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Christopher Hitchens, Death, Writing and the Literate Mind

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011
Toby Young, you WISH

Creationists, Fundamentalists and Anti-Interventionists may have 99 Problems, but now the Hitch ain’t one. Stop all the clocks: he is no more. Death punctuates all of us with its terminal period, and whether beyond that point lies the dissipation of the space bar, or a transfiguration into chapters unknown, is a question with little evidence to scaffold either option. We all choose our uncertainties.

But one thing is certain; he is not here; he does not sleep, to borrow Mary Frye’s valedictory balm. We should be wary of tearing our shirts too devoutly at the departing of anyone not connected to us by association; the real wound of loss is only felt by those close to the absent, the family, the friends. Fans and devotees must guard themselves against celebrity grief. True, by doing so we rehearse and explore our own reactions to the Great Ending, but importantly we can do as much through art or music, shedding tears for people that we have not only never met, but never could, until that other great curtain, between fact and fiction, melted away.

So: the Death of the Artist is a private grief for his circle; but we are permitted to doff our caps or raise a glass at the end of an impressive life. Probity demands that death ameliorates a man’s character, and we draw a discrete veil over his faults. By his own admission, he flourished more as a man of letters than a patriarch; his political see-saw is well known, and it is perhaps one of his greatest achievements that he could so solidly offend and consternate allies and foes on the left and right equally. He was the darling of the libertine in his devotion to the sensual; the hawk’s spokesman on Iraq and Islam; the Humanist’s avatar in his daisy-chain firebombing of faith and the faithful.

There is nothing to be surprised about by this. How eager some people are to ally themselves under a banner, to declare their allegiance to a bag of beliefs- perhaps it answers some need in themselves to belong, for their beliefs to cohere. Yet sometimes, how undernourished are those ideologies that demand unswerving loyalty or none at all? Much of the debate- political, academic, religious- in this country revolves around this brainless dogma; that you are either with us or against us. That if you are an atheist you must also be this, if you are on the left you must also be that. The articulate, scornful Hitchens epitomised the belief that ideas can cohere in a million different ways, equally valid. A socialist who embraced Bush’s American Exceptionalism could hardly be anything other than a fascinating example of free thought.

Perhaps because of this ability to hold chameleon beliefs, he appealed to a broader church than otherwise. But never in the history of eulogies have I so often seen the line, ‘I didn’t agree with everything he said, but…’ than with the Hitch.

Redundant, redundant phrase; is there ANYONE with whom you are in complete agreement? If so, marry them; or smash the mirror before you. It is often said that we should never meet our idols; they will only disappoint, because there will always be a departure point, however remote, between the incarnation of your aspirations and the real thing. Every mind is unique; every life is a fingerprint, indistinguishable from itself, infinitely unique. It is the ability to acknowledge that another’s views might be superior to yours, no matter how firmly they are held, that marks us as civilised. It is the essence of tolerance, liberalism, the relativism necessary for us to endure the existence of others, to refrain from demurring the ideas of others simply because they are foreign.

Reading Christopher Hitchens reinvigorated my desire to be a writer, which had been burdened with the ballast of years in the wilderness, failure and cynicism. Life is too complex to claim any man as an inspiration, but his pen was certainly part of mine. I missed his extraordinary gift for oration at a recent event at the South Bank, a few weeks ago, and instead we were ‘treated’ to a stream of the literati eulogising him as he wasted on his death bed. But in reality nothing was missed; the desire to see one’s heroes, while perfectly human, is a somewhat sickly aspiration.

In a week in which it is revealed that thousands of teachers have to sit the basic QTS standard tests in literacy, numeracy and IT proficiency several times before they pass, it is entirely apposite to raise questions about the quality of the written thought in schools, and how we communicate the importance of this skill. Here, surely, is a matter of fundamental importance in education, and it is a grisly realisation to know that even as I mention this, it proves to be, for some, a shibboleth that marks me as reactionary and redundant.

But literacy cannot ever be allowed to be a taboo; it is the vehicle for intelligence. It is the engine that propels thoughts into the minds of others; it is the surgeon’s tool kit that furnishes scalpels and sutures for concepts both subtle and coarse. It is a foundational skill, and few things can replace its position of importance in the aims of education. The anxious debate of what and how to teach our children  withers before the sacred task to communicate literacy. To that end, I despair when I see how children enter secondary schools with the functional skills of an infant, yet they are still expected to keep pace as the Key Stages roll on, and they fall farther and farther behind into apathy and failure.

Take every child out of every other lesson until they are literate and numerate. I teach non-core; I would happily see children devoid of education about Easter and the Five Pillars of Islam if I thought they could write their names and express themselves with care, in print. My God, look at what people like Hitchens can do with 26 letters. In the beginning was The Word, you will note. How true that is. When I write- and I claim no proficiency- it can feel, at the best of times, like fire pouring from your fingertips, and all is right with the world, merely by the successful sequencing of one letter after another. PAL lessons, Citizenship, The Ecosystem, everyone take a ticket and get in line. The kid needs to write.

