Mortality; the Book, Christopher Hitchens, My MotherPosted by Jim Newman on October 10th, 2012 – Comments Off – Posted in atheists
Post by Jim Newman
Published just in time for those of us who have a death in the family is Christopher Hitchens last book, presumeably, “Mortality”. I remember quite clearly his death on December 15, 2011. I searched daily for news of his memorial or funeral, as I would have gone to near any length to attend. It was rather depressing to see how many other people wished to be there as well. I wondered if I had chosen wisely by following an author so incredibly popular—after all we were selfproclaimed contrarians as he was. It’s one thing when it’s a fiction writer but quite another when it is an essayist, a low life, a word smith, a literary elitist. Essayists are used to castigation.
Many theosnarks rejoiced that god had finally drawn his card, cut his cord, he’d met his maker, which left me wondering why god would allow so many other innocents to die and guilty ones to become rich and famous. Aaaah, a divine justice no one could understand unless it was Hitchens and then it was perfectly clear. In this case the chrysalis becoming the pearly soul, shriveled and withered with utter clarity while those who thought to break out and rise above to fly could see it is the miracle of the butterfly—the butterfly doesn’t know its greatness when it is the lowly caterpillar, or encapsulated in its silky jail.
Or there was the Hitchens who insisted that yes, religion, poisoned even chess. If you played chess because you thought your god had a hand in it, because you thought you might appeal to god for good luck, because at least god had created this great game or brought us together, then yes, it was poisoned, and something truly great about the game of chess and playing with another human was tainted. The conversation of playing chess faltered in appreciations that flew past each other, though the players might find words of commiseration to enjoying the game, whatever that might mean. While it was communication of sorts, it certainly wasn’t understanding or empathy except in the sterile mechanics of chess, or sharing space and a laugh or two. A kind of base-line communication protocol that the transmission lines were working but the error checking hadn’t been performed. It’s never just chess until you are senile.
Many responded to Hitchen’s assertion that there was not one moral act an atheist couldn’t do that a faithful person does. Hmm. I read everything (except a lot of fiction but I covered that early in life and found it too addicting, like, I guess, crack cocaine) but cruising the evangelical sites (and no I don’t troll for arguments) I saw remark after remark that an atheist couldn’t follow the moral law of following god. Puzzling really, as to which god’s moral law should I follow—all of them? Perhaps I would become the multitheist and attempt to follow every god of every culture. Just thinking about this got my shorts so twisted I just took them off. Aaaah, free of confusion at last. Thinking much more clearly now, or at least the blood is flowing as it should, and my bottom could breathe as my sweetie’s father used to insist to his children when they took off their clothes at night.
I know, I’ll become an idealist like Durkheim and claim that all religions have the same set of moral foundations involving society. But wait, I still don’t know which to follow if they all provide education, authority, vitality, enthusiasm, and redistributive feasting (Marvin Harris’s material culture contribution). The one you are born into? Of course! Then, unless I wished to become a post modern fashionista and switch faiths like soup de jour I could just stick with philosophy which already did just that without claiming any particular godly ownership. And avoid that whole quantum entanglement thing where we’re all connected but in such a small way as to be utterly irrelevant, or make the quantum-relativity mistake of attributing extremely small object physics to really big universe physics. Really, a line is straight, no it’s curved, wait it’s both. But when is it one and when is it the other? Sigh. Where’s Alice?
In “Mortality” Hitchens talks about going to Tumorville.
“The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A general egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got there 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…”
Yes, I would like to confirm there needs to be more humor, more sex, and better food. I find when I am sick I desperately need more humor, more sex, and better food. It’s quite obvious. Clearly, Tumorville is run by the humorless, the sexless, and those who eat out. Even the most informal focus surveys show the need of these three basic functions. If an army runs on humor, sex, and food, imagine how much more essential it is for healing. Oh, and don’t forget the drugs. Good drugs for everyone. Not the Thorazine-shuffle kind or the idiotic baa-baa benzo’s. No, the giggly, happy ones (yes, the illegal but long-used-and-tested ones) that make you want to live large; followed by decent box wine, boat beer, and medium-priced bourbon (we do need to watch the budget and have something to look forward to if we should happen to get well). And don’t forget the cigars. Preferably Cuban!
I won’t again belabor the inane stage-theory of Elizabeth Kubler Ross but would like to jump right into prayer. In Tumorville, everyone prays for you, the relatives, better food, more sex, cleaner diaper changes, just everything. Aaaah, and when you finally die, you get to be with god—whatever that means–hopefully not a salt mine on another planet owned by a Mormon or a volcano with a Thetan seeking a Scientologist. All too true in my mother’s nursing home which was quite nice as they go though still lacking in humor, sex, and good food—though, I was told, it was better than some hell holes that announce themselves by the odors seeping out under their doors. Most inmates just pray they can get the hell out of there even if it means dying—if terminal, I recommend starvation as that’s your best legal bet—or they would like a visit from someone, preferably a friend or relative, but any kind person will do, with an extra cigarette.
