Saturday, May 14, 2011

Do not go gentle...

In June, last year, Christopher Hitchens was scheduled to talk at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge MA about his memoir 'Hitch-22' which had been published a few months before. I was excited. This was my chance to get listen to one of the so called "four horsemen" in person. We went to the theatre in the evening only to be told that the event was cancelled. I was disappointed. The announcement was a bit cryptic because no reason other than 'unforeseen circumstances' was given for the cancellation. In the weeks after this, news came out that Christopher Hitchens has been diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Perhaps that was the reason why he decided to cancel his talk, who knows? What we do know is Christopher Hitchens is dying. We all are really, but in his case the process is being accelerated by cancer. In the year since the world has known about his ailment, Christopher Hitchens has exemplified not only how to face looming death with grace but also how NOT to give up on life.
Here is Hitchens, talking about cancer and mortality with CNNs Anderson Cooper, talking about his diagnosis, prognosis and his thoughts on prayer and belief:
"I had been knowingly burning the candle at both ends... and it gave a lovely light" quintessentially Hitchens! Of all the people I have read, no one can match Hitchens in their mastery over the English language. He can speak as eloquently and forcefully as he can write. When deployed against an opponent in a debate, his masterfully crafted words have the resemblance of an artillery barrage or a surgical missile strike targeted to demolish his opponents arguments. His latest article - 'Unspoken Truths' in Vanity Fair, about losing his voice to cancer, therefore touched a chord:
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.
He goes on to discuss how other famous writers and poets have grappled with the loss of their voice. The whole article is worth reading, so go read it.

I must say that watching Hitchens combat cancer, death and mortality, more importantly watching him live - truly live - and fight the good fight; and continue fighting it even when the odds are stacked against him, serves as a great example for the rest of us. It reminds me of the poem by Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Hoping you get better Hitch!