Friday, December 16, 2011

That's What Killed the Old Man

By now I'm sure anyone with half an internet connection or a TV is aware that the writer Christopher Hitchens has passed away.

Other than marking his new book Arguably as "to read" on Goodreads about a month or two ago based on an article I read in the New York Times, I can honestly say he was almost entirely off my radar. If I had read his reviews or essays in Slate or The Nation or Vanity Fair, I had never put the name to a personality, I was never conscious of "following" Christopher Hitchens.

Until last night, that is. As I was strolling here and there on the internet, I somehow meandered from a Wikipedia entry on Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophy (whatever that is) to the god-awful looking Goetheanum, to discussions on the philosophy of freedom, to trying to wrap my head around the statement "mathematics is a kind of thinking in which thought itself forms the perceptions," to the cult of Joseph Smith and the Church of the Latter Day Saints, to a video of Mitt Romney talking in his fake "I'm trying to be so sincere" way to an old gay soldier who was asking him about marital rights, to finally a critique of religion by Hitchens. All of that was followed by a couple of hours of watching him on YouTube skillfully and suavely eviscerate opponents and shibboleths.

I watched the profile on him on 60 Minutes from this March. I peeked through my fingers at the smarmy Anderson Cooper interviewing him last year ("Hitchens, God, and Cancer.") I watched pre-cancer interviews and talk show appearances. I watched him talk honestly and acerbically about his vices and beliefs.

Then I went to bed. In the middle of the night I came upon him on a desolate country road with dead yellow stalks of grass blowing in the cold wind. Hitchens, gaunt and unshaven, wearing a giant black full-length wool coat, held a tattered piece of cloth up at me — he was somehow simultaneously both threatening me and pleading for help. His anguish and my fear were both real and extreme. I'm told that I woke up shout-murmurring, which eventually trailed off into a whimper.

This morning I decided I had to buy his latest book and read it, so I downloaded it from the Apple Store and perused the Table of Contents and the Introduction. I read a little bit of it here and there. I wondered if he was still alive.

Two or three hours later, Breaking News on the front page of The New York Times: Christopher Hitchens has died.

This evening, in class, I taught the word coincidence to one of my students. But he wasn't interested, or perhaps just couldn't relate. A navel gazer turning circles around a little island. All just too much after a hard day at work.

But I'm not really convinced that my dream and Hitchens's death were a coincidence. Not really convinced that's how the world works. Not really convinced either by Hitchens's brave stand of atheism:

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
— from The Portable Atheist

It is entirely possible that what you wish for is what you get. Angry and confused on the way out. I don't pretend to know what happens at the time of death, but I much more inclined to think along Tibetan Buddhist lines:

The Buddhist view is that at the time of death the subtle consciousness, which carries with it all the karmic imprints from previous lives, separates from the body. After spending up to forty-nine days in an intermediate state between lives, the consciousness enters the fertilised egg of its future mother at or near the moment of conception. New life then begins. We bring into our new life a long history of previous actions with the potential to ripen at any time or in any of a myriad ways.

The state of mind at the time of death is vitally important and can have a considerable effect on the situation into which we are reborn. Hence the need to prepare well for death and to be able to approach our death with a peaceful, calm and controlled mind. (from Healing: A Tibetan Buddhist Perspective)

If nothing else, we can leave this life in a hopeful state. We can look forward to death. It's very hard for me to agree with Hitchens that there is "nothing more."

And I'm sorry I had to run away from him on the road.

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