I cannot resist quoting Ambrose Bierce here as Hitch does
“Prayer: a petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.”
Hitchens is brilliant when he writes, starting with the Deuteronomy quote that god “he is the rock, his work is perfect” and then in Isaiah “Now O Lord, thou art our father; we art clay and thou our potter; and we are all the work of thy hand.”
“Note, then, that Christianity insists on the absolute dependency of its flock, and then only on the offering of undiluted praise and thanks. A person using prayer time to ask for the world to be set to rights or to beseech god to bestore a favor upon himself would in effect be guilty of a profound blasphemy or at the very least a pathetic misunderstanding. It is not for the mere human to be presuming that he or she can advise the divine. And this sad to say opens religion to the additional charge of corruption. The leaders of the church know perfectly well that prayer is not intended to gratify the devout. So that, every time they accept a donation in return for some petition, they are accepting a gross negation of their faith that depends on the passive acceptance of the devout and not on their making demands for betterment.”
We no longer tolerate the sale of indulgences though their sale built some of the most beautiful basilicas and chantries in Europe but the mega church pastor that can claim he need not earn a salary has already pilfered his flock based on utter blasphemy. The big tent faith healers seek a donation before the laying of the hands and the more subtle promise to pray but would appreciate some small token of appreciation–you can mail it later if need be.
“In these circumstances. the emptiness of prayer is almost the least of it. Beyond the minor futility, the religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible.”
“In the argument over prayer, then, please do not be shocked if it is we atheists who wear the pitying look as any moment of moral crisis threatens to draw near.”
It was so true for me. Whenever someone would offer a prayer I would visibly relax my face so as to not reveal my utter amazement at their wanton inability to trust their perfect god was doing the right thing, or that they could be so egotistical or utterly helpless they would offer up a cheap saying rather than donate a dollar to the science that might actually cure the problem.
How I longed to hear the words ”I am so sorry for your mother. I sent in 10 dollars today for dementia research. Someday we will cure it and I am glad I could help.” Now there is a hero–no, there is a good person.
How often I choked the words “Well, if you really gave a shit, you’d take that guy who is waiting to go outside, who is waiting for a cigarette, and then go donate a dollar to science.” “And while you are at it order pizza and joke with the staff—and get a few prostitutes while you are at it. Get some for the staff too!”
Hitchens notes the oft stated “how are you?” When they did this to mom, I couldn’t help crack up inside in a deep, hidden, sardonic laugh (they say I am not subtle). I always thought “what the fuck, she has dementia, she’s dying, she should be allowed to die, she’s uncomfortable, she doesn’t want to eat that crap food, and she’d like to go home, if not die now, but other than that she’s totally fucking fantastic. How about you?”
“But it’s not really possible to adopt a stance of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” either. Like its original, this is a prescription for hypocrisy and double standards. Friends and relatives, obviously, don’t really have the option of not making kind inquiries. One way of trying to put them at their ease is to be as candid as possible and not to adopt any sort of euphemism or denial. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is there is no such thing as Stage Five.”
There is an excellent section on Nietzsche to which I can’t begin to do justice. But to tease you in his triumvirate explanation of seeing a horse beaten senseless, reading Dostoyevsky, and suffering from syphilis for some time, Nietzsche came up with his “what doesn’t kill me makes me strong.” Yeah, it just makes you weaker or as I used to say “cripples you for life.”
Hitch speaks of Sydney Hook, who racked with congestive heart failure at the point of death asked to discontinue life support.
”The physician denied this plea, rather loftily assuring Hook that “someday I would appreciate the unwisdom of this request. “ But the stoic philosopher, from the vantage point of continued life, still insisted that he wished he had been permitted to expire. He gave three reasons. Another agonizing stroke could hit him again, forcing him to suffer it all over again. His family was being put through a hellish experience. Medical resources were being pointlessly expended. In the course of his essay, he used a potent phrase to describe the position of others who suffer like this, referring them as lying on “mattress graves.”
“If being restored to life doesn’t count as something that doesn’t kill you, then what does. And yet there seems no meaningful sense in which it made Sydney Hook stronger. Indeed, if anything it seems to have concentrated his attention the way in which each debilitation builds on its predecessor and becomes one cumulative misery with only one possible outcome. After all if it were otherwise, then each attack, each stroke, each vile hiccup, each slime assault, would collectively build up and strengthen resistance. And this is plainly absurd. So we are left with something quite unusual in the annals of unsentimental approaches to extinction: not the wish to die with dignity but the desire to have died.
The book continues into the rambles of an unhinging mind from pain whose happiest moment is a friend coming by, or the opium-filled syringe. His last quote in the book:
“From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905. “With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do the daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own …. Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”
Jim Newman, bright and well