That picture above is Christopher Hitchens in 2008 when he came to my school to debate some guy who looked like Jesus on the topic of religion. The debate was moderated by former Nixon apparatchik Ben Stein who brought a briefcase filled with Cracker Jack, which he proceeded to eat during the debate.
In any case, Hitchens was playing a different game, mostly ignoring the other fellow, focusing on his own well-endowment, making reference to a “Freudian slit” and generally just being a charming asshole. It was fun. At the end he signed my book, “To Jordan, a good-ish chap.”
Usually whenever someone dies, it’s a good time to write down your tangential connection to that person as I just did. Christopher Hitchens, on the other hand once began an obituary like so:
The discovery of the carcass of Jerry Falwell on the floor of an obscure office in Virginia has almost zero significance, except perhaps for two categories of the species labeled “credulous idiot.”
So, uh, yeah, I’ll get to the point. He maintained his atheism to the end, scoffing at the notion that he would have a death-bed conversion, instead just writing a bunch of amusing, at times moving dispatches from, as he put it, Tumortown.
More than anything else, Hitchens is an original–a slovenly, drunken appearance to go with a remarkably quick wit and a gleeful joy in taking on all that is sacred and holy. If you’re interested in reading him blast Bob Hope, or even Mother Teresa (about whom he wrote a polemical book titled, well, see for yourself), some greatest hits here and here.
His last piece in Vanity Fair ends with the idea that, well, sometimes death is better and that what doesn’t kill you, often just goes ahead and makes you much weaker.
I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.
These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.
I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.