Howard Jacobson strikes and awkward pose in a recent piece in the Independent. He heads it with “The near-religious zeal that drives the godless.” There’s a lot wrong with it, including the title, but I want to use it as a framework to hang a few comments on the many obituaries of Christopher Hitchens which have flowed from so many word-processors around the world. They are a mixed bag, to be sure, from rather trite, artificial, half-believed praise, to adulation, and on to the most scurrilous kinds of yellow journalism seeking to inter the memory of Hitchens with his bones.
Michael Lind’s comes in the last class. It would be hard to find an “obituary” so full of hatred and vituperation. He scorns the old Latin saw, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, and lets Hitchens have it with both barrels, claiming that Hitchens’ being a public intellectual (which he denies) absolves him of wrongdoing; though it is hard not to think that it would have been more honest for him to have addressed such huge reservations about Hitchens standing as an intellectual before he died. The strange thing is that, in justifying his assessment of Hitchens as a “gossip columnist of genius” he has the temerity to use gossip:
A decade ago, a British diplomat told me that he was astonished at the reputation Hitchens had attained in the U.S.: “In Britain we think of him as a gossip columnist.”
This off-hand remark is allowed to stand without challenge, though there is no careful justification of the charge, and certainly no scholarly attempt to confirm it. He goes on to make unsubstantiated comparisons:
He had more in common with Walter Winchell than with Walter Lippmann. A gossip columnist of genius, Hitchens escaped from the ghetto of little-known leftist writers when he discovered that he could become a celebrity by denouncing bigger celebrities.
And then he points out that “Hitchens was famous for criticizing famous people and for being a friend of other famous people, including Salman Rushdie and the British novelist Martin Amis,” but it never occurs to him to ask why such famous people considered him a friend and colleague. Is this just a bit of penis or antler envy, on the part of someone who never got to be lionised as Hitchens was? After all, say what you like, Hitchens, though certainly a publicity seeker and a dropper of names, seemed to have a well-justified claim to many of the names he dropped, as tributes from the bearers of those names make clear. The odd thing is that Hitchens himself would have probably loved Lind’s rather callous take-down of a widely admired writer and essayist, having done it himself, so often, to others whose reputation seemed to require severe reassessment. But Lind never does address himself to some of the most sensitive and nuanced writing of his generation, thinking that a gossipy put-down was all that he deserved, even if Hitchens never did produce “a substantial piece of scholarship.”
Yet Ian McEwan spends his obituary remembering how, during his last days, Hitchens spent it in thinking carefully about the meaning of a phrase in one of Larkin’s poems, or writing his review of Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton, or thinking of a hundred different things at once:
Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd, he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions towards Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s A German Requiem: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”
Does this sound like a gossip columnist? And is this all that Michael Lind could think to say about a man who wrote such sensitive essays as the one in Arguably on Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, or who penned this line on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which put so clearly what I had so often thought, but did not have the words to express it:
[In] … Brideshead, the narrative is made ridiculous by a sentimental and credulous approach to miracles and the supernatural. This is what Orwell meant by the incompatibility of faith with maturity.
To mimic Lind: Quite so (as the British might say), and in taking on God, contrary to Lind, Hitchens is not taking on the biggest celebrity of all; he’s addressing precisely this issue of maturity, and justly pointing out that, as Kant says, much of humanity is still in its infancy, still holding onto its Gängelwagen, and stoutly refusing to stand on its own. But to suggest, as Lind writes, that Hitchens’ attack on people like Princess Di or Mother Teresa was simply a strategy of self-promotion, is simply to ignore that the public adulation of these figures, and the sanctification of the latter even before she died, was out of all proportion to their significance. In the case of Mother Teresa, there is simply too much evidence that her celebrity far outran the significance of her work, and that it was an egregious failure to deal critically with her outrageous performance in Oslo when she received the Peace Prize, or with her bizarre idea that pain can be understood as Jesus “kissing” those who are suffering, for whom she provided only aspirin, whilst attending expensive clinics herself, and how that ridiculous idea played out in what is thought to be her charity amongst the sick and dying. That she became a celebrity at all bears some critical thought.
