Hitchens, Death, and Literary Immortality
Is literary immortality worth wanting?
Christopher Hitchens died 15 December 2011. The following was written on 16 August 2010.
I just caught the last third of an interview of Christopher Hitchens by Charlie Rose. Hitchens looks bad, the chemotherapy having done a nasty tonsorial number on him. But his trademark intellectual incandescence appeared undiminished. 'Brilliant' is a word I don't toss around lightly, but Hitch is one to whom it unarguably applies. Public intellectuals of his caliber are rare and it will be sad to see him go. Agree or disagree with him, it is discourse at his level that justifies the high regard we place on free speech.
In the teeth of death the man remains intransigent in his unbelief. And why not? He lived in unbelief and so it is only fitting that he should die in it as well. He lived for this life alone; it is fitting that he should die without hope. As I read him, God and the soul were never live options for him. To cop out now as debility and death approach must appear to him to be utterly contemptible, a grasping for straws, a fooling of himself into a palliative illusion to ease the horror of annihilation.
For what he takes to be the illusion of immortality, Hitch substitutes literary immortality. "As an adult whose hopes lay assuredly in the intellect, not in the hereafter, he concluded, 'Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and — since there is no other metaphor — also the soul.'" (Here)
To the clearheaded, however, literary immortality is little more than a joke, and itself an illusion. Only a few read Hitch now, and soon enough he will be unread, his books remaindered, put into storage, forgotten. This is a fate that awaits all scribblers but a tiny few. And even they will drink the dust of oblivion in the fullness of time.
To live on in one's books is a paltry substitute for immortality, especially when one recalls Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's aphorism:
Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, aus dem kein Apostel herausgucken kann, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt. "A book is a mirror: if an ape peers in, no apostle will look out."
Most readers are more apish than apostolic. The fame they confer cannot be worth much, given that they confer it.
To live on in one's books is only marginally better than to live on in the flickering and mainly indifferent memories of a few friends and relatives. And how can reduction to the status of a merely intentional object of memory count as living on?
The besetting sin of powerful intellects is pride. Lucifer, as his name indicates, is or was the light-bearer. Blinded by his own light, he could see nothing beyond himself. Such is the peril of intellectual incandescence. Otherworldly light simply can't get through. One thinks of Nietzsche, Russell, Sartre, and to a lesser extent Hitchens. A mortal man with a huge ego — one which is soon to pop like an overinflated balloon.
The contemplation of death must be horrifying for those who pin all on the frail reed of the ego. The dimming of the light, the loss of control, the feeling of helplessly and hopelessly slipping away into an abyss of nonbeing. And all of this without the trust of the child who ceases his struggling to be borne by Another. "Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." But this of course is what the Luciferian intellect cannot do. It cannot relax, it must hold on and stay in control. It must struggle helplessly as the ego implodes in upon itself.
The ego, having gone supernova in its egomania, collapses into a black hole in the hora mortis. What we fear when we fear death is not so much the destruction of the body, but the dissolution of the ego. That is the true horror and evil of death. And without religion you are going to have to take it straight.
Have you read Philip Larkin's Aubade?
What would Hitch lose by believing? Of course, he can't bring himself to believe, it was never a Jamesian live option for him, but suppose he could. Would he lose 'the truth'? But nobody knows what the truth is about death and the hereafter. People only think they do. Well, suppose 'the truth' is that we are nothing but complex physical systems slated for annihilation. Why would knowing this 'truth' be a value? Even if one is facing reality by believing that death is the utter end of the self, what is the good of facing reality in a situation in which one is but a material system?
If materialism is true, then I think Nietzsche is right: truth is not a value; life-enhancing illusions are to be preferred. If truth is out of all relation to human flourishing, why should we value it?