"And yet, I wake up every day to a sensation of pervading disgust and annoyance. I probably ought to carry around some kind of thermometer or other instrument, to keep checking that I am not falling prey to premature curmudgeonhood."Christopher HItchens - 13 April 1949 to 15 December 2011
A man who never shied away from controversies and a man with an enormous affinity towards reason. Words would fathom neither his life nor his loss. Here is my humble tribute to the man who lived a life I look up to.
I intend to capture the last few words spoken by Hitchens in an interview for Newsnight. I am astounded by the straight faced answers given by Hitchens even in his crucial last moments. 'Asking the questions' - Jeremy Paxman :-)
JP - Christopher, can we start by talking about the cancer? What is the prognosis?
CH - Well, the particular form of malignancy I have is in my oesophagus, but it is metastasised as they love to say to my lymph nodes. You can actually feel one in my clavicle on my bad days anyway. And I'm afraid to at least a tiny speck in my lungs. And the prognosis for that is that, if you lump it all together and you leave out every other consideration, 5% of us live another five years. So that's not ideal. But I have a strong constitution, for example, which has served me quite well, though if I hadn't had a strong one, I might have led a more healthy life, perhaps..?
JP - But in the meantime in the old cliché, you live day to day?
CH - Oh yeah. Yes, one does. But actually who doesn't? There is however something specifically terrifying which I'm trying to oppose in my writing and my appearances about cancer.
JP - Are you terrified by it?
CH - No, I think its a superstition. One among many. And I think I know where it comes from, actually, if you'd like me to say. I mean, well, when I was a child, we were frightened by polio. It takes an effort to remember it now, but in many countries people still are. Previous generation it would have been smallpox. The heart that never gets the right rhythm. Bronchitis. TB. All these things. But none of them have the same horror as cancer's been allowed to acquire. And I think its probably because of the idea of there being something live inside you. A sort of malignant alien. That can't outlive you but does in a sense have a purpose to its live which is to kill you and then die. Its like an obscene parody of the idea of being pregnant. In fact I always feel sorrier for women who have cancer than men. For men the idea of hosting another life of any kind is sort of hard to think about. But for women it must be a grotesque, nasty version of the idea of being a host to another life. I have a feeling this is why people propitiate it with bogus cures, terrible rumours, scare stories and so on. And I've set my face to trying to demonstrate that its a malady like any other and it will yield to reason and science and that's what I'm trying to spend my time vindicating.
JP - Reason and science, but yet the word most commonly used about cancer is battling cancer isn't it?
CH - Yes. And I, again think that's a version of pathetic fallacy. It's giving a real existence to something in a sense inanimate. Real sense inanimate. It has a sort of life but not a lot. I rather think it's battling me, I have to say. It's much more what it feels like. I have to sit passively every few weeks and have a huge dose of kill or cure venom put straight into my veins. And the follow that up with other poisons too. Doesn't feel like fighting at all. Possibly resisting, I suppose, but no, you feel as if you are drowning in passivity and being assaulted by something that has a horrible persistence that's working on you while you are asleep.
JP - Does it make you angry?
CH - No, I think it makes me sober, objective. This is the best-known of our disease enemies. I am one of its many many victims. I'm probably one of the luckier ones in point of being able to have treatment and care. I'd like to prove to other people that it is not the end of everything to be diagnosed with it. In other words, yes, it can be resisted. I think I prefer resistance to battling. I didn't pick this fight but now I'm in it and I'd like to give it my best shot, and as I say, what this means to me is putting myself on the side of those men of medicine and science and reason whoa re trying to reduce it to something that is understandable, similable to reason and that will be brought under control.
JP - But the likelihood is that it will kill you?
CH - Oh well the certainty is that's what I'll die from. Yeah, some people die with cancer. I might die with it. Unless I have a heart attack which I could easily have, by the way. I'm much more likely to have a blood clot than I was before, or a stroke perhaps. But no, I mean, its the proximate cause of my death, and I'm both lucky and unlucky to know it in advance and be able to take its measure.
JP - And there will be people, and they won't say it to your face perhaps, but "Well, he smoked a lot, drank a lot!!"
CH - Yeah! That's exactly what is demystifying about it. There are also people who'd say its god's curse that I should have it near my throat because that was the organ of blasphemy which I used for so many years. Well, I used many other organs to blaspheme as well if it comes to that. Umm.. No, it is banal in that precise way. If you have led a rather bohemian and rackety life as I have, it's precisely the cancer you'd expect to get. That's a bit of a yawn!
