Contemplating dead hands
On the atheist and contrarian writer Christopher Hitchens, who died last week.
"What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof."
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011 )
I came upon his last book almost by mistake. It was a thick tome, published about a year ago in the United States, which stood out on the shelf of the bookstore because of its crass yellow color - as yellow as a vest of a Zaka rescuer on a dark night. Its somewhat hybrid title, "Hitch-22," also misled me into thinking it was some sort of cross between a sequel to "Catch-22" and a new biography of Alfred Hitchcock. A few months later, when the paperback edition fell into my hands, it boasted a "new introduction." The author, in his articulate style, announces that between one edition and the next, certain developments have occurred in his life. He is - how to put this elegantly? - going to die. To smell the flowers from below. To join the bleedin' choir invisible. Like everyone, no?
The English-American writer and journalist Christopher Hitchens did indeed die last week, at the age of 62 - certainly without a prayer in his heart - and aware of the cheerfulness and schadenfreude his premature passing would stir among the many who loathed him. He made so many enemies by being a systematic iconoclast and "contrarian," an indefatigable rationalist, a defiant atheist. In virtually innumerable articles for every highly regarded magazine on both sides of the pond, and in his 17 books (of which the most famous is "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything" ), he launched scathing assaults on everything that is stupid and fantastic, foggy and ignorant, religious and irrational.
He was influenced by the integrity of George Orwell, and saw himself as having blundered into our century from the period of the Enlightenment. In both his illness and his approaching death, Hitchens espoused the same ostensibly objective and rational, though passion-filled, approach with which he addressed every subject: from Kissinger's "crimes against humanity" in Cambodia, to the crimes of Hamas and the folly of Israel, to church and religion as such (terming them "a kind of celestial North Korea," a regime of terror which abuses people and dictates how they live ).
As one of the fortunate few who both knew how to write and loved doing it - Hitchens wrote at the same rate with which he breathed - he accompanied his own death with the same obsessive flood of words that constituted his very basis of existence: words as barbed and painful as the truth itself, which continued to spill out of his keyboard to the very last.
In the jolting and sometimes terrifying columns he wrote for Vanity Fair from the hospital in Houston, Texas (soon to be compiled in a book ), Hitchens described pitilessly his dying, such as in the column titled Trial of the Will (accompanied by a photograph of the gaunt author captioned, "Houston, we've got a problem" ): "I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my 'will to live' would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it's true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking."
But above all he went on debating philosophically and arguing with those who saw his illness and premature death as a punishment. A punishment for what? For what not? For religious heresy, insane drinking, heavy smoking, his support for the wars in Iraq and the Falklands - and in general for what his friends on the left saw as a defection to the right, and what his friends on the right saw as a denial of all that is sacred. As punishment for his denunciation of fascist Islam, which issued a fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie, of the Clintons (in his book "No One Left to Lie To" ), or of George Bush ("unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent" ). Or maybe punishment for his famous condemnation of - hold on tight - Mother Teresa, for which alone his name will shine forever (he described her as "a lying, thieving Albanian dwarf," who took donations from corrupt dictators, and preferred proselytizing and disseminating religion over the good of her patients ). Not to mention his outbursts against anti-Semitism on the one hand and Zionism on the other.
Like Don Giovanni, who remained rebellious even on his way to the lower depths, Hitchens furiously denied the rumors that he had retracted his non-belief on his deathbed, under the influence of his physician, a believing Evangelical. In one of his last interviews, when he was but a shadow of himself, Hitchens said - to the laughter of those present - that he had made his piously Christian doctor swear that when the worst comes, "Don't pray for me."
Oddly, in a way that is contrary to his declared war on everything mystical, religious or magical, the first introduction to his memoirs - written before his illness was discovered - deals with a trivial but portentous incident, which nevertheless apparently threw him for a loop. He appears with others in a photograph in a magazine sent to supporters of London's National Portrait Gallery, and the caption reads, "the late Christopher Hitchens."
"So there it is in cold print, the plain unadorned phrase that will one day become unarguably true," he writes. "It is not given to everyone to read of his own death ... [to get] a reminder-note from the future."
But what threw me for a loop in the book is what Hitchens wrote about Israel. It is "not given to everyone" to read the eulogy of his country, nation, state and very being, to get "a reminder-note from the future" - particularly in the kind of assertive, blunt style served up by Hitchens.
Hitch, as he was known to his friends, discovered his own Jewishness late in life. Or, more accurately, the Jewishness of his mother, who moved between an attempt to assimilate in England and a forgotten dream of going to Palestine. Perhaps a little like the dentist in "Seinfeld" who converted to Judaism "just so that he could tell the jokes" - this biographical detail only freed Hitchens as he railed against Israel and also about Zionism itself.
Israel's friends and also good left-wingers invited him to visit the country - Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah - to form a proper impression of the sins of the "occupation," but, perhaps to their chagrin, got more than they bargained for. After a Hebron settler explained his presence in the West Bank by referring to a divine command, "I began to feel seriously uncomfortable," Hitchens writes in "Hitch-22," because "some such divine claim underlay not just 'the occupation' but the whole idea of a separate state for Jews in Palestine."
Hitchens rebuffs the Jews' right to a haven and a national foothold after the persecution and the Holocaust by means of a fable he tells about someone who jumps out of a burning building and lands on the head of a passerby. The burning building is Europe, the man jumping is the Jew and the passerby a Palestinian. It would be one thing if it happened once, but for it to happen over and over and over, in the course of four generations? And when Israel continues to urge the world's Jews to come, settle and expand its border?
"I regard anti-Semitism as ineradicable and as one element of the toxin with which religion has infected us. Perhaps partly for this reason, I have never been able to see Zionism as a cure for it ... Why does Israel daily beseech the often-flourishing Jews of other lands, urging them to help the most endangered Jews of all: the ones who rule Palestine by force of arms? Why else, having supposedly escaped from the need to rely on Gentile good will, has Israel come to depend more and more upon it?" Hitchens' conclusion? "The important but delayed realization will have to come: Israeli Jews are a part of the diaspora, not a group that has escaped from it ... The Jews will not be 'saved' or redeemed. (Cheer up: neither will anyone else ). They/we will always be in exile, whether they are in the greater Jerusalem area or not." Ahead of Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations, Hitchens wrote in the Internet magazine Slate, "The most depressing and wretched spectacle of the past decade, for all those who care about democracy and secularism, has been the degeneration of Palestinian Arab nationalism into the theocratic and thanatocratic hell of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, where the website of Gaza's ruling faction blazons an endorsement of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.' This obscenity is not to be explained away by glib terms like despair or occupation. Instead, this crux forces non-Zionists like me to ask whether, in spite of everything, Israel should be defended as if it were a part of the democratic West. This is a question to which Israelis themselves have not yet returned a completely convincing answer, and if they truly desire a 60th, let alone a 70th, birthday celebration, they had better lose no time in coming up with one."
To which one of our theocractic coalition members would probably reply, "Now look who's talking about reaching 70!"