Monday, December 12, 2011

Chistopher Hitchens and his Vocabular Cornucopia

(A prayer of sorts)

Christopher Hitchens is playing chess with a grinning angel of death. The latter thought he had him, but not so fast, it appears. Hitchens is still going strong. Or rather, as he explains extensively in his article , weak. But going on, nonetheless.

In a short story by S.Y. Agnon, "Tehila", the author alludes humorously to a mystical theory in which each person is allotted a finite number of words to use during a lifetime. Here is the excerpt (translated by CC):

When I was a baby, I used to chatter all the time; from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed, my mouth did not stop babbling on and on. An elderly man in our neighbourhood told the people who were greatly amused by my non stop chatter: What a shame about this baby, that she is wasting all of her words in her infancy. What will remain for her old age? I heard his admonition, and was acutely alarmed. What if I woke up and I was mute on the following day. In time I figured out what he had meant. A person must take care not to squander in a short time what has been apportioned to last a lifetime. I trained myself to consider each and every word before speaking it, and thus became a miser with words. And having exercised such great frugality, I am now possessed of a cornucopia of words. I have been given an extension on my lease on life, so I can use up the balance of the words accredited to me. And now you wish me to tell you my life story and fritter away whatever I have left in my word fund. If I tell you what you want to know, I’ll be abbreviating my life duration.

The scene came to my mind as I was reading this latest article from Christopher Hitchens, overflowing with a torrent of words, associations, images, emotions. I was thinking: He will not go away before he has exhausted his entire reservoir of words to speak. He will insist on living to the very last word that he has been assigned to say. He will hold God accountable to each and every iota, dot and comma in their contract. And as it seems to me that his reservoir of as yet unused words is simply oceanic, it cannot be drained.

He has all that, on top of the other two factors that comprise that inexorable will:

"Only two things rescued me from betraying myself and letting go: a wife who would not hear of me talking in this boring and useless way, and various friends who also spoke freely. Oh, and the regular painkiller."


Update: Friday morning, December 16: Christopher Hitchens is no more.

— “Right at the very end, when he was at his most feeble as this cancer began to overwhelm him, he insisted on a desk by the window away from his bed at the ICU. It took myself and his son to get him into that chair with a pole and eight lines going into his body, and there he was, a man with only a few days to live, turning out 3,000 words to meet a deadline. And then finishing it and thinking, well maybe I’ve got an hour or two, I’ll write something on Memorial Day in English poetry. [...]

His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater's famous phrase, he burned "with this hard gem-like flame". Right to the end."

— Novelist Ian McEwan told BBC.

David Frum's obituary is worth mentioning:

"By the end, the one-time Trotskyist doctrinaire allowed no furnishings inside his mind except those that he had deliberately chosen and then shaped to his own use.

One sometimes hears of people who try to model their writing or their persona on Christopher Hitchens’ example. The results are usually absurd and sometimes perverse. Christopher did not offer a model of what to think. He offered a model of how to think – and how to live. Fully. Fearlessly. Joyously. And then, alas too soon, of how to die: without bluster but without flinching, boldly writing until the fingers moved no more."


At 10:40 AM EST, Blogger Marcia Miner said...

I thought the same when I read the article. I covered his debate with theologian John F. Haught four months before his diagnosis. I am thankful I took many photos of him as he signed books because I treasure them now more than ever. I also treasure the chance I had to chat with him while he took a smoke outside, leaving those inside talking to themselves at the pre-lecture reception for him. At the end of the lecture the moderator asked for a sentence about a dozen names he tossed to them. In response to Hannah Arendt Hitch said, There’s a reason why Jews are secular because if God has really been following their movement all this time and had taken responsibility for their migration, he has a f***ing lot to answer for."

I am sure you have read Hitch 22 (I also rented his reading the book which is even better) I await each article with a trepidation I wish I didn't feel.

At 8:26 PM EST, Anonymous Brian Goldfarb said...

Oh, Noga, please, you shouldn't use the "god" word with respect to the Hitch! Didn't he write "God is not great"? Doesn't he, still, proudly proclaim himself an atheist? Along with Dylan Thomas, he will certainly "Not go quietly into that good night" and will also, certainly, "Rage, rage against the the dying of the light".

I'm an agnostic (whatever that means, and there are those who will call that a weasel word), but I think we should respect his views, because he really is on of the good guys, and we're going to miss him when he's gone, all too soon.

At 8:35 PM EST, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

Well, Brian, I regard myself as a Jewish atheist of the quietist genre and I am also a great admirer of the ironical reversal. Which is of course why I chose to make this comment about Hitchens's contract with God. "God" would make very little sense in this context if it weren't for Hitchens' well known combativeness against him :)

At 1:18 AM EST, Blogger Marcia Miner said...

Poof! His body died. It makes me angry.


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