JP - You are not an old man and you're living with the prospect of an abbreviated life. What does that do the way you think about life?
CH - Well, to borrow slightly from Dr. Johnson, it does concentrate the mind, of course, to realise that your time is even more rationed than you thought it was. And though I can be stoic in point of myself about that because everyone has to go sometime, and whatever day came that the newspapers came out and I wasn't there to read them, I've always thought, that'd be a bad day at least for me. I now have a more pressing idea of what that might be like. Anyway, that's being stoic for my own sake. But for my family its not very nice. I could wish perhaps to have led a more healthy and upright life for their sake. And that's a very melancholy reflection, of course. And then there are things I would like to live to see. I've mentioned some of them in the article I wrote on the subject. I would like to see the World Trade Centre reopened. I'd like to see Osama Bin-Laden on trial or dead. There are places I'd like to go, people I'd like to meet, books I'd like to re-read if not read it for the first time. But in a sense, that would all be true. I'd still, I hope, have these ambitions.
JP - Has it given you a mellower view of humanity?
CH - Mellower? Something about that word I don't relish. I don't know quite why.
JP - Well that's because you're a polemicist, a contrary.....
CH - No, if you like... my view is already quite stark, we are born into a losing struggle. I knew that when I was well, or thought myself to be well. We are born into a losing struggle. We are enjoined by the faithful to consider ourselves to be born sick and yet commanded to be well. The whole thing is, at best, ironic. Something meaningless or random, I don't know if I want to go that far. But its a stark existence, and for many people born in less fortunate circumstances than mine its always stark. It was stark the day till they died. This makes it starker.
JP - Does that make you regret saying or doing things?
CH - This doesn't, No. But I have had causes to regret saying things or wish that I'd said them in a different way, but that's part of the ongoing revision of being a writer. I hope. This hasn't prompted me to that, no.. Perhaps it should.
JP - You're famously a person with very strong convictions, and a very persuasive form of argument...Do you...
CH - Thank you
JP - Well, NO! That's what you do. You're celebrated worldwide for it. Do you have any sense of why you were like that?
CH - No, I don't. My parents were both people of principle. It is true. But they didn't expect to inflict this on others. I mean, it was just something they were and something they did. Something they inculcated in me, but they didn't want an audience for it, I did!
JP - Do you regret any of the targets you chose? Like...I mean, who needs to attack Mother Teresa?
CH - Oh its very important to attack Mother Teresa..
JP - WHY?
CH - Well, for the same reason that people admire her. You have to care about the millions of people who are stricken by millennial poverty. I mean poverty of the sort that its almost impossible to escape form. That was her pretended concern. Now as it happens...
JP - Well it wasnt her fault?
CH - Well by no means. You would say that,....
JP - It wasnt her fault that people were in poverty.
CH - Not in the first place, now as it happens. I could go on at length about this but summarised in one statement which I think is pretty hard to refute. The best known cure for poverty we have come up with is something called empowerment of women. If you give women control over their cycle of reproduction, you dont keep them chained to an animal cycle of annual pregnancy and so forth. And you give them, if you can add to that by throwing in a handful of seeds or some credit you'll have done very well. Nowhere where its tried does not work. You'll see in an instant Mother Teresa spent her entire life campaigning against that. She thought that contraception and abortion were morally equivalent and that abortion was murder. Now, thats not what Calcutta needs, and I thin her teachings and preachings were actually counter to the cause she is supposed to represent. It was very important to point that out.
JP - Are there any of the targets of your polemic or essay in the past that you regret choosing?
CH - No. NO, I dont. I regret only not doing more about it.
JP - You fell out with a lot of people over your support for the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Do you regret that at all? Hundred Thousand people killed, maybe more?
