; he forfeited any expectation of that with his calumnies of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

  • mabelee

    The Lord would have all men to be saved…and to prove it He gave His only Son to save us from the penalty of our sin. From the beginning of the world He knew each of us, planned for us, created us and gifted each of us. He has gifted Christopher Hitchens enormously and loves him, as He does each of us! Though Christopher has spent his lifetime turning his back on his Lord, it is certain the Lord wishes to spend eternity with this Christopher that He has created, and what a wonderful creation he is! The Lord will use whatever means necessary to draw us to Himself. Even cancer of the esophagus.

  • cathyf

    Also, I think that you are not really there in what surrender is. The grammar of it is awkward — it’s an active verb, and the subject of the sentence must be doing what the verb says, but surrender is about what you don’t do — or can’t do.

  • me

    That’s interesting you consider surrender to be a Christian ethos. After all, aslem (from which we get Islam) means surrender.

    [But note, I take it from the side of willingness, not the side of giving up. Jesus surrendered into willingness. -admin]

  • http://www.plaidpundit.blogspot.com/ Matt B

    Mr. Hitchens,
    May I kindly state to you that no person was ever killed while carrying out Pascal’s Wager. ;)

  • Phillip Jones

    With intrigue, I monitor Mr. Hitchens’ situation as much as possible. Here is a man facing not only the end of this life, but also the absoluteness of whether or not all he stood for regarding spiritual reality was accurate. Adding to the list of ironies is this: if Hitchens is correct and this life is all there is, he won’t know when he passes away.

    I’ll continue to pray for him. I have to agree with the author that if Hitchens does seek the sanctification that is available to him, he won’t tell us.

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  • http://religiopoliticaltalk.com/ Papa Giorgio

    .

    I wish I had read this prior to posting. Good stuff! I will add the Robot Chicken bit with the giraffe that goes through these stages. I blame you for my inspiration!

    link

    .

  • Yehudit

    Since he’s a Jew, you might want to pray that he make use of our people’s rituals and teachings, which are probably more in tune with his spirit anyway. And stop hovering over him like ghouls with your crucifixes ready.

    (I like reading you, Anchoress, most of the time. I was in your corner on Shirley Sherrod. And I bet you even agree with me in this, once you stop to think about it. So this comment is more for the commenters.)

  • dry valleys

    Hitchens is partly Jewish ethnically, but didn’t he have an Anglican upbringing?

    Of interest is that he turned against obscurantism & mysticism long before 9/11, when he was on the right side during the Salman Rushdie affair, which really marked the emergence of politicised religion into a hitherto secular country (the Church of England doesn’t count!)

  • Jiqimao

    Ernest is right, what Hitchens expressed is not exclusive to Christianity. He mentions Stoicism/Marcus Aurelius as an example of thought similar to Hitchens’.

    To be able to say the rain falls on the just and unjust doesn’t require you to be Jesus. To be able to acknowledge death doesn’t imply impending conversion either.

    No doubt there is real love and prayer for Hitchens here, it just comes across as condescending at worst and lack of reading thoughtful men of the world (pardon the derogatory “world”).

  • Herkybird

    Christopher Hitchens has long been my favorite Bolshie scribbler. His views were nonsense, but he wrote them down with an extravagant and engaging style. Like most people, as he aged he began to embrace a more realistic view of the world and, since he moved his base of operations to the U.S., I increasingly find him sharing my ideological foxhole, much to my discomfort.

    So what what will become of ‘Hitch’ now? His brother Peter, also a writer of note, made his move from leftist bomb-thrower to orthodox Anglican some time ago. I have long suspected that one day, Christopher would morph into the Malcom Muggeridge of the Baby Boom Generation. We’ll soon see, I expect

  • Karl Wilkey

    ……..”Since he’s a Jew, you might want to pray that he make use of our people’s rituals and teachings, which are probably more in tune with his spirit anyway. And stop hovering over him like ghouls with your crucifixes ready.”

    Yehudit,
    Surely you’re not saying the answer lies in rituals and teachings? ….and I’m sure you’re aware that Christ himself was a Jew, along with his disciples. The apostle Paul even regarded himself as a Jew’s Jew!

    Christ said that Abraham trusted God and it was accounted to him as righteousness! We all need God’s righteousness accounted to us!….this is only possible because of the blessed Lamb of God who himself alone was able to achieve GOD’s Righteousness,….and he did that for us, as well as paying the penalty for OUR unrighteousness.
    As a gentile, I thank God that by his grace, I am able,- as Abraham was, – to have God’s righteousness accounted to even me! Not by faith in any religious rituals or teachings or my good works -but by my faith in God I receive HIS Salvation! Praise be unto God for the finished work of his only begotten Son – our Lord , the Christ Jesus.

  • http://www.savkobabe.blogspot.com Gayle Miller

    I will continue to pray for Hitchens – if only to annoy him. I look forward to a preview of his reaction when he, like all of us, shuffles off this mortal coil (where did THAT saying originate?) and he makes the Maker of us all who smiles sweetly and says “Told ya so!”

    I agree that the swipe at Pope Benedict was infantile and a reflexive leftwing thing of little to no meaning.

  • catdog

    I understood that Higgins wouldn’t make it to August. Isn’t he dead yet? If not, why not?

  • Joe

    I pray for Hitchens because I want him to have a speedy recovery. I want him around. The world is a better place for him being here. If there is an after life and salvation (I am a believer, but I recognize the possibility that there is not) I want him to find both.

  • craig

    “shuffles off this mortal coil (where did THAT saying originate?)”

    Hamlet, act III

  • http://www.wanderingtree.wordpress.com Greg

    “Christians pray “Thy Will Be Done” but that is a surrender often uttered while the heart is still busy writing treaties.”

    Wow- great line.

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  • Mark McBrayer

    God, I do love you. You are this Baptist’s favorite Catholic. Your insight on surrender being willingness is the perfect bridge between catholic thought (as it seems to me) and protestant thought on this subject.

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