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Christopher Hitchens on Mortality

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

“One should try to write as if posthumously,” Christopher Hitchens (April 13, 1949–December 15, 2011) famously opined in a New York Public Library talk three days before his fatal cancer diagnosis. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others,” he advised young contrarians years earlier. How striking, then, becomes the clash between his uncompromising ethos and the equally uncompromising realities of death, recorded in Mortality (public library), his last published work, out this week — a gripping and lucid meditation on death as it was unfolding during Hitch’s last months of life. But what makes the book truly extraordinary is his profound oscillation between his characteristic, proud, almost stubborn self-awareness — that ability to look on with the eye of the critic rather than the experiencing self — and a vulnerability that is so clearly foreign to him, yet so breathlessly inevitable in dying. The ideological rigor with which he approaches his own finality, teasing apart religion and politics and other collective and thus impersonal facets of culture, cracks here and there, subtly at first, letting the discomfort of his brush with the unknown peek through, then gapes wide open to reveal the sheer human terror of ceasing to exist.

We begin by seeing Hitchens, a true contrarian himself, defy death’s common psychology:

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 to 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 the 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 to 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.

One coping mechanism is stoic wryness:

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

As a bastion of semantic clarity, Hitch doesn’t miss the opportunity to dismember a number of the metaphors we use about and around death, echoing Susan Sontag’s classic and revolutionary Illness as Metaphor in discussing the “war-on-cancer” cliché:

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

Still, Hitchens uses his death as a vehicle for advancing his lifelong crusade against religion, which earned him a spot as one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — along with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris — and takes a number of clever stabs at religion’s paradoxes:

Many readers are familiar with the spirit and the letter of the definition of ‘prayer,’ as given by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary. It runs like this, and is extremely easy to comprehend:

Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.

Everybody can see the joke that is lodged within this entry: The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling.

But, every once in a while, between the busting of clichés, the complacent edge of his self-awareness softens and gives way to the real and raw human terror of his experience:

It’s normally agreed that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.

Indeed, this daily attrition of bodily dignity, which bleeds into an attrition of character, is hard even for Hitch to intellectualize, try as he might:

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether. I had just returned from giving a couple of speeches in California, where with the help of morphine and adrenaline I could still successfully ‘project’ my utterances, when I made an attempt to hail a taxi outside my home — and nothing happened. I stood, frozen, like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow. I used to be able to stop a New York cab at thirty paces. I could also, without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall. And it may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.

Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs. In common with everybody else, I have played versions of the youthful ‘Which would you rather?’ game, in which most usually it’s debated whether blindness or deafness would be the most oppressive. But I don’t ever recall speculating much about being struck dumb. (In the American vernacular, to say ‘I’d really hate to be dumb’ might in any case draw another snicker.) Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’

The final pages of Mortality feature Hitch’s fragmentary scribbles from the days immediately preceding his death, concluding, poignantly, with this:

From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own… Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

Photographs via Wikimedia Commons

BP

Words David Foster Wallace’s Mom Invented

Because language is a living organism and creativity the sum total of our life experience.

D. T. Max’s highly anticipated Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (public library) is out this week, and though it lacks the captivating prose of a great biography, it has a certain encyclopedic quality that is sure to galvanize DFW fanatics.

As a lover of unusual words, I was delighted to find among Max’s factoids one about words invented by Wallace’s mother, an English professor, which went on to permeate DFW’s own writing — no surprise, given how we construct the patterns of our creativity:

No one else listened to David as his mother did. She was smart and funny, easy to confide in, and included him in her love of words. Even in later years, and in the midst of his struggle with the legacy of his childhood, he would always speak with affection of the passion for words and grammar she had given him. If there was no word for a thing, Sally wallace would invent it: ‘greebles’ meant little bits of lint, especially those that feet brought into bed; ‘twanger’ was the word for something whose name you didn’t know or couldn’t remember. She loved the word ‘fantods,’ meaning a feeling of deep fear or repulsion, and talked of ‘the howling fantods,’ this fear intensified. These words, like much of his childhood, would wind up in Wallace’s work.

And, indeed, it did. From Infinite Jest:

Orin’s special conscious horror, besides heights and the early morning, is roaches. There’d been parts of metro Boston near the Bay he’d refused to go to, as a child. Roaches give him the howling fantods.

And again:

Unit #4, more or less equidistant from both the hospital parking lot and the steep ravine, is a repository for Alzheimer’s patients with VA pensions. #4′?s residents wear jammies 24/7, the diapers underneath giving them a lumpy and toddlerish aspect. The patients are frequently visible at #4?s windows, in jammies, splayed and open-mouthed, sometimes shrieking, sometimes just mutely open-mouthed, splayed against the windows. They give everybody at Ennet House the howling fantods.

And yet again:

He really does have to sit right up close to listen to ‘Sixty Minutes +/— …’ when he’s over at the HmH6565 with C.T. and sometimes Hal at his mother’s late suppers, because Avril has some auditory thing about broadcast sound and gets the howling fantods from any voice that does not exit a living corporeal head…

And then some:

Joelle scrubbed at the discolored square of fingerprints around the light-switch until the wet Kleenex disintegrated into greebles.

