Friday, December 16, 2011

Farewell, Christopher Hitchens

A great man has left us. Before I offer my meager thoughts about his life and work, I want to share his closing comments in a debate on religion, given at the Prestonwood Christian Academy in Dallas, Texas. Hitchens is addressing his opponent, mathematician and philosopher William Dembski, and the audience of students. Hitchens's speech is so important to me, I post in video and text also. One YouTube commenter described this passage as: "Some of the best few minutes of human speech ever uttered."

I'll close on the implied question that Bill [Dembski] asked me earlier. "Why wouldn't you accept this wonderful offer? Why wouldn't you want to meet Shakespeare?" for example. I don't know if you really think that when you die you can be corporeally reassembled, and have conversations with authors from previous epochs. It's not necessary that you believe that in Christian theology, and I have to say it sounds like a complete fairy tale to me. The only reason I want to meet Shakespeare or might want to is because I can meet him, anytime, because he is immortal in the works he's left behind. If you've read those, meeting the author would almost certainly be a disappointment. 

But when Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations and for blasphemy, for challenging the gods of the city—and he accepted his death—he did say, "Well if we are lucky, perhaps I'll be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and philosophers and doubters, too." In other words, that the discussion about what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, what is true, could always go on. Why is that important? Why would I like to do that? Because that's the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on or not after I die, I don't know, but I do know that it's the conversation I want to have while I'm still alive. Which means that to me, the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can't give way is an offer of something not worth having. 

I want to live my life taking the risk all the time that I don't know anything like enough yet. That I haven't understood enough, that I can't know enough, that I'm always hungrily operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn't have it any other way. And I'd urge you to look at those of you who tell you, those people who tell you at your age that you're dead, 'til you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling to children! And that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don't think of that as a gift, think of it as a poison chalice. Push it aside, however tempting you think it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come to you that way. 

—closing a debate with William Dembski at Prestonwood Christian Academy, Dallas, November, 2010

Once in a while I discover a human achievement that makes me glad I'm living in this time and this place. The speaking and the writing of Christopher Hitchens are two of those achievements. He expressed himself with a powerful charm. He moved through his thoughts with that rarest of qualities: Style. I wanted to listen to him even when we disagreed. I could think of nothing more pleasant than to warm myself in the glow of his fire. Fortunately, all of us can still have this experience, by the grace of YouTube.

I dearly wish I could say something to adequately sum up Mr. Hitchens's impact on contemporary thought, but I can't. He does that himself, in these passages:

To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase 'terrible beauty.' Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it's a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else's body. It also makes me quite astonishingly calm at the thought of death: I know whom I would die to protect and I also understand that nobody but a lugubrious serf can possibly wish for a father who never goes away.

I never launch any little essay without the hope—and the fear, because the encounter may also be embarrassing—that I shall draw a letter that begins, "Dear Mr. Hitchens, it seems that you are unaware that . . . " It is in this sense that authorship is collaborative with the reader. And there's no help for it. You only find out what you ought to have known by pretending to know at least some of it already.  —Hitch-22

On drinking:

What the soothing people at Alcoholics Anonymous don't or won't understand is that suicide or self-destruction would probably have come much earlier to some people if they could not have had a drink. We are born into a losing struggle, and nobody can hope to come out a winner, and much of the intervening time is crushingly tedious in any case. Those who see this keenly, or who register the blues intently, are not to be simplistically written off as "dysfunctional" cynics or lushes. Winston Churchill put it very squarely when he defined the issue as, essentially, a wager. He was a lifelong sufferer from the depression that he nicknamed his "black dog," but he could rouse himself to action and commitment and inspiration, and the brandy bottle was often a crucial prop. I have taken more out of alcohol, he said simply, than it has taken out of me. His chief antagonist, Adolf Hitler, was, I need hardly add, a fanatical teetotaler (though with shorter and less wholesome life span). The most lethal and fascistic of our current enemies, the purist murderers of the Islamic jihad, despise our society for, among other things, its tolerance of alcohol. We should perhaps do more to earn this hatred and contempt, and less to emulate it. —Vanity Fair, March, 2003