Which brings up the subject of legacy. You may subscribe to the transcendent sweetness of an immaterial meta-existence. My judgement on this is quiet, and I affect mutism in the presence of mystery as my defence. Devout atheists like Dawkins claim that the absence of evidence can prompt only a conclusion of rejection; I sense another option- silence. That which can be neither inferred from logic nor demonstrated by example, is beyond our poor capacities for conversation.

I have two responses to death, which I find helpful. One is to consider that the departed are, like any pattern or atomic form, a temporary structure, a house built of straw. Before they appeared, they were the constituents from which they came; afterwards, they form part of something else. In this way, we live on, not just in the thoughts of others, which is surely no less magnificent, but also as part of an endlessly rocking tide of creation. Our atoms transmigrate in  way that would satisfy the most committed reincarnationist.

The other is a personal one that I have written about before; Herr Einstein sketches, in a manner permitted even for the layman like myself to appreciate, that time is relative; that on some level, all time co-exists, and it is only our mortal perception of its mystery that divides its ocean into arbitrary sectors we call ‘past’ and ‘present’. In the same way that ‘over there’ and ‘here’ both exist at the same point in time, so too can all points in time be seen as enjoying an eternal existence, although considerations of eternity lose all meaning when considered from this angle. What this means is that everyone you have ever loved, or ever will love, coexists in an enormous tide of proximity, separate yet perpetually unified.

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
Mary Frye

Auschwitz: Life, death and the Anti-Life


I took two students to Auschwitz this week. So much has been written about it that it feels like there are no more words to write. And what would be the point? In fact, what’s the point of going there at all? Historians tell us that one and a half million people passed through the gates, loaded into cattle trucks, worked like animals, treated like animals, and eventually slaughtered like animals. One and a half million. This is an impossible number to grasp; like encountering a wall that stretches left and right forever, only to be told that it’s not a straight line, but a vast circle, immeasurable and incomprehensible. There’s no purchase on such a statistic; it refutes all attempts to reduce it to anything that can fit in one’s imagination.

The Holocaust deniers take what might even be an understandable view: such a figure is impossible, they say. No, it was only half a million, or a hundred thousand, or none. The very scale of the Holocaust cloaked it in the invisibility of disbelief during the war; the Allies and even the Jewish nation at large couldn’t conceive of its possibility.

Does the figure even matter? On one level, no. Two million dead in the Killing Fields of Cambodia; twenty million starved under Stalin and Mao; hundreds of thousands in Darfur, Yugoslavia, Rwanda. The mind’s eye blurs them into a tragic mass, all capability to discern and distinguish individuals crushed by time and distance, by the space between the one of ‘I’ and the overwhelming multiplicity of ‘the many’.

But we are not doomed by this inability; there are ways to at least begin to understand. I cannot even contemplate a distance over, say, a mile, not vividly. The distance between here and Glasgow is 400 miles or so; impossible to conceive when I close my eyes. But I can get there, by travelling as everyone else does; one mile at a time. So it is with Auschwitz. The only way that we, singular, finite units can understand is by understanding each story, one at a time. To even try to do so is to fall into the seemingly endless chasm of Auschwitz. To not do so is to deny the very thing that animates and unites us; our humanity.

One story; In 1941 Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan Friar who was captured and sent to Auschwitz One, the first camp, converted from Army Barracks into a work prison. In punishment for a prisoner escaping, the Camp Deputy- Commander lined up the prisoners and selected ten to be taken away and starved to death as a warning. Kolbe stepped forward to take the place of one of the men instead- a man he didn’t know. They were kept naked without food for twenty days in an underground cell no bigger than a garden shed; Kolbe lasted so long that, impatient, the Commander ordered his death, by injection of carbolic acid.

That’s one story, and admittedly an inspiring one. There were six and half million stories in the Holocaust, and every one of them is important because every life is important. Kolbe’s story is exceptional because it describes how the purest of motives and deeds can perhaps only blossom in the darkest of soils; the brighter the light, the deeper the shadow behind it. Visiting the cramped, exposed cattle sheds where human beings huddled together with each other three to a bed, some dead, some alive, some dying, most rotting with dysentery, typhus and excrement, the miserable, insufficient sanitation, seeing the chambers where Mengele experimented on Gypsy twins, the starvation rooms, the ash pits where cremated remains were buried…it piles horror upon horror until you feel buried under its weight. No wonder numbness is a common reaction.