CH - Well, to say one had no regrets would be, I mean would be abnormally unreflective, I think. No one can be other than horrified at the current state of Iraq. But I dont take the view, the glib view that is taken by many people that the casualties were all as a result of the intervention. I mean, for one thing its an outrage to the idea of moral responsibility. Last month in Iraq the Al-Qaeda forces broke into a catholic church as it happens, in Baghdad, and massacred about 50 people. People say thats Tony Blair's fault, George Bush's fault. DOnt be silly. How do you absolve the actual murderers of what they have done? Say "They wouldnt be here if we werent there!" Are you so sure? Al-Qaeda was operating in innumerable countries and was certainly present in the form of Mr.Zakawi in Iraq before we got there. I'm not gonna have it out like that, No. I also think there was a terrible misery and implosion coming to Iraq as long as it was left in the control of Saddam Hussein, plus UN sanctions that affected mostly the Iraqi people. I thought that was an impossible state of affairs. And I finally found I couldnt support any policy that involved the continuation of Saddam in power. The private ownership of Iraq, in other words by him and his crime family. I thought that you couldnt give your support to any policy that accepted that. So to that extend I'm not apologetic.
JP - But it did a lot of damage to the UK. I mean waterboarding for example, which Bush only a couple of weeks ago defended as not being torture and a legitimate means....
CH - Well. I am one of the people you are likely to meet who's been waterboarded..
JP - Everyone applauds you for your guts in that.
CH - I read with alarm and disgust the former President's... er what did he say ? "Damn Right!" or some awful .... I mean, trying to live up, it seemed to me, to the worst interpretation of himself as a Texan bigmouth. I dont sacrifice any of my internationalist or humanitarian or democratic principles in saying these principles are incompatible with the existence of regimes like that of saddam hussein, slobodan milosevik, charles taylor in Liberia and others who tony blair deserves credit for helping to get rid of. Whatever else maybe said, that must be part of the account. You didnt ask me this, you only said did I regret targets that I did pick? There are some I regret not picking. I was much too soft on Mugabe. I say it in my memoir. I claim to have had good reasons for it. I was very keen to see the end of white supremacist dictatorship in southern Africa, and I was probably soft-peddling what I knew about some of Zanu-PF, but having a good motive is not good enough a reason for doing something that was a betrayal of principle. Anyway hoping to see the end of these and others is a good reason for KBO as um.. (Keep Buggering On) if the BBC will allow it to be said.
JP - We're sitting here talking in Washington, and you have said that you felt you were born in the wrong country. Why did you feel that?
CH - Its like a question, why did I want to be a writer? Essentially unanswerable. It was more like I felt I had to rather than I wanted to. When I was in my mid teens I began to have a very strong feeling of sort of pull from the American planet, is the best way I can think of phrasing it.
Which I eventually succumbed to and now because life has to be lived forward and reviewed backwards, I do know, in order for me to become an independent self starting writer, I had to move to the US and leave England. Why, you may ask. Maybe the relative openness of it. You didnt have to pass so many approval tests as you did seem to in London.
JP - You are a polemicist. You look at our country now, with its coalition govt., Muddling along, as it has for many years, how do you feel? Could you exist there?
CH - In Britain, I have half my life to look back on, I was 30 when I left and a lot of it were formative. It is where I learnt to love literature, Anglo American is what I am. I think it a quiet nice synthesis. What do I think about the Cameron/Clegg coalition? It doesnt make me think all that much, I have to say. And for historic reasons, I joined the Labour party as soon as I was eligible to do so. I watch more the character and future of the Labour party, I still feel involved in that.
JP - Do you still consider yourself to be a Leftist? As accusations from people would be, as your waistband increased to tend to move to the right
CH - Well, they should see my waistband now, I have lost 30lbs. Well no, its such a well known script that is deserving of the name cliché, and I pin that accusations on my accusers. Thats what they are resorting to.
JP - Conflict is intrinsic to human history, and there will be further conflicts or some say it has already begun, and its the conflict between west and sort of Islamo-fascism. Do you think that is a conflict that can be lost by the west?
CH - Well, first on conflict, you're completely right. Its unavoidable and I think its desirable especially in the US. There is a huge privilege given to the word 'unity' or 'unification'. If you say you are a unifier and not a divider, you expect and you usually get applauded. I am a DIVIDER. Only division can cause progress. People say the politics of division. Politics IS division by definition. If there was no disagreement, there'd be no politics. So the illusion of unity isnt worth having. And anyway its unattainable. The conflict I see happening is between totalitarianism and free-thought i.e., between theocracy and enlightenment, and the form in which it is currently being played out, you could define this as west VS Islam but its not quite so. Within many Islamic countries there are people who have greater respect for pluralism than there are people in Britain who could censor me for criticising Islam. But roughly you describe the outlines correctly. Yes, I refuse to be told what to think of or how, let alone what to what to say or write by anybody. The first rebellion against slavery is by saying "this is man-made and its not divine"
JP - To be clear here, you are talking about the bible and the koran?
