I meant to start blogging in earnest again over break, now that finals are over. I wish this weren’t the occasion for my first post after my accidental hiatus, but everyone in my house is asleep, and I’ve got the feeling sleep is not on the table for me for a while; therefore, this post is disorganized and personal and mostly for my own benefit, but I hope someone out there gets something out of it.
I’m not even entirely sure what to say, though, except the gist of what I’ve already talked about on twitter and facebook: Christopher Hitchens was one of the giants whose shoulders I shall say I have stood on if ever I should accomplish anything important. That in itself, along with the loss of his acerbic, brilliant voice, would be enough to write about all on its own — but it’s already been said by just about everyone who happened to be awake when the news broke.
I’ve talked before on this blog about my dad’s cancer and subsequent remission. It was May of 2010 when he got the all-clear from his doctors, June of 2010 when the two of us went to see Hitch at the Chicago Printer’s Row book fair (and got tickets from a kindhearted fellow atheist), and July of 2010 when one of the first things the internet had to tell me upon my return from a computer-less whirlwind tour of Europe was that Christopher Hitchens had cancer.
There’s a lot of overlapping mental scar tissue there, is what I’m saying. I’m also saying, of course, fuck cancer. In the cold light of day, you know what I’m most scared of? Prion diseases. Earthquakes. Burglars. Things that are statistically unlikely to kill most people in general, and me in particular. But right now? It’s half-past one in the morning on a December night not a week from the longest night of the year, and I am petrified of the things that will (most likely) kill me — cancer and heart disease. And yes, I am young, and there’s plenty of time to be afraid, and plenty of night when the thought of death never enters my mind. This is not one of those nights.
Tonight is a night for a slow reading and rereading of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” while the rest of the house sleeps and our floors creak too loudly for me to obtain alcohol or even Christmas cookies from our kitchen without offering an explanation. I’ve posted the full text to “Aubade,” because I remember reading it for the first time in high school and realizing what I should have known all along — that other people felt precisely the same things that I felt, and that someone had already articulated it better than I ever could. I first read the poem in Hitchens’ collection, The Portable Atheist.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
When I was 17, I didn’t quite grasp the concept that you could agree with a person on some important things but not others. That was part of the reason why Hitch was so important to my intellectual… development? (Path? Growth? There has to be a non-awful way of phrasing that.) Anyway, as Hitchens said, “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” In other words, it’s probably not a good thing to agree with someone on all issues.
That “how it thinks” was one of the major reasons I decided to study neuroscience. In a world that follows physical laws about which we know so little, what could be more interesting than the very mush by which we reason?
The man himself, of course, is gone. No evidence or logic or reason or possible train of thought lacking substantial cognitive dissonance leads to any other conclusion. But while he lived, he lived a great life, by anyone’s standards, and better, he really seemed to realize it. I know and love many religious people who I must assume based on outward appearances to be leading fulfilling lives, but there is something about recognizing that death is in fact the end that makes life all the more precious, all the more worth living.
This has all been very sentimental and sappy, and lacking in the sharp wit that characterized Hitch. The world with all its wonder is a strange and scary place. I have spent years now noting particularly egregious or simply ridiculous news stories and finding their silver linings in the fact that Christopher Hitchens would be offering his brilliant take on them in the near future. And now that’s simply no longer true.
In my small life — for me, personally, as one individual out of 7 billion — that isn’t the most massive of losses. But while he was here, he meant a lot, to me and to millions of others.
And now I think we’ve gotten to the point in the technically-morning when I tell you what I love you all, and that if you smoke, you should stop smoking, and that there are brilliant young writers out there who have been inspired by Hitchens, so all is not lost.