Reading last week's TLS, it's possible, just barely, to pretend things are perfectly normal. Professor Sudhir Hazareesingh's review of Christopher Hitchens' memoir Hitch-22 garnered a short, absolutely withering response from Gunde Green of scenic Glenview, Illinois:
Perhaps Professor Hazareesingh, in his review of Hitch-22, can clarify his comment that:
Hitchens also shows no sense of nuance or measure when it comes to Islam: he has no conceptual apparatus to make sense of Islam's complexity and diversity, as well as the very real potential of its democratic incarnation …
Is this in reference to Islamic beheadings, stonings, or hand amputations?
A kidney-punch, certainly, but effective nonetheless. And the review drew another response, equally pointed and not quite so disinterested:
Perhaps thinking it trenchant, Sudhir Hazareesingh recycles the jibe made by George Galloway against me, that I am “the first-ever metamorphosis of a butterfly into a slug.” Leaving to one side Mr. Galloway's own mutation from Sovietophile to Baathist to jihadist, the worst that can be said of gorgeous butterflies is that they pupate from rather charming caterpillars. Slugs, however, are condemned to remain slugs. Sad to see a Balliol man so oblivious of such distinctions.
The wit here is perfectly tuned (including that neat little knight-fork in the last line), and like I said, it's almost possible to read such raillery and pretend that it's 2008, or 2009. But a glance at the latest Vanity Fair (the October issue, with somebody named “Lindsay Lohan” posing on the cover) removes that possibility completely and puts in its place a single photo: Christopher Hitchens leaning against a desk in the jam-packed library of his Washington, D.C home (so easy to tell the difference between a living personal library and a dead one – somehow, even the book-spines look different), looking askance at the camera, quarter-smiling, book propped on one leg, fingers serving as impromptu bookmark. Photographer Jonas Fredwall Karlsson has managed to in this unassuming shot to create the single best likeness of Hitchens ever caught on film (miles and miles more authentic than the idiotic young man holding a rifle in the Middle East): here is the mind we've all been reading so avidly for two decades; here in that slightly hooked mouth is the wicked humor we've loved seeing doled out at the expense of monsters like Mother Teresa or Henry Kissinger; here in the comfort of those book-piles is the voracious autodidact who's thrilled us even when we hated what he was writing, because the writing itself was thrilling.
Then we take in all the details: the thin wisps of hair on a bald head, the unmistakable stiffness in the posture, and most of all the dark shadows in the eyes themselves. Those eyes have never previously looked very penetrating – they've seemed more like attack-periscopes than windows to any soul – but now they're entirely transformed. They've seen black, stone realities that are indifferent to all degrees of cleverness. They're a little sunken, a little creased, and the mind looking out through them is not the same. Until I saw that picture, I didn't really believe Christopher Hitchens was dying. Now that I've seen it, I'll be amazed if he's still with us at Thanksgiving. I know those eyes well: they never look long on the sunlit world.
If you can make yourself look away from Karlsson's photo, Hitchens himself will do his best, in the accompanying article, to convince you all over again that it is, in fact, 2008, or 2009. The article finds him still railing against organized religion, still lowercasing 'God' as if anything in the world ever got settled through orthography, still baiting his hooks with misspelled missives from the dumbest of the faithful, still having the gall to use the spirituality of more intelligent believers as a blunt object with which to bludgeon them for the crime of disagreeing with him. To say this little piece, “Unanswerable Prayers,” is vintage late-Hitchens is to both characterize it and stigmatize it: this is the unproductive quagmire into which the last years of his life wandered. This is Hitchens continuing to say There Is No God – as profitless an endeavor as anybody could ever waste intellectual wattage upon. And there's the characteristic Hitchens bravura:
As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not be “me.” (Bear this in mind, in case of any later rumors or fabrications.
We're past pointing out how needlessly insulting this kind of stuff is (far stronger men than Hitchens have reached that precipice, felt the cold wind coming up from it, the unmistakable draught of complete cancellation, and decided on one last lunge of hope, however irrational – they might have been mistaken to do that, but they weren't humiliating themselves, and they were plenty lucid) – all I want now is for Hitchens to turn away from the whole subject and stayed turned away from it. OK, OK – we all know where you stand on the point of grace everlasting and deity-sponsored eternal life. OK, we get it. If you're determined to keep writing for your public (take it from me: when you're on his kind of medication, it's the last thing you feel like doing; we have no right to expect it, and God bless him if he decides to give it to us anyway), could you return to the registers that first won us over? Do everybody a favor and stop trawling the Internet for rednecks praying for your damnation. Instead, illuminate this horrible thing that's happening, as you've illuminated so many subjects throughout your career. In the last two years, you've made the one mistake that's unforgivable in a writer: you've allowed yourself to become boring. You – and we – could indulge it when there were decades left in which to read you. It's pretty clear now we're not going to get those decades: so let's have Christopher Hitchens back, for a little while, before the end.