Sunday, December 18, 2011

Impotent defiance

If Christopher Hitchens died suddenly from a heart attack, no one would give it a second thought. We all know that we’re going to die someday, but with a terminal cancer patient, both the patient and his acquaintances can see it coming more clearly. Marking the days off the calendar. The dying process is accelerated. 

The moment of death is still unpredictable, but we’re living in the presence of death in a way that’s not the case for someone who gradually dies of old age. It has a sense of imminence. Not hypothetical, but palpable.

Normally we don’t know how close someone is to death until it happens. Like a painted wooden fence that may look new and sturdy on the outside, but is riddled with dry rot. Lean into the rotten fence and it snaps beyond repair.

We’re probably the only creatures who can anticipate our own demise. And being a writer, Hitchens chronicled the inevitable in graphic, arresting, excruciating detail. He was almost an observer at his own funeral. It’s a strange sensation to witness your own disintegration. Like a moviegoer who watches a film in which he sees himself murdered.

Both praying and dying have this in common: they testify to how helpless we are to control what most matters to us. To be wholly at the mercy of someone or something else.

I will never forget seeing my father dead. You know it’s bound to happen, but it’s still shocking to see. Like most sons I still remember him when he was young and strong and I was weak and small. Painful to see the man who’d been my protector and provider when I was little become vulnerable, unsure of himself.

You can see fear in the face of the elderly. The loss of control–of mind, body, or both.

Apparently, Hitchens died a defiant atheist. Yet nothing is more pathetic or transparent than impotent defiance. 


  1. The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer, (Da Capo Press, 2007).

    * Thanks to Paul Baird for pointing out this quote.

  2. As it is, the Hitch quote may be eloquent. Perhaps it's affecting for some to read. But intellectually speaking it rings hollow. Like a dumb blonde, there's no substance beneath the pretty words.

  3. "Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely."

    – Christopher Hitchens

    Is that what life on earth is like if atheism is true? Isn't this a more accurate description from an atheistic viewpoint:

    "What a book a Devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of nature!"

    – Charles Darwin

    "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

    – Richard Dawkins

    "For the first half of geological time our ancestors were bacteria. Most creatures still are bacteria, and each one of our trillions of cells is a colony of bacteria."

    – Richard Dawkins

    "The Type 1 atheist—undoubtedly in the majority these days—takes his inspiration from science and considers himself to be 'wised up.' He 'sees through' the traditional idealistic teachings of religion, and believes that modern science has proven that human beings are 'nothing but' animals with hard-wired synapses put in place by selfish genes, all of which is at bottom just molecules—or atoms, or quarks, or strings, or what have you—in motion. No soul. No free will. No objective standards of right and wrong. Just a bunch of pitiless particles vibrating pointlessly in the primal quantum field. That’s it. That’s what human being really are, according to the Type 1 atheist."

    – James Barham

  4. The Atheist Missionary quotes the following from Christopher Hitchens:

    "There is nothing more; but I want nothing more."

    So, would Hitchens have told his wife that he didn't desire to live longer with her instead of not seeing her again after age sixty-two? He wouldn't have wanted to see his friends again? Wouldn't want a better body, without the suffering we experience in this life?

    His comment is absurd, assuming there isn't anything in the context that would redeem it. And given Hitchens' track record, I'm not expecting that sort of context.

  5. Jason, I think you are taking Hitch out of context. The I want nothing more is in reference to a life well lived. I'm sure he'd want more than 62 years. Four score and ten would be nice for anyone but that would be quite enough for me, thanks.