If you have not yet read Christopher Hitchens’ latest piece in Vanity Fair, on the failing of his physical voice, stop what you’re doing and go read it. It is a gorgeous, generous, melancholy, funny, graceful, grateful and even — dare I say it — God-whispering piece.
In the medical literature, the vocal “cord” is a mere “fold,” a piece of gristle that strives to reach out and touch its twin, thus producing the possibility of sound effects. But I feel that there must be a deep relationship with the word “chord”: the resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowds to pity and mobs to passion. We may not be, as we used to boast, the only animals capable of speech. But we are the only ones who can deploy vocal communication for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining it with our two other boasts of reason and humor to produce higher syntheses. To lose this ability is to be deprived of an entire range of faculty: it is assuredly to die more than a little.
My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends. I can’t eat or drink for pleasure anymore, so when they offer to come it’s only for the blessed chance to talk. Some of these comrades can easily fill a hall with paying customers avid to hear them: they are talkers with whom it’s a privilege just to keep up. Now at least I can do the listening for free. Can they come and see me? Yes, but only in a way. So now every day I go to a waiting room, and watch the awful news from Japan on cable TV (often closed-captioned, just to torture myself) and wait impatiently for a high dose of protons to be fired into my body at two-thirds the speed of light. What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.
What a masterful, instructive writer he is! I never read Hitchens without despising my own work, regarding even something I liked as piffling dross in comparison.
The admiration is for more than his prose, though.
A great writer may have a gift for a well-turned phrase, the ability to use imagery and metaphor to make his thesis more vividly immediate to the reader, but none of that matters if the writer cannot — as Hitchens says here — convince the reader that he is being personally addressed; that the reader is respectfully presumed to be able to listen, ponder, and perhaps expand the thesis in digestion.
Most importantly, the best writers manage to communicate their honest vulnerability with a deftness that precludes schmaltz and does not invite weepy the over-sentimentalized responses that can toy with the personal dignities of both writer and reader. Hitchens shows enormous generosity in this piece, precisely in the way he manages to deliver a very personal Prufrock with a touch of Puck; he writes from the white-hot crucible but quietly — not calling out — and with just enough chair-space to tell the reader that he makes no demand beyond being understood and heard.
Faced with the loss of that resonant, bourbon-on-ice voice, what a moving yet dignified and yes, heroic piece of writing. Thank you, sir, for the lesson, and please accept this in my defiant regard: God bless you!
It will be a dreadful day when this singular voice can no longer reach us via any media but memory.
Jen Pierce on Hitchens, Empathy and Sympathy
You are, right now, our very own, living and breathing Hamlet, reminding us exactly why that character lives on. In a strange way, I think that this can only be felt and expressed this keenly by someone who feels the absence of God and for that I feel an odd sort of appreciation I cannot describe.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
Sympathy and empathy is not only the pivot upon which good writing shifts. It is the pivot upon which all that is within us might become love. The Divine Pivot. When the heart of stone, at last, breaks.
Also writing in admiration: Damned Dirty Rhino
UPDATE: Instalanch! Thanks, Ed!