The Chronicle Review

No One Left to Pray To?

Shannon Stapleton, Reuters

Christopher Hitchens outside a New York hotel, June 2010
July 18, 2010

If God occasionally intervenes in the world to shoot down an atheist—to show who's boss, or simply to vent—it makes sense for Him to target the esophagus.

As organs go, it's long and conveniently placed, stretching from throat to stomach, making a good target for an elderly yet determined deity with possibly shaky hands. Its importance to speech heightens the symbolic force intended. And its connection to swallowing suggests the irony some believers think God enjoys too much: You can't swallow me? You won't swallow anything!

For atheist apostle and recent memoirista Christopher Hitchens, who announced on June 30 that he'd cancel the rest of his Hitch-22 book tour to undergo chemotherapy on said cancerous organ, the argument for such personalized intelligent design presumably doesn't hold. Hitch does recognize the role of vengeance and ressentiment in believer/nonbeliever relations, but only in fueling institutions established by believers further down the Great Chain of Being. "Religion," he wrote in God Is Not Great, "does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths."

One thing's for sure—Hitch is not in great health. Indeed, he faces the possibility of not being at all if the chemo proves useless. Should believers pray for him, a man celebratedly insensitive to norms of politeness and acts of altruism? He is, after all, the same character who, in The Missionary Position (1995) and elsewhere (a film, Hell's Angel, and numerous author appearances), deemed Mother Teresa "the ghoul of Calcutta." To Hitchens, the "world's best-known symbol of selfless charity" (as The Philadelphia Inquirer once described her) evinced "a penchant for the rich and famous, no matter how corrupt and brutal." Hitch is also the stern moralist who judged onetime Oxford acquaintance Bill Clinton, who's done a few good deeds in his time, as "indescribably loathsome," a phony with "no one left to lie to." Hitchens is the self-appointed judge and jury who found Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter "a pious, born-again creep," and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber a "pious old hypocrite."

Within a week of Hitchens's announcement, 1,619 people offered comments on Huffington Post's report of his bad news. Another 335 kicked in on his own Vanity Fair blog. Hundreds of comments appeared on the personal site of one woman who set out a formal argument for why Christians should pray for Hitchens.

'Twas not always so for curmudgeons. On November 23, 1948, H.L. Mencken, who launched more trenchant invective than any other 20th-century American writer, suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to read and write. "No Dante," observed Southern literary scholar Louis Rubin Jr., "prescribing punishment for the sinners in the Inferno, could have devised a more hideous conclusion for this man, of all men."

Though he remained intellectually aware, Mencken never wrote again. He spoke only with difficulty, and began referring to himself in the past tense, beginning sentences with phrases like, "Back when I was alive" and "Since my death." He spent an enormous amount of the seven-plus years remaining to him organizing his papers, right down to grade-school report cards. So far as we know from his biographers, no avalanche of hate mail or admiring buck-up messages followed in the wake of the stroke. Mencken, at any rate, had typically gotten the jump on his enemies. In 1928 he'd published Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon, a 132-page collection of epithets directed at him.

The explosion of comments on Hitchens's plight, by contrast, confirms the uncertain state of free-expression etiquette in our time, as well as the impact of Hitchens's work. It also highlights the peculiar issue of parallelism that comes up when curmudgeons, contrarians, and provocateurs find themselves on the ropes, as with all violators of society's norms. Just as we can debate whether it's acceptable to use terrorism or torture against terrorists and torturers—those who don't sign on to the social contract by which everyone else lives—we can ask whether it's OK to be scabrously unsympathetic to a stinging gadfly who is possibly in his ninth inning.

Most of the postings on Hitchens and his predicament offer conventional wishes for his good health and praise for his iconoclastic books. Many joke or play off Hitch's uncompromising atheism and characteristic attitudes. "He'd be glad to know that my prayers are not with him," assures one fan on Salon. "If they're going to start removing bits of Hitchens that are indignant," writes bilejones, "there's not going to be much left." Over at Vanity Fair, Marvin writes, "Your fans trust that you're too mean to die just yet." Another in that category, Tim Windsor, adds: "Hitch, I hope it's a very, very, very, very, very long time until you find out whether you were right or wrong about God." Several posters offer concrete medical advice, complete with names, addresses, and phone numbers, in the grand tradition of cancer patients helping one another: Call the Block Center, call Loma Linda, try garlic and cloves.

But the most thought-provoking comments grapple with two issues: an appropriate tone at a moment like this, and whether believers should pray for nonbelievers.

