Tag Archives: Christopher Hitchens

The greatest enemy of the free press…

Do you ever wonder what is the greatest enemy of the free press? One might mention a few conspicuous foes, such as the state censor, the monopolistic proprietor, the advertiser who wants either favorable coverage or at least an absence of unfavorable coverage, and so forth. But the most insidious enemy is the cowardly journalist and editor who doesn’t need to be told what to do, because he or she has already internalized the need to please – or at least not to offend – the worst tyranny of all, which is the safety-first version of public opinion.

–Christopher Hitchens, Slate, 18 February 2008

The Guy Quote – Christopher Hitchens (RIP)

Woke to the sad news that Christopher Hitchens has passed away. Since his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer he wrote fearlessly and frankly about what he faced. But never, ever forget that before he “passed into the land of malady” (and also after) he was a fabulous polemicist and one of the leading voices of secularism. So as well as the quotes I suggest you read a tribute to him by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, for whom he wrote for many years. Do take time to discover the rest of his career though, because you should be defined by how you live, not what kills you, and if you don’t happen to agree with what he says, he’ll at least make you think. There’s an excellent obituary from The Guardian here and a full profile on Wikipedia – get stuck in.

“Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic,” Hitchens wrote nearly a year ago in Vanity Fair, but his own final labors were anything but: in the last 12 months, he produced for this magazine a piece on U.S.-Pakistani relations in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a portrait of Joan Didion, an essay on the Private Eyeretrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a prediction about the future of democracy in Egypt, a meditation on the legacy of progressivism in Wisconsin, and a series of frankgraceful, and exquisitely written essays in which he chronicled the physical and spiritual effects of his disease. At the end, Hitchens was more engaged, relentless, hilarious, observant, and intelligent than just about everyone else—just as he had been for the last four decades.

“My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends,” he wrote in the June 2011 issue. He died in their presence, too, at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. May his 62 years of living, well, so livingly console the many of us who will miss him dearly. (VanityFair.com)

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“That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

“Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”

“[O]wners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realize that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods.”

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”

“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.”

“Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.”

“[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

“The governor of Texas, who, when asked if the Bible should also be taught in Spanish, replied that ‘if English was good enough for Jesus, then it’s good enough for me.”

“What do you most value in your friends? Their continued existence.”

“To ‘choose’ dogma and faith over doubt and experience is to throw out the ripening vintage and to reach greedily for the Kool-Aid.”

“What is it you most dislike? Stupidity, especially in its nastiest forms of racism and superstition.”

“Organised religion is violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

“Nothing optional–from homosexuality to adultery–is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in ‘King Lear’, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.”

“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”

“Who are your favorite heroines in real life?
The women of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran who risk their lives and their beauty to defy the foulness of theocracy. Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Azar Nafisi as their ideal feminine model.”

“You should be nicer to him,’ a schoolmate had once said to me of some awfully ill-favoured boy. ‘He has no friends.’ This, I realised with a pang of pity that I can still remember, was only true as long as everybody agreed to it.”

“She’s got no charisma of any kind [but] I can imagine her being mildly useful to a low-rank porn director.”

“Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of ‘the flock.”

“Your least favorite virtue, or nominee for the most overrated one? Faith. Closely followed—in view of the overall shortage of time—by patience.”

“Your favorite virtue? An appreciation for irony.”

“How dismal it is to see present day Americans yearning for the very orthodoxy that their country was founded to escape.”

“There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb. But in general I feel better, and no less radical, and you will feel better too, I guarantee, once you leave hold of the doctrinaire and allow your chainless mind to do its own thinking.”

“What is your idea of earthly happiness? To be vindicated in my own lifetime.”

“The finest fury is the most controlled.”

“Cheap booze is a false economy.”

“The search for Nirvana, like the search for Utopia or the end of history or the classless society, is ultimately a futile and dangerous one. It involves, if it does not necessitate, the sleep of reason. There is no escape from anxiety and struggle.”

“My own view is that this planet is used as a penal colony, lunatic asylum and dumping ground by a superior civilisation, to get rid of the undesirable and unfit. I can’t prove it, but you can’t disprove it either.”

“How is the United States at once the most conservative and commercial AND the most revolutionary society on Earth?”

“As the cleansing ocean closes over bin Laden’s carcass, may the earth lie lightly on the countless graves of those he sentenced without compunction to be burned alive or dismembered in the street.”

“Where would you like to live? In a state of conflict or a conflicted state.”

“I have not been able to discover whether there exists a precise French equivalent for the common Anglo-American expression ‘killing time.’ It’s a very crass and breezy expression, when you ponder it for a moment, considering that time, after all, is killing us.”

“Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”

“How ya doin’?’ I always think, What kind of a question is that?, and I always reply, ‘A bit early to tell.”

“There either is a god or there is not; there is a ‘design’ or not.”

“Forget it. Never explain; never apologise. You can either write posthumously or you can’t.”

“Time spent arguing is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.”