And how did we react? As I walked around with Emily and Dami, two fantastic students, we fell silent very quickly, as did everyone. The place cows you into sincerity and sobriety as you start to absorb each grotesque diorama. Iconic images like the Arbeit Macht Frei sign above the entrance are emblematic of every horror film imaginable; worse, as any artistic representation of horror can only feebly mirror the monstrous life here. Again, it is magnified into an infinite regress by the numbers involved. Such films seek to shock and disturb with their careful attention to our fear of pain, but Auschwitz presents us with something worse: a testimony to real torture and pain, endured not by a cast of a few dozen, but of millions; not over a comfortable hour and a half, but over years.

For me, curiously the exhibit within the museum that touched me the most was the collection of spectacles, thousands of them, stripped from their owners in the Sauna as they entered, and recycled by the Nazis. They sat in an enormous ball of steel, chaotic and bent, behind glass. Every single pair of legs embraced a human head, and the brain within; their memories, their personalities, their ambitions and their life. Each life as incomparably precious to its owner as my own. I felt my own glasses sit heavily across the bridge of my nose and tried to imagine them as part of that enormous heap in front of me, myself as vanished and eradicated as they were.

For others it was the room full of human hair, bleached grey by time; for some it was the thousands of artificial limbs, or the enormous room full of suitcases, each one written with the name of its owner, some of them bearing return addresses. The refugees had brought everything they thought they would need, and to see the collection of useless, pathetic artefacts was pitiful in the extreme. They thought they were going to be relocated; instead they were buried. Someone had even brought a set of measuring scales. Can you imagine? A set of cooking scales. In Auschwitz.

On and on and on it went. Finally, as the Sun set, we gathered around the memorial in Birkenau, Auschwitz II, where the train tracks ended. By now we had the camp to ourselves. Rabbi Barry Marcus led our group in a service. He provided us with something that I think the visit needed; a clear voice of outrage. It is fine, up to a point, to be reflective, and introspective, and measured in one’s response to the place, but allowing it to be seen as darkly as we wish, we risk reducing the Holocaust to something almost comfortable and ignorable.

He spoke eloquently and beautifully about the necessity of seeing Auschwitz for what it was: the celebration of death; an assault on what it means to be human. As he blew the Shofar Horn and its lonely note sounded in that dark camp where so very recently, Judaism was being rounded up and reduced to lampshades, fertiliser and soap, I realised how vital it was to keep that fact clear in our minds. In a secular age where the old ethical foundations have been unsettled and often toppled by the moral earthquakes of the twentieth century- of which Auschwitz was an essential agent- moral relativism and non-cognitivism are often attractive intellectual and emotional responses to a world that seems to display no inherent justice or provide any karmic reassurances that the good will be rewarded and evil punished.

And I can see that, I really can. But Auschwitz reminded me that, despite the obvious presence of an ethical compass, pointing to True North, this one thing remains: if this is not evil, then nothing is, and nothing matters, and nothing has value. Let Auschwitz stand as a bloody foundation stone to a moral pyramid, if something has to. Let every principle and creed evolve from this axiom: Auschwitz is the anti-life.

School trips are rightly aimed at enriching the experience of the students who participated. A place like Auschwitz becomes what you bring to it: on the surface of things, all there is to see are rows and rows of decimated sheds, rubble, pre-war barracks and abandoned avenues. Take away the history and there is nothing to see; the blood has soaked deep into the soil by now, and the adage that ‘here, nothing lives’ is a patent nonsense. Auschwitz teems with life; nature in its infinite variety breeds here with abandon and fecundity; sparrows swarm and even a faun dashed across our paths early in the evening, as a haunting counterpoint to the palpable presence of barbarity and death that we had steeped ourselves in. Dami and Emily had the sensitivity and maturity of spirit to bring to this trip what was required, as seemingly did the many dozens of students with us: humanity.

The Rabbis finished his service in what was now night, by singing a low, slow Jewish prayer. It reminded me of sand, and sadness, and thousands of years of Diaspora, alienation and sorrow. Kitty Hart-Moxon, the Survivor who had spoken to us the week previously summed it up. She said, ‘Everyone sees Auschwitz as a place where people died. But for some of us, it was also a place where you lived.’ As we walked back to the coach along the rail tracks in the dark, placing our candles along the sleepers and leaving them as sad punctuation marks in Auschwitz’s traumatised soil, I thought of everyone that couldn’t leave. Every life here mattered. Every life still does. The death of one person is a tragedy to us all; if it isn’t, then my life is also without value, because it is made of the same matter.

Whatever happens to us when we die, wherever we go or not, we must treasure our humanity, and that of others; not because we fear death, but because we value life. Herr Einstein tells us that the nature of time is somehow simultaneous; that all pasts, presents and futures are wrapped together into a state of endless, perpetual presence. From this secular, emprirical perspective, no one who has ever passed is ever truly lost: lost to us perhaps, but enduring, existent in a way we can barely fathom. I find that comforting. The victims of death remain, somehow, even if it defies our perception.

May they remain forever in the company of the ones they love.