“Nonsense!”

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Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, gamingvulture.tumblr.com. And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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17 Responses

  1. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Great post, Ethan.

    I am midway through a Hitchens post of my own… hoping it would be cool by you if I still finish & post?Report

  2. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    I’ve read Christopher Hitchens since he began to write for the London Times.   I’ve written a fair bit about him over the years.   Though it’s a bit long for a comment, I leave a piece I wrote about him when he was first diagnosed with cancer:

    Eris Quod Sum

    In the world of belles-lettres, Christopher Hitchens distinguished himself early. Where many other Christians have condemned him, I have long admired him. Hitchens’ own spiritual journey is a recondite and eloquent struggle against religious authorities which so consumed Jesus Christ himself. Jesus lived in a world where religious authorities could do away with their critics by proxy. Hitchens stood up to Imam Khomeini’s fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie in print.

    Hitchens’ early literary heroes were Orwell and Dostoyevsky, idealist outsiders. Always casting himself as an outsider, Hitchens’ career as a contrarian was off to a fine start. A pattern was forming, as it had in the lives of Orwell and Dostoyevsky, of idealization, embrace, extension, abandonment (or expulsion) and eloquent contempt.

    Had he been imprisoned, Hitchens would have endured Dostoyevsky’s conversion. We see in his latest screeds the fear of just such a conversion: now he puts out disclaimers while he is still upright, like hasty codicils to a will, that any such conversion would be contemptible and should be discarded. His latest, on Vanity Fair, has a touching caveat to his general contempt for religious persons:

    I have saved the best of the faithful until the last. Dr. Francis Collins is one of the greatest living Americans. He is the man who brought the Human Genome Project to completion, ahead of time and under budget, and who now directs the National Institutes of Health. In his work on the genetic origins of disorder, he helped decode the “misprints” that cause such calamities as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease. He is working now on the amazing healing properties that are latent in stem cells and in “targeted” gene-based treatments. This great humanitarian is also a devotee of the work of C. S. Lewis and in his book The Language of God has set out the case for making science compatible with faith. (This small volume contains an admirably terse chapter informing fundamentalists that the argument about evolution is over, mainly because there is no argument.) I know Francis, too, from various public and private debates over religion. He has been kind enough to visit me in his own time and to discuss all sorts of novel treatments, only recently even imaginable, that might apply to my case. And let me put it this way: he hasn’t suggested prayer, and I in turn haven’t teased him about The Screwtape Letters. So those who want me to die in agony are really praying that the efforts of our most selfless Christian physician be thwarted. Who is Dr. Collins to interfere with the divine design? By a similar twist, those who want me to burn in hell are also mocking those kind religious folk who do not find me unsalvageably evil. I leave these paradoxes to those, friends and enemies, who still venerate the supernatural.

    I hope, in my own way, Hitchens does not convert, babbling incoherently in his terminal suffering. I have seen such conversions: I saw it in my aunt, dying of cancer, and it was an ugly, terrifying thing.

    Hitchens was expelled from the Labour Party for its stand on the Vietnam War. Hitchens stood firm against the Pinkos who attempted to justify Stalin’s crimes. He backed the War in Iraq against Saddam Hussein. Attack, attack, attack: many of his targets deserved his wrath and he made a career of umbrage, often taking offense where none was offered. Having exhausted his stack of clay pigeons, he now fires his hyperbolic shotgun into the blue sky, determined to blast God off his pedestal as if The Almighty could be pulled down like the statue of Saddam.

    Religion needs Christopher Hitchens more than Hitchens needs religion. I’m not sure anyone “needs” religion, really. It’s one of those nice-to-haves, a useful construct around which mortal man can bind himself to the faith of his fathers and commune with his own fellow-believers. But really, religion is an easy target, for it is at best an illusion. Religion has survived every attempt to dislodge it from the hearts of men: every time it is attacked, religion grins and utters Horace’s grim maxim, found on the tombstones of New England churchyards: Eram quod es – eris quod sum. As I am – so you shall be. We must have faith in something, beginning with our fellow man.

    In St. Louis, some years ago, a woman handed a gospel tract to my friend Peter, the man who taught me to write structured code. She asked him, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would go?” He grinned and replied: “I would cease to exist.” I gently told this woman “You cannot scare people into Heaven. Instead, ask people to follow the example of Jesus Christ, who was a friend of sinners and the answer to the hopes of his own established religion.”