CH - yes and the Torah...All these are depraved works of man-made fiction.
JP - And in what way does saying that you find the koran laughable help the spread of reason?
CH - I think the mockery of religion is one of the most essential things. To demystify supposedly holy texts that are dictated by god and show they are man-made, internal inconsistencies and absurdities and one of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority. Its an indispensable thing. People call it blasphemy, but if they call it that, they have to assume there's something to be blasphemed, some divine word, I dont accept the premise.
JP - A lot of people in your position would take Pascal's Wager. They might say "I dont know whether I am right or wrong, but if I accept the possibility of there being a purpose and a god, I cant lose either way. Why havent you done that?
CH - I thought about it and wrote about it in my book long before I became possibly mortally sick. Pascal was a great mathematician, I think its his lowest point, called his Wager or gambit where he says rather like a huckster, "what have you got to lose? You win everything if you bet on god and you have got everythign to lose if you are wrong!" Well what does this involve if this is correct? It involves a very cynical god, and a rather stupid one, who says "I noticed you make a profession of faith and also, because I am god, I know why you did, cos it was in the hope of winning favour with me. Well thats fine, you will therefore get it. " That seems to me a rather contemptible thing and necessarily therefore to entail a rather contemptible human being who says "I dont really believe this, I have no faith, but what can I lose by pretending to god that I do, I might get a break." I mean this is pretty low isnt it? If I am surprised to find when I pass on from the veil of tears, that I am facing a tribunal, which you'd notice by the way, you are not allowed to bring a lawyer, theres no jury to appeal, this is altogether unattractive. Why people want it to be believed their god is this way, I dont know. But if I am there, I would say; "I hope you'd notice that I didnt try and curry favour, that I was honestly unable to believe in the claims by your human spokespersons. And now do I get any understanding?" And if that doesnt work, I dont know what will. But I am not gonna try anything servile. I am resolved on that point.
JP - It would be more comforting isnt it? And comfortable? To make an accommodation of some belief in a possibility of this not being the end?
CH - Well, as long as I dont have to take the words of other humans, on what are the necessary propitiations and gestures and subjections I have to admit myself to in order to qualify. In other words there are many religions all of whom say, only if I support them or endorse them, I will qualify. Well now I dont know that there is no such thing as consciousness without a brain for example. There is no such survival, I very much doubt it.
JP - Do you fear death?
CH - No, I am not afraid of being dead, thats to say. Theres nothing to be afraid of, I wont know I am dead. In my strong conviction, I wont. And if I find that I am alive in any way at all, well, that will be a pleasant surprise, I quite like surprises!! But I strongly take leave to doubt it. I cant live without fear, its the question of whats your attitude towards fear. I am afraid of a sordid death. I am afraid I will die in an ugly or squalid way and cancer can be quite pitiful that way.
JP - Thats the fear of dying and not fear of death.
CH - Quite! I feel a sense of waste about it because I am not ready. I feel a sense of betrayal towards my family and even to some of the friends who would miss me. Undone things, unattained objectives. My main fear is of being incapacitated or imbecilic at the end. Thats something to be terrified of.
JP - Bertrand Russel said "When I die my body will rot. Full stop."
CH - WHo doesnt. Well he goes on to say a bit more than that but thats uncontroversial. Nobody wants to get their old body back. I certainly the body back that I will die with. If only for us to be reunified with those who died, so that we could live and got blown to pieces for doing so.
JP - DO you think its been a life well lived?
CH - I really have to leave that to the others Jeremy, I have to. I have been encouraged in the last few months by some extraordinary generous letters, including, these are the ones that I take most to heart, from people I have never met or dont know. If they say that what I have written or said or done means anything to them, then I am happy to take them at face value, for once. I'll say "I'll take that" and yes, it cheers me up. And I hope it wasnt written with an intention of doing so. In case you are watching this, anybody, and you wonder whether to write to anyone, ALWAYS DO, because you'd be surprised by how much difference it can make. I regret not doing it more often myself.
JP - Than you very much.
CH - My pleasure!
....and involuntarily I wrote a note-to-self !!