This does not mean that Hitchens was a saint, or had no faults. There seem to have been plenty of the latter. Was his quarrel with Edward Said merely, as Lind suggests, being famous for being friends with famous people, but in Said’s case, having it both ways, boasting about friendship and then sliming him publicly? I don’t know, but expressing it in the way that Lind does is not sufficient. Hitchens has told the story in his own words in Hitch-22, and a responsible account of his relationships with Said or with Vidal would at least take into consideration what Hitchens says in justification, whether you agree with him nor not. It simply won’t do, as Lind does, to slime Hitchens for something that, in his own way, he sought to explain, if not to justify.
Of course, Hitchens was not without his faults. I still find his anti-feminism, expressed in his apparently “pro-life” stand, which is based, ridiculously, on the fact that embryos and foetuses are composed of human tissue, repugnant, and without merit. His final reflections on dying and on the span that properly belongs to a human life also, I think, has too little intellectual substance, though one does not want, in saying this, to question either his courage in the face of pain and death, or that, on other matters, he had much to say that was cogent and important. There is something 18th century about his dying, which was done in public, and with a very deliberate show of fortitude in the face of suffering. And so I find something just a bit off-putting about Dawkins’ assessment of his dying:
And in the very way he looked his illness in the eye, he embodied one part of the case against religion. Leave it to the religious to mewl and whimper at the feet of an imaginary deity in their fear of death; leave it to them to spend their lives in denial of its reality. Hitch looked it squarely in the eye: not denying it, not giving in to it, but facing up to it squarely and honestly and with a courage that inspires us all.
Perhaps there is something there to inspire us all, but the claim seems to subvert Dawkins’ own wish (expressed in The God Delusion) that his life could be taken out under anaesthetic. Is there really something admirable in holding onto life with such determination, when the resulting suffering is something that only the rich can afford? What, after all, does it really mean to look death squarely in the eye, and is the one who lives out “all that properly belongs to a span of life,” with all that medicine can do to prolong it one more day or hour, to be more admired than someone who determines to refuse the suffering and staring death fully in the face, decides to bring it upon herself before suffering and indignity has become so severe that being afraid of the next indignity or pain begins to cloud the mind with ghosts and goblins?
Howard Jacobson, with whom I began, says of Dawkins:
Dawkins’ virtual appropriation of Hitchens’ illness – finding in it proof that an atheist dies better than a Christian – strikes me as tasteless.
I don’t see why it should be thought to be tasteless to celebrate a friend’s courage at the end, nor do I see how speaking of it as an appropriation is in the slightest justified. Dawkins may be right in his praise, but I don’t think he should use Hitchens’ dying as a model of how an atheist should die. I remember Elizabeth, calmly and deliberately drinking the nembutal which would peacefully end her life as she sought to end it. That, it seems to me, shows courage, and is not to be slighted by the celebration of another’s perseverance through suffering to death. Indeed, perhaps this is something that needs to be discussed more sharply, now that the subject has been raised.
But to suppose, as Jacobson says, that in the aftermath of Hitchens’ death,
… something in the nature of a religious cult grew up. A godless god of reason dying not for our sins but [for?] the erroneousness of our beliefs. The irony would not have been lost on him.
This is just silly. Hitchens was admired by many for his forthright stand against religion, and for the many clever things he said in opposition. To suppose that praising him for his wit and courage has created something in the nature of a religious cult is simply silly, for his humanity was plain for all to see, and he made no effort to hide the warts and wrinkles. Hitchens came to be rightly admired for his opposition to religion, something that had been native to him, since his early years. That he had much that was germane to say to the question of the criticism of religion should surprise no one. That he said the last word about it is obviously not the case, and there is no irony here at all. Jacobson is finding analogs of religion where there are none. But he does remind us that there are some unbelievers who do not like to criticise religion, and still want to give it a free pass from criticism or mockery, and nothing deserves that, not even Hitchens, who was a master mocker, and may now be mocked by others in turn, many of whom waited until they were safe from Hitchens’ barbs to do it.