    At his own request, I will not pray for Hitchens. Intercessory prayer is best described by Bertrand Russell as beseeching The Almighty to alter the rules of the universe for one’s own benefit. The Lord’s Prayer teaches Christians to pray that the will of God be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. The universe will unroll the scroll of time in due course. Dr. Hawking tells us the universe didn’t need God to create itself: the law of gravity was enough to manage the trick. There are laws enough: what mankind needs more than justice is mercy and loving kindness. These seem to be the best aspects of all living things and they are not limited to our species.

    Look long enough at your enemy: contemplate his humanity and you cannot long remain unmoved. I am moved by Hitchens’ unflinching honesty in the face of his own mortality.

    Dostoyevsky would write from prison of The Peasant Marey, of himself as a child, terrified by an unseen wolf:

    “What do you mean, lad? There’s no wolf; you’re just hearing”, reassuring me. But I was all a-tremble and clung to his coat sleeve, more tightly; I suppose I was very pale as well. He looked at me with an uneasy smile, evidently concerned and alarmed for me.

    “Why you took a real fright, you did!” he said, wagging his head. “Never mind, now, my dear. What a fine lad you are!” He stretched out his hand and suddenly stroked my cheek.

    “Never mind, now, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Christ be with you. Cross yourself, lad.” But I couldn’t cross myself; the corners of my mouth were trembling, and I think this particularly struck him. He quietly stretched out a thick, earth-soiled finger with a black nail and gently touched it to my trembling lips.

    “Now, now,” he smiled at me with a broad, almost maternal smile. “Lord, what a dreadful fuss. Dear, dear, dear!” At last I realized that there was no wolf and that I must have imagined hearing the cry of “Wolf.” Still, it had been such a clear and distinct shout; two or three times before, however, I had imagined such cries (not only about wolves), and I was aware of that. (Later, when childhood passed, these hallucinations did as well.)

    “Well, I’ll be off now,” I said, making it seem like a question and looking at him shyly.

    “Off with you, then, and I’ll keep an eye on you as you go. Can’t let the wolf get you!” he added, still giving me a maternal smile. “Well, Christ be with you, off you go.” He made the sign of the cross over me, and crossed himself I set off, looking over my shoulder almost every ten steps.

    ….

    This memory came to me all at once – I don’t know why – but with amazing clarity of detail. Suddenly I roused myself and sat on the bunk; I recall that a quiet smile of reminiscence still played on my face. I kept on recollecting for yet another minute. I remembered that when I had come home from Marey I told no one about my “adventure.” And what kind of adventure was it anyway? I forgot about Marey very quickly as well. On the rare occasions when I met him later, I never struck up a conversation with him, either about the wolf or anything else, and now, suddenly, twenty years later, in Siberia, I remembered that encounter so vividly, right down to the last detail. That means it had settled unnoticed in my heart, all by itself with no will of mine, and had suddenly come back to me at a time when it was needed; I recalled the tender, maternal smile of a poor serf, the way he crossed me and shook his head: “Well you did take a fright now, didn’t you, lad!”

    And I especially remember his thick finger, soiled with dirt, that he touched quietly and with shy tenderness to my trembling lips. Of course, anyone would try to reassure a child, but here in this solitary encounter something quite different had happened, and had I been his very own son he could not have looked at me with a glance that radiated more pure love, and who had prompted him to do that? He was our own serf, and I was his master’s little boy; no one would learn of his kindness to me and reward him for it. Was he, maybe, especially fond of small children? There are such people. Our encounter was solitary, in an open field, and only God, perhaps, looking down saw what deep and enlightened human feeling and what delicate, almost feminine tenderness could fill the heart of a coarse, bestially ignorant Russian serf who at the time did not expect or even dream of his freedom. Now tell me, is this not what Konstantin Aksakov had in mind when he spoke of the advanced level of development of our Russian People?

    Though everyone thinks himself to be a rational actor, ultimately this is not true. We’re trapped inside our own confirmation biases. Though we delude ourselves about our own importance, the world shaped us more than we shaped the world. We think ourselves so original, our every thought so fine and new. We shamelessly ape our supposed betters, conforming to the opinions of others, even when we claim we don’t. Even in our opposition, we apply the XOR operator of exclusive disjunction to what we claim we don’t believe in some pathetic attempt to explain what we do believe. Even Hitchens now dons a kippah, sitting at the Seder table, mildly wrapping himself in the traditions of his Jewish grandmother, though she adopted an Anglicized surname, Lynn. There is nothing new under the sun. In Hitchens’ eloquent denunciations of religion, he must rest his arguments upon what he doesn’t believe.