In debate with former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair:

I mentioned earlier our [mine and Tony Blair's] attachment to the labor and socialist movement in our lifetimes. For a very long time, we had in that movement a challenger, apparently from the left, the communist movement, which has only been dead a very short time now. Actually it hasn't died everywhere yet. And which said it had a much more comprehensive and courageous and thorough-going answer than we did, to the problems created by capitalism and imperialism and other things, and really proposed a fighting solution. And if I was to point to you the number of heroic people who believed in that, and the number of wonderful works of fiction, of novels and essays written by people who believed in it, you could probably, all of you, mention one of your own. If you were Canadian—I hope they still teach you about him in school—the great example of Norman Bethune, heroic doctor, who went to volunteer in China during the civil war, on the communist side. He did amazing work, invented a form of battlefield blood transfusion, just one among many examples. 

It was the communists in many parts of Europe who barred the road to fascism in Spain, and kept Madrid, for many years, from falling to Franco and Hitler and Mussolini. Ghandi may take credit for the Indian independance movement—too much, in my view—but no one would deny the tremendous role played by the Indian communists in doing this, in helping to break the hold of Great Britain on their country. As a matter of fact—some people find it embarrassing to concede this, but I don't, as a supporter of it myself—the African National Congress, Nelson Mandela's party, at least half the members of its central committee were members of the communist party until quite recently, very probably including Mandela himself. 

There is no doubt about it. There was real heroism and dignity and humanism to those people, but we opposed it. We said, "No, it won't work." Why won't it work? It's not worth the sacrifice of freedom that it implies. It implies that all these great things can only be done if you place yourself under an infallible leadership, one that, once it's made that decision and you are bound by it . . . .  you might conceivably notice where I'm going here. Its why many of the brilliant intellectuals who did leave it left it very often for as high reasons of principle as they joined it for in the first place. And the names of their books are Legion and legendary. The best known is called 'The God That Failed,' precisely because it was an attempt at, a bogus form, a surrogate of religion. But let no one say—when the history comes to be written, no one will be able to say—that it didn't represent some high points in human history. But I repeat, it wasn't worth the sacrifice of mental and intellectual and moral freedom. 

That was the purpose of my original set of questions on the metaphysical side. Consider this carefully, ladies and gentlemen: Are you willing, for the sake of certain elements of the numinous, perhaps for a great record of good works, are you willing to say that you give your allegiance to an ultimate Redeemer? You're not really religious unless you believe that there's a divine supervision involved. You don't have to believe it intervenes all the time, but if you don't believe that, you're already half way out the door. You don't need me. 

But are you willing to pay the price of a Permanent Supervisor? Are you willing to pay the price of believing in things that are supernatural? Miracles? Afterlives? Angels? Are you willing to admit, most of all, that human beings can be the interpreter of this Divine Figure? Because a religion means you will have to follow someone who is your religious leader. You can't—try as you may—follow Jesus of Nazareth. It can't be done. You will have to follow His vicar on Earth, Pope Benedict XXVI presently; his own claim, not mine, the apolostolic succession, the vicar of Christ on earth. You have to say, "This person has divine authority." 

I maintain that that, and what goes with it, is too much of a sacrifice of the mental and intellectual freedom that is essential to us, to be tolerated. And you gain everything by repudiating that and standing up to your own full height. You gain much more than you will, by pretending that you're a member of a flock, or in any other way, any kind of sheep. —debating Tony Blair, November, 2010

Farewell, Christopher. You left us a treasure of inspiration and clarity. We are grateful.


cityfox said...

Farewell, Christopher. It was a wild ride, and the meaning of your life is still unfolding.

Wen said...

My brother introduced me to Mr. Hitchens and he is brilliant. A wonderful post for a wonderful man who changed the world, he is changing mine.

Anonymous said...

I miss him so.

When I discovered him, it felt
like he was articulating all my concerns and thoughts towards
my horrible nutter christian fundamentalist family
from whom I moved to the other side
of the globe to get away from.

This was someone who could stand
up to the religious bullies of the
world with well-articulated wit
and calm argumentation. All went over their stupid heads, but we got it.