Human Exceptionalism

Cancer Steals Christopher Hitchens’ Voice

Christopher Hitchens may be the greatest living English-writing writer, at least in the short form.  I envy his raw prose power and find him compelling, even when I disagree vigorously with, or am cut by, his views. (We’ve had two previous discussions around Hitchens at SHS, the first, whether it is inconsiderate to tell an atheist that one is praying for him, and when Hitchens’ Christian friend, Francis Collins of the NIH, providing him with an experimental gene specific treatment–both of which were the subjects of Hitchens’ essays.)

As most know, Hitchens has esophageal cancer, and he is fighting for his life.  But he continues to work and do what great writers do–vividly depict life.  And now, he feels like prey.  From “Unspoken Truths:”

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

—T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Like so many of life’s varieties of experience, the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.

Hitchens describes the physical difficulties he experiences, such as ulcers in his mouth.  But then gets to the cruelest cut of all–the loss of speech:

Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I “was” my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now, if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening “sympathetically.” At least they don’t have to pay attention for long: I can’t keep it up and anyway can’t stand to…To lose this ability is to be deprived of an entire range of faculty: it is assuredly to die more than a little.

I am reminded of my last hospice patient and great friend, Bob Salamanca, who died of ALS.  He also described each progressive loss of a physical capacity as a “little death.”  Bob, after years of being suicidal and wanting to go to Kevorkian, had “come out of the fog,” and became focused on living.  And for him, that meant not going gently into that good night.  When he could no longer uses the computer keyboard, he had his wife attach a tongue depresser to his index finger so he could type one letter at a time. When that failed, he got voice activated software.

Bob became suicidal because his friends abandoned him when he became seriously ill–even shamefully, his parish priest–and Bob came to feel, in his own words, “like a token presence in the world.”  But when Mormon missionaries came to the door, they said the Mormon Church wanted him.  And he became Mormon, fully included in the life of the community.  What a difference that made to Bob’s sense of wellbeing!  So too, Hitchens is consoled by the presence of friends.  And he has one deep desire:

What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.

The Footman waits for all of us, some of us just don’t see him lurking in the hall yet.  But our awareness that he is there drives our lives.  For some, it is part of the reason for faith.  For others, transhumanism, radical environmentalism, or other faith substitutes.  It can help spur altruism or nihilistic despair, spur immersion in monasticism or a blind hedonistic indulgence of the senses.  As the late Joel Goldsmith, founder of the Infinite Way (whose teachings my mother still follows), put it, our lives are mere “parentheses in eternity.”  Knowledge of that implacable truth is part of what makes our lives so unique in the known universe.  What we do with that knowing, I think, determines the trajectory of our lives.

May Hitchens’ request be fulfilled.  And may he take courage and consolation in the love of his friends.

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