    Happily, this is not the entire corpus of Hitchens: if he does not love God, he loves his neighbor as himself and stands firm for the rights of man. Belief in the self is the saddest and most sordid of all delusions: Hitchens believes in his fellow man, and woman. To believe in humanity and rationality is itself a statement of faith, though all the evidence contradicts this conclusion.

    Deprived of religion, what should the atheists be? What should the faithful be, deprived of churches? Decent, caring human beings, seeing ourselves as we are seen, more driven to enlightened behavior, to mercy and not justice, by the suffering we now see in others than any pains of Hell or promise of Heaven.Report

    • Avatar Kim says:

      Trust in one’s fellow man? What a fool’s canard.

      Trust in greed, in lust, in panic, in fear, in all things base–and predictable.

      It is only when men look higher, dream farther, that they float like the thistledown. But it’s nothing to trust in. Backed against a wall, every man turns rat — teeth bared, and fighting anyone who dares come close.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Heh.   Rats will prefer to save each other from a trap to a chocolate treat.

        It’s a sad fact we’ve chained trust to that dismal preposition “in”, as if that sovereign emotion required a target.  As with all metaphors, every such target will prove unworthy, or so we say.

        Auden, like Hitchens, who also arrived from Albion’s shores and took American citizenship, once said

        All I have is a voice
        To undo the folded lie,
        The romantic lie in the brain
        Of the sensual man-in-the-street
        And the lie of Authority
        Whose buildings grope the sky:
        There is no such thing as the State
        And no one exists alone;
        Hunger allows no choice
        To the citizen or the police;
        We must love one another or die.Report

        • Avatar Kim says:

          The Chinese always understood rats more than Europeans ever did.

          I’ll bet that those rats weren’t starving… I saw a rat fighting a homeless guy for a sandwich once — and that’s not the worst that rats’ll do. They’ll eat your toes and fingers, if you’re bound.

          But rats are clean beasts, meticulous, and kind… when they can afford to be.Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            The longer I live, the less-“human” I have become.   What a self-deluding and mendacious species we have become, lording it over the beasts as if we were so much superior to them.

            When I hug my girlfriend, her Husky rushes over to get in the midst of us, woofing and adding her good cheer to the proceedings.   Her little cat is dying of breast cancer and when I clean the tumour the cat purrs and licks my fingers.   We do ourselves no favors perpetuating this nonsense about our own role in the world, a vicious little hominid species that seems intent upon fishing up the world so badly he’ll have to wear a space suit to go to work in the morning.   That’s what the International Space Station really is, you know, not a way station on our journey to the stars, but a dress rehearsal for a world of hard radiation and airlocks and recycling our own urine.

            I sit here, listening to Christmas carols, my girlfriend looking over my shoulder.   It’s a cold day but the coffee is warm and I consider my own mortality and all I have lost.   Did a bit of uncertain weeping this morning over all I’ve lost and was comforted by aforementioned girlfriend and her creatures.   I will miss Christopher Hitchens’ stern eloquence rather more than I care to admit.Report

          • Avatar urielsword says:

            Rats are the first to know when to abandon ship when it is about to sink.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I hope, in my own way, Hitchens does not convert, babbling incoherently in his terminal suffering. I have seen such conversions: I saw it in my aunt, dying of cancer, and it was an ugly, terrifying thing.

      As an edifying counterpart, though apocryphal:  It is said that a priest approached Voltaire on his deathbed and asked him whether he would reject Satan.

      “My good man,” Voltaire is said to have answered, “now is hardly the time to make enemies.”

      As far as can be established, a priest did approach Voltaire and was sent away several times.  I’m not betting on the quote being authentic; I just wish it were.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Equally apocryphally, Voltaire’s last words went like this:

        “I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition.”

        Such would be my last words. I’m hardly a good example of what a Christian ought to be. I question God, don’t love my friends enough, detest my enemies and secretly adore superstitions.Report

  3. Avatar Jaybird says:

    He always struck me as the ideal man of the Enlightenment Left. I didn’t agree with him on quite a bit but I always felt like if I were the minority and he were the majority, I’d be safe as houses and society wouldn’t be that worse off from what I’d want.

    Would that we had thousands of him.

     Report

  4. Avatar urielsword says:

    Hitchens had a voice and presentation of speech that hypnotized one. He didn’t seem happy.Report

  5. Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

    Lordy.  If I held a cigarette like that, I’d be thought effeminate.Report