Friday, November 05, 2010

How to die a good death in our godless age by Philip Collins

crabsallover highlights
The terminally ill Christopher Hitchens refuses to embrace the easy consolation of religion. He is an example to us all. 

In his beautiful book The Needs of Strangers, Michael Ignatieff tells the story of the death of the sceptical philosopher David Hume. Ignatieff describes James Boswell sitting aghast at Hume’s bedside as the great rationalist refuses, even at his very last, to take the consolation on offer from divinity. Hume dies a death with no illusions and no regrets. Ignatieff points out that this is a death of which few of us are now capable. In secular societies we have lost Boswell’s religious certainty without acquiring Hume’s equanimity. We still have the terror but no longer the consolation.

On November 26, in Ignatieff’s home city of Toronto, Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens will debate whether religion is a force for peace or for conflict. The event is lent extra gravity, of course, because Hitchens, 61, had cancer of the oesophagus diagnosed on June 30. His chance of recovery is, alas, slight.

But we are witnessing, as Hitchens argues and writes his way towards the darkness, a modern equivalent of the death of Hume. Hitchens is dying according to his atheism: stoically, far from the fold of religious consolation. 

In an interview with CNN, Hitchens was clear in his response to those of the faithful who, praying on his behalf, hope for a death-bed conversion: “I can tell you: not while I’m lucid, no.” 

Then, in a remarkable essay in Vanity Fair on his intimation of mortality, Hitchens, as he does so often, made the killer point: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’, the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, Why not?’”

 If Michael Ignatieff, now the leader of the Canadian Liberal Party, were to attend the debate in Toronto, he could remind the audience that Humean stoicism in the face of the enemy is incredibly rare. At a recent funeral of a relative I said, because he had been a geologist, that we all go to the rocks and the soil in the end. Yet I knew at the time that was hardly the consolation that people were seeking. For those who still have religious certainty there is a whole armoury of gone-to-a-better-place comforts.

But in a country where humanist funerals doubled in the late 1990s and then rose a further 150 per cent in the first decade of the new century, this is not available. We retain the funeral rites but we have become distanced from their content.

Who among the congregation knew that the flowers were once thought to gain favour with the spirit of the departed? At the wake, over the drinks and the sausage rolls with relatives we only see when we gather to count the family down, who knew we were there to keep watch, in the hope that life would return? Draped in black as we were, was anyone aware that this pagan garb was designed to hide our identities from avenging spirits?

There was a consoling beauty in the hymns, although even Cwm Rhondda doesn’t help that much if you believe, as Christopher Hitchens does and as I do, that it’s the rocks and the soil and nowhere better. 

Soon, unless there is a materialist miracle, Christopher Hitchens will be heading underground too. And that fact needs to be marked because, through 40 years as a prolific essayist, Hitchens has been exactly the lucid, sceptical witness of which we always have too few. He has set out the case for atheism, with verve and in detail, in the polemic god is Not Great. 

But it is actually Hitchens’ late conversion to scepticism in politics that has inspired the scorn of former comrades on the Left. Hitchens, they say, has turned from the idealistic Left to the neo- conservative Right. The most obvious manifestation of this apostasy is his characterstically voluble support for the War on Terror and action in Iraq. Hitchens needs no defence from anyone else but, as it happens, his support for the war in Iraq is entirely consistent with his previous support for the Falklands war and for American intervention in Bosnia. On each occasion he has taken sides against fascism in its various guises. As he said in 2002: “I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials.” The better critique of Hitchens is not that he has betrayed the cause. It is that, much like his Toronto adversary Tony Blair, his account of global religious conflict reduces a complex problem to a Manichean one. But it is hard to repulse the insinuating thought: what if he’s right? Hitchens has, indeed, moved. He has given up a belief in a political utopia and replaced it with the insight that the combination of capitalism with liberal democracy needs to be cherished and defended. If only Hitchens had a full term to pursue this belief. As he says in Love, Poverty and War: “It is civilisation and pluralism and secularism that need pitiless and unapologetic fighters.” The shame is that it took until the end of his memoirs, which will be in turn too close to the end of his life, before Hitchens stumbled on what he calls his “Hitch-22”: that we must commit to our beliefs while remaining sceptical about those who are fired by certainty. The old comrades simply cannot fathom that acquiring scepticism in politics, and in the process throwing off defunct beliefs, is the same process as acquiring wisdom.

The books that will now not be written by this great writer at the height of his power are a sorry loss. For it was Christopher Hitchens who taught me about the genius of George Orwell and the moral culpability of Henry Kissinger. It was Christopher Hitchens who hardened and exemplified my low view of Bill Clinton and who skewered the saintly reputation of the “Papa Doc” Duvalier supporter, Mother Teresa. And in the literary world it was Christopher Hitchens who did what Tony Blair did in politics, and put into passionate prose the stakes that were raised after September 11, 2001. Reading the collected essays again in preparation for this piece, I learnt something on every page. If you have not read them, I urge you to do so. The most fitting testimonial is surely to read the work because it is there, in the work, that you find, as Nabokov says, the only immortality that you and I will share: the refuge of art.

Then we can wonder at the fact that, after all the lessons that Hitchens has taught us on the page, he is now conducting, before the curtain call, a lesson that most of us have no idea if we can learn. He is teaching us how to die a stoical death.

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