When I read the following portion of an account in the New York Times, by Ian McEwan, of Christopher Hitchens’s last days, I find myself in jaw-dropping awe:
[T]his was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature.
Over the three days of my final visit I took note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd [book], he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann’s “Magic Mountain” — he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions toward Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s “German Requiem”: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.” . . .
[A]t Christopher’s request, Alexander [Hitchens’s son] and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton.
Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.
Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade.
Speak of the fragility of goodness! I’m sorry, but this is the crucifixion of Jesus, Enlightenment-style: the Garden of Books, not Gethsemane; the denial of all eating and drinking; Ian and Alexander, like Simon of Cyrene, assisting Hitchens “and his pole” to the site of crucifixion (his desk, perhaps made of wood) where, as pure sunshine from the window spotlights his abused body, he heroically lingers and struggles.
What art could be made of Hitchens’s death! Where is his Michelangelo? His Pieta with Ian? If God exists, surely this atheist was a son of God!