Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday after a punishing bout with cancer, and I’d like to take the liberty of inserting a brief memoriam. I do this in a philosophy blog partially because PEL recently discussed one of his books. But mostly I do it because I would hate to think anyone remembers Hitchens as nothing more than a “New Atheist” icon.
I first stumbled across Hitchens’ work in law school, after picking up discarded issues of The Nation left lying around student offices and library carrels. I soon came to seek out ever more trashed copies of an otherwise predictable opinion paper, simply for the chance to cheer on or get pissed off by his unpredictable stances. A reliable aspect of Mr. Hitchens’ writing over the years has been his willingness to pugnaciously defend unpopular views, whether on political figures,religious figures,or, more recently, unpopular wars.
To get a sense of the younger but no less feisty “Hitch”, check out the clip above. He punches in fine form around the 6:45 mark.
Perhaps like Montaigne, Hitchens was not a philosopher, but rather a polymath essayist of rare skill, whose gifts you’ll find on display in anyoneof several collections.I also can’t help but be impressed that, like Wittgenstein (also struck down by cancer at age 62), Hitchens maintained until the very end a voluminous (the word “disciplined” seems inapt) writing pace.
In his last article for Vanity Fair, you’ll find him ruminating on Nietzsche’s aphorism, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger,”a tenuous connection to philosophy I will exploit in the service of broadcasting his style to anyone not yet familiar:
Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier. But does the rhyme suggest a reason? Perhaps it does, or can, in matters of the emotions. I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than “There but for the grace of god go I,” which in turn is to say no more than “The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.”
In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker. Nietzsche was destined to find this out in the hardest possible way, which makes it additionally perplexing that he chose to include the maxim in his 1889 anthology Twilight of the Idols. (In German this is rendered as Götzen-Dämmerung, which contains a clear echo of Wagner’s epic. Possibly his great quarrel with the composer, in which he recoiled with horror from Wagner’s repudiation of the classics in favor of German blood myths and legends, was one of the things that did lend Nietzsche moral strength and fortitude. Certainly the book’s subtitle—“How to Philosophize with a Hammer”—has plenty of bravado.)
In the remainder of his life, however, Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger. In the course of his mental decline, he became convinced that the most important possible cultural feat would be to prove that the plays of Shakespeare had been written by Bacon. This is an unfailing sign of advanced intellectual and mental prostration.
(I take a slight interest in this, because not long ago I was invited onto a Christian radio station in deepest Dixie to debate religion. My interviewer maintained a careful southern courtesy throughout, always allowing me enough time to make my points, and then surprised me by inquiring if I regarded myself as in any sense a Nietzschean. I replied in the negative, saying that I had agreed with some arguments put forward by the great man but didn’t owe any large insight to him and found his contempt for democracy to be somewhat off-putting. H. L. Mencken and others, I tried to add, had also used him to argue some crude social-Darwinist points about the pointlessness of aiding the “unfit.” And his frightful sister, Elisabeth, had exploited his decline to misuse his work as if it had been written in support of the German anti-Semitic nationalist movement. This had perhaps given Nietzsche an undeserved posthumous reputation as a fanatic. The questioner pressed on, asking if I knew that much of Nietzsche’s work had been produced while he was decaying from terminal syphilis. I again responded that I had heard this and knew of no reason to doubt it, though knew of no confirmation either. Just as it became too late, and I heard the strains of music and the words that this would be all we would have time for, my host stole a march and said he wondered how much of my own writing on god had perhaps been influenced by a similar malady! I should have seen this “gotcha” coming, but was left wordless.)