From the posthumous The Pale King:

He could not understand why he was so afraid of people possibly seeing him sweat or thinking it was weird or gross. Who cared what people thought? He said this over and over to himself; he knew it was true. He also repeated—often in a stall in one of the boys’ restrooms at school between periods after a medium or severe attack, sitting on the toilet with his pants up and trying to use the stall’s toilet paper to dry himself without the toilet paper disintegrating into little greebles and blobs all over his forehead, squeezing thick pads of toilet paper onto the front of his hair to help dry it …

BP

Ray Bradbury on Libraries, Space Exploration, and the Secret of Life: The Lost Comic-Con Interview

“Don’t think about things, just do them; don’t predict them, just make them.”

Of the many things that made Ray Bradbury one of the greatest creative spirits of our time, his remarkable passion for life stood out not only as an inspiring echelon but also as a necessary antidote to our all-too-prevalent cultural trope of the tortured genius, the mythology that in order to be creative and successful, we must on some level be miserable. Reader Juan Kafka points me to a fantastic lesser-known interview with Bradbury, one of his last, conducted by Bradbury’s official biographer, Sam Weller — who collected many of his conversations with Bradbury in Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews — at Comic-Con 2010. It was recorded by Jeff Goldsmith, maker of the free storytelling app Backstory. At 90, Bradbury is as full of zest as ever, brimming with a love of life as he discusses space exploration, libraries, technology, and the importance of doing what you love. The full Q&A runs over an hour, but I’ve excerpted and transcribed the most salient parts below — enjoy.

On prediction, purpose, and making things happen — a complement to Bradbury’s prior passionate case for doing what you love:

SW: How did you predict all of this stuff, Ray, how did you predict all of these technologies?

RB: The secret of life is being in love, and by being in love, you predict yourself. Whatever you want is whatever you get. You don’t predict things, you make them. You gotta be a Zen Buddhist, like me: Don’t think about things, just do them; don’t predict them, just make them.

On public libraries:

SW: Of course, you have been, really, the patron saint of the American public library system … You love public libraries — tell us the story of your love affair with libraries.

RB: When I left high school, I had all my plans to go to college, but I had no money. And I decided then, the best thing for me to do is not worry about getting money to go to college — I will educate myself. I walked down the street, I walked into a library, I would go to the library three days a week for ten years and I would educate myself. It’s all FREE, that’s the great thing about libraries! Most of you can afford to go to college, but if you wanna educate yourself completely, go to the library and educate yourself. When I was 28 years old, I graduated from Library.

On space exploration, for which Bradbury has ardently advocated before:

SW: One of the technologies you have been in favor of is space exploration. Why is space exploration so important to you?

RB: Because we are gonna live forever, if we go out in space, if we go back to the moon — we should’ve never left the moon — we should go back and build a base, we should go back and build a base on the moon and go on to Mars and we should put a civilization on Mars and then, 500 years from now, move out into the universe, and when we do that, we have a chance of living forever. That’s why I believe in space exploration.

Further in the interview, he revisits the subject with equal parts endearing fantasy-world outlandishness and very real policy concerns:

SW: What should we be investing in for the future, to assure our future? What should we focus on for tomorrow?

RB: We’ve gotta reinvest in space travel. We should’ve never left the moon. We’ve gotta get back to the moon and build a firm base there, so that sometime in the next 40 years we can take off and go to the planet Mars. We’ve gotta become the Martians. I’m a Martian — I tell you to become Martians. And we’ve gotta go to Mars and civilize Mars and build a whole civilization on Mars and then move out, 300 years from now, into the universe. And when we do that, we have a chance of living forever. So our future is investing, right now, in space travel, and money should be given to NASA sometime next year to build the rockets to go back to the moon.

He later brings this same blend of fantasy and civic engagement to gridlock and the monorail dream:

We’ve gotta build monorails all over LA and California … The freeways don’t work, but monorails would do the job for us. Get rid of the goddamn freeways and build the monorails.

On loving life and living with joy:

SW: If you could time-travel to a moment in your life, what moment would you go back to?

RB: Every. Single. Moment. Every single moment of my life has been incredible, I’ve loved it, I’ve savored it, it’s been beautiful — because I’ve remained a boy. The man you see here tonight is not a man, he’s a 12-year-old boy, and this boy is still having fun. And I remain a boy forever.

He then takes the question of growing up head-on:

SW: We hear this term, ‘grow up.’ Do you feel like you’ve ‘grown up’? How have you been able to stay connected with your inner child over the years, because a lot of people lose touch with that?

RB: You remain invested in your inner child by exploding every day. You don’t worry about the future, you don’t worry about the past — you just explode. So, if you are dynamic, you don’t have to worry about what age you are. So I’ve remained a boy, because boys run everywhere — they never stop running, they never look back, they never look back, they just keep running, running, and running. That’s me — the running boy.

Weller’s biography of Bradbury is a must-read, to be complemented with his recently released Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury.

Complement with Sartre on why “being-in-the-world-ness” is the key to the imagination and De Beauvoir on ambiguity, vitality, and freedom.

BP

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