“There can be no progress without head-on confrontation.”

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”

“A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realisation that you can’t make old friends.”

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? (Just to give you an idea, Proust’s reply was ‘To be separated from Mama.’) I think that the lowest depth of misery ought to be distinguished from the highest pitch of anguish. In the lower depths come enforced idleness, sexual boredom, and/or impotence. At the highest pitch, the death of a friend or even the fear of the death of a child.”

“In a Pyongyang restaurant, don’t ever ask for a doggie bag.”

“My little ankle-strap sandals curled with embarrassment for her.”

“And now behold what this pious old trout hath wrought.”

“The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.”

“Part of the function of memory is to forget; the omni-retentive mind will break down and produce at best an idiot savant who can recite a telephone book, and at worst a person to whom every grudge and slight is as yesterday’s.”

What word or expression do you most overuse? Re-reading a collection of my stuff, I was rather startled to find that it was ‘perhaps.”

“I have been called arrogant myself in my time, and hope to earn the title again, but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator – that’s beyond my conceit.”

“So this is where all the vapid talk about the ‘soul’ of the universe is actually headed. Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The ‘vacuum’ will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now. One thinks of the painstaking, cloud-dispelling labor of British scientists from Isaac Newton to Joseph Priestley to Charles Darwin to Ernest Rutherford to Alan Turing and Francis Crick, much of it built upon the shoulders of Galileo and Copernicus, only to see it casually slandered by a moral and intellectual weakling from the usurping House of Hanover. An awful embarrassment awaits the British if they do not declare for a republic based on verifiable laws and principles, both political and scientific.”

==

Add-ons:

“Whenever I hear some bigmouth in Washington or the Christian heartland banging on about the evils of sodomy or whatever, I mentally enter his name in my notebook and contentedly set my watch. Sooner, rather than later, he will be discovered down on his weary and well-worn knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed on by some Apache transvestite”.

Topic of Cancer

Christopher Hitchens wrote this for Vanity Fair following a sudden collapse that turned out to be caused by cancer. One minute he was getting reading to launch his new book, Hitch-22, the next he’s throwing up and getting carted around by ambulances and oncologists. Read it. It’s not too long, but it is a searingly honest and strangely beautiful portrayal of the landscape of cancer – and the clarity of thought that comes with catastrophe (original link here).

I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning last June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little. Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. Within a few hours, having had to do quite a lot of emergency work on my heart and my lungs, the physicians at this sad border post had shown me a few other postcards from the interior and told me that my immediate next stop would have to be with an oncologist. Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.

The previous evening, I had been launching my latest book at a successful event in New Haven. The night of the terrible morning, I was supposed to go on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and then appear at a sold-out event at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side, in conversation with Salman Rushdie. My very short-lived campaign of denial took this form: I would not cancel these appearances or let down my friends or miss the chance of selling a stack of books. I managed to pull off both gigs without anyone noticing anything amiss, though I did vomit two times, with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion, just before each show. This is what citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile.

The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to. For example, an official met for the first time may abruptly sink his fingers into your neck. That’s how I discovered that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and that one of these deformed beauties—located on my right clavicle, or collarbone—was big enough to be seen and felt. It’s not at all good when your cancer is “palpable” from the outside. Especially when, as at this stage, they didn’t even know where the primary source was. Carcinoma works cunningly from the inside out. Detection and treatment often work more slowly and gropingly, from the outside in. Many needles were sunk into my clavicle area—“Tissue is the issue” being a hot slogan in the local Tumorville tongue—and I was told the biopsy results might take a week.

Working back from the cancer-ridden squamous cells that these first results disclosed, it took rather longer than that to discover the disagreeable truth. The word “metastasized” was the one in the report that first caught my eye, and ear. The alien had colonized a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located—had been located for quite some time—in my esophagus. My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

The bargaining stage, though. Maybe there’s a loophole here. The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

It’s quite something, this chemo-poison. It has caused me to lose about 14 pounds, though without making me feel any lighter. It has cleared up a vicious rash on my shins that no doctor could ever name, let alone cure. (Some venom, to get rid of those furious red dots without a struggle.) Let it please be this mean and ruthless with the alien and its spreading dead-zone colonies. But as against that, the death-dealing stuff and life-preserving stuff have also made me strangely neuter. I was fairly reconciled to the loss of my hair, which began to come out in the shower in the first two weeks of treatment, and which I saved in a plastic bag so that it could help fill a floating dam in the Gulf of Mexico. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razorblade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.) I feel upsettingly de-natured. If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice. In the war against Thanatos, if we must term it a war, the immediate loss of Eros is a huge initial sacrifice.

These are my first raw reactions to being stricken. I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. My heart and blood pressure and many other registers are now strong again: indeed, it occurs to me that if I didn’t have such a stout constitution I might have led a much healthier life thus far. Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if—as my father invariably said—I am spared.

Christopher Hitchens is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. Send comments on all Hitchens-related matters to hitchbitch@vf.com.