"There are some vile trolls here," writes ingersOll at Vanity Fair. "Best of luck with the treatment." By wide agreement, the biggest troll is someone signed on as Catdog: "If you don't die a excruciatingly painful death, I suspect you will have months of incredible and terrible agony. Sort of like reading your articles, but not nearly as bad. You are a nasty and hateful man." Templewhore reacts quickly, declaring that Catdog's post says "shamefully much about you." Then Styrer joins in: "To those denouncingly spitting at CatDog—have you learned nothing from the Hitch? Let him have his say. It's Hitch's devotion to freedom of expression that the little [expletive] is unwittingly endorsing, after all, rather than his own censorious cultish intolerance of anything gainsaying his cherished, malignant, faith-derived stupidities. I'd ask Hitch to reread his comment, in fact, and take heart from it. Let now the doctors' hard-won knowledge and expertise keep Christopher alive for as long as possible."

Do as Hitch does? Be better than Hitch? A tough call for a Hitchite.

Many of the comments from believers strike an endearing, un-Hitch note of simple, nonironic kindness. "Dr. Hitchens," writes Boringfileclerk, "as a person of faith, the thought of your early departure seems to me unbearable. Who else could there be to keep us on our toes and thinking? For this I am truly thankful. May your recovery be swift and without incident. You and your family will be in our thoughts and prayers."

Some believers, however, grapple with whether Hitchens's vituperative contempt for all things religious places him outside the circle of those for whom believers should pray. Jeffrey Goldberg, on his blog, consults a mutual friend of his and Hitch's, Rabbi David Wolpe, who debated Hitchens on God's existence.

"I asked David," Goldberg writes, "what sort of intercessory praying a believer should do on behalf of a declared nonbeliever, or if one should pray at all, and he wrote back with some very wise words: 'I would say it is appropriate and even mandatory to do what one can for another who is sick; and if you believe that praying helps, to pray. It is in any case an expression of one's deep hopes. So yes, I will pray for him, but I will not insult him by asking or implying that he should be grateful for my prayers."

Goldberg continues: "So, friends and admirers of Hitchens, pray away, but expect him to consider you silly for doing so. And by the way, though Rabbi Wolpe will be praying to the Jewish God he shares with Hitchens (whether Hitchens wants to share in this gift or not), there are many different and exciting religions out there, and since Hitch believes in none of them, it is the position of Goldblog that you should pray to the god of your choice."

For Hitchens it sounds like an unhappy upshot of his illness: an uptick in Beltway prayer, possibly multireligious, possibly sucking in even the secular, and all blamable, most likely, on his Tertullian-like belief (Credo quia absurdum/"I believe because it is absurd") in liquor and cigarettes.

The memoir that Hitch's cancer now threatens to overwhelm provides ideal context for those clashing about him in cyberspace. Regardless of whether one shares Hitch's stances—hard-core "rational' skepticism (as he sees it), equal-opportunity opposition to fascism, rejection of almost all aspects of organized religion and theology, a morally serious commitment to literature that admits its aesthetic aims as well (i.e., his admiration for Borges)—Hitch-22 nudges readers of every stripe toward the version of Hitch they prefer.

Has Hitchens always been, at heart, a literary bad boy on the make? The anecdotes about Margaret Thatcher playfully whipping him with rolled up papers, of bordello-romping with Martin Amis, will persuade any reductionist that Hitch's pleasure principle trumps his work ethic, though he's knocked out quality work at a fearsome pace. His desire now to be seen more as the author of books on Orwell and Jefferson, and less as a gunslinger in policy wars, will confirm the opinion of those who perceive him as grown too big for his cultural britches.

The gaps in Hitch-22 (a self-described "selective memoir") about controversial moments in Hitchens's life—his leaving of first wife Eleni Meleagrou, for instance, when she was pregnant with their second child—will steer others to the view that his ego often rules all else. But then we read of the enduring friendships with brilliant peers such as Amis, James Fenton, Julian Barnes, and Salman Rushdie, displaying Hitch's lifelong ecumenical openness to others, their ideas, and sometimes their tragedies. If one follows his globe-trotting through both the pranks and the deadly-serious commitments, the result is a writer who has put his body where his mouth is, and never asked anyone to feel sorry for him.

Over the years, many (including this writer) have experienced the occasional stiletto from his direction, along with more-frequent graciousness, the blade usually appearing when one acts in any manner that Hitch sees as holier than thou. That probably explains why personalities such as Mother Teresa and Elie Wiesel infuriate him. British writer Tibor Fischer recently put his finger on the matter, apropos of Hitchens, when he wrote of "the great boon of being a media gadfly"—that "you have all the joy of condemnation, without any of the tiresome business of responsibility."

Yet how can one not delight in a writer who, when asked at a recent New York gathering whether he accepted any criticism of God Is Not Great, replied, "The title might be one word too long."

Hitch combines the best and the worst of writers and thinkers: passion, wit, quickness, erudition, and independence in the plus column, with too-frequent smugness, unearned certainty, and visceral hostility toward flawed do-gooders spoiling the picture. Having known for decades the likely denouement to his endless alcohol and cigarettes, he's unlikely to be at loose ends. He called his first collection of pieces Prepared for the Worst. Being a big boy as well as a bad boy, he undoubtedly is.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania.