My old friend Julius Hobson, an unconventional Washington civil rights leader in the 1960s (he once drove a cage of rats to Georgetown and threatened to release them at the corner of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street so the power brokers would know how the other half lives), used to say, “I sleep mad.” When I mentioned this many years ago to Christopher Hitchens, who died of cancer Thursday, Christopher remarked, “What a great epitaph that would be!”
We have lost an irreplaceable person in this age of American unreason. By “we,” I do not mean only atheists (although Hitchens is irreplaceable in that respect too) but everyone who values rationality and the English language. Hitchens, whose obituaries are devoting equal space to his atheism and his support for the Iraq war (he once called me stupid to my face for disagreeing with him about the latter), was a great, scathing Anglo-American writer in the tradition of Thomas Paine, George Orwell and Jessica Mitford. We may not see his like again, because the respect for language exemplified by his writings is fading away.
What Christopher (I just cannot call him Hitchens, because it is hard for me to accept the fact that his distinctive voice now belongs to history), contributed to the American dialogue about atheism was a combination of wit and disrespect that American-born atheists just cannot seem to manage. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Christopher was born and educated in England and was an heir to the best British traditions of no-holds-barred wit and satire.
No American atheist was ever going to give a book a title like The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice . No, we would begin such a book, if we ever thought about writing it in the first place, by making sure to acknowledge all the good that missionaries, somewhere, somehow, must have done. Christopher, by contrast, went straight for the jugular, noting: “As Edward Gibbon observed about the modes of worship prevalent in the Roman world, they were `considered by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful.’ Mother Teresa descends from each element in this ghastly triptych.” What a wonderful image “ghastly triptych” is!
Nothing displayed Christopher’s mettle as a writer and a person as well as the columns he wrote during the past year while undergoing all of the grueling, debilitating forms of treatment familiar to cancer patients fighting for their lives. These columns, published mainly in Vanity Fair magazine, are destined to become classics on the subject of living with a mortal illness. They stand as an antidote to all of the junk thought tomes published in the past 30 years about how much people have “learned” from cancer.
Christopher’s most recent column (I don’t know if he wrote another before he died), took on Neitzsche’s well-known dictum that “whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.” Christopher was having none of that.
“I am typing this having just had an injection to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers,” he wrote. “The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I will lose the ability to write…I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate …the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”
In June, Christopher wrote about the loss of his speaking voice as a result of the various high-tech treatments he was undergoing. “So now every day I go to the waiting room, and watch the awful news from Japan on cable TV…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 I admire, as an atheist, about these columns is their unsparingly unsentimental examination of the process of fighting a disease that you know is going to consume you. Every well-known person who has ever challenged religious orthodoxy -- Voltaire, Paine, Robert Ingersoll -- has engendered an afterlife of lies in which believers assert that the “infidel” repented and accepted God on his deathbed. Christopher Hitchens made sure that would not happen to him, and in doing so he has left a model record of pain and reason, as opposed to the nonsense about eternal life that we get from religious people, who, mirabile dictu, fight just as hard as anyone else not to leave this vale of tears.
However, the most splendid essay Christopher Hitchens wrote this year was a peroration against recent translations of the King James Bible, designed to update religion for the modern world and get rid of all those pesky thees and thous, which modern worshippers supposedly cannot comprehend.
Alluding to the common cultural references that the King James version has provided for every great writer in the English language, Christopher asserted:
“A culture that does not posses this common store of images and allegories will be a perilously thin one. To seek relentlessly to update it or to make it `relevant’ is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. `Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,’ says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve that for Twitter?”
The essay describes the abandonment of the King James version by many modern churches, including the Church of England, as “yet another demonstration that religion is man-made, with inky human fingerprints all over its supposedly inspired and unalterable texts.”
Of course, some well-known religious believers, apparently unaware that one of the reasons atheists become atheists is that they have read the Bible carefully, mistook Christopher’s beautiful elegy for our common culture as a sign that he was abandoning his atheism. That one may love these glorious words and images without believing, say, that God created the world in six days or that a man rose from the dead is lost on the faithful literalists.
I sent Christopher an email in March telling him how much I liked this piece and that my 90-year-old mother, who was also mortally ill, had enjoyed it too. “Your note made my day,” he replied. That was the penultimate time I heard from this distant but dear professional friend.
There was no one like him. If he were only asleep, he would still be mad.