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!


Anonymous said...

It is an interesting question: what do atheists think about death? Most discussions of death have been in the realm of religion and mysticism. I wish the best for Hitchens' recovery.

Another touching story of an atheist facing death is that of Basava Premananda, the famous Indian rationalist who led a painful crusade against Sathya Sai Baba since the 1970s. His courage on the deathbed and commitment to rationalism is amazing. He seems to have followed Dylan Thomas' words. If you haven't already seen this,

1. His interview:

2. His manifesto denouncing mysticism, religion, etc. on his deathbed:

One of the main utilities of religion is the solace it offers to believers via mystical interpretations of death and "after-life". This is centered on the assumption that life is a mystical concept- beyond just physics, chemistry, and biology. In doing so, some religions promote selfishness and encourage men to feel superior about their species. True selflessness is in believing that we are nothing more than an incidental consequence of the laws of physics.

It is admirable how these atheists and rationalists maintain this conviction to the end.

Transmogrifier said...

@karatalaamalaka: I would presume, that most atheists believe that there is no "super-natural" element such as the soul that survives death. When the body and the bodily functions disintegrate and die, emergent properties such as the mind and consciousness and sense of self disintegrate with it and that is the end. The question "What happens to "me" after death?" makes no sense because by definition, after death, there is no "me" there. It is the same as asking what was happening to "me" before I am born.

This is by no means a novel concept. This is essentially what the Buddha believed and preached as the principles of non-permanence and non-self. Buddhism and some other ancient philosophies come very close to this "nature is it" view of life; although Buddhism and many of these other philosophies are riddled with their own supernatural baggage of other kinds.

Thanks for sharing the links. I have seen the video and read Basava Premananda's articles before. He was a very courageous person. Do you know that Nirmukta has a very active Facebook group now?