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Culture & Religion

WHY ME?/ This is the real question put by Hitchens

Christofer Hitchens is struggling against cancer and many hope he will convert to Christianity in extremis. The real question is whether he will open fully the eyes of his heart and find an answer to his own question: “Why me?”  


I am finally back home with access to the sources I consult for this column, and yet my choice is a topic that received a very brief media attention a few weeks ago, namely, an article about Christopher Hitchens by Liesl Schillinger in The New York Times August 15, 2010 issue. The big news this past week has certainly be the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the scary threat of a new stream of hurricanes marching up this way. Still, I have not been able to stop thinking about Hitchen’s drama, one that is much more intense than the threat of hurricanes.

Schillinger sets up the scene as follows: “Two fierce battles are being waged this summer — one against esophageal cancer, by the…commentator and critic Christopher Hitchens (who scorns the use of the word “battle” in this context), and the other for his soul, by those who hope to persuade him to convert to Christianity in extremis… (In) the September issue of Vanity Fair, he published an essay in which he movingly describes his journey ‘from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.’ ”

Schillinger continues: “On Aug. 6, The Atlantic posted a video interview with Mr. Hitchens at his home in Washington that has been much circulated. In it, the writer Jeffrey Goldberg asked Mr. Hitchens how he was doing. ‘I’m dying,’ he said. ‘I would be a very lucky person to live another five years.’

When asked, ‘Do you find it insulting for people to pray for you?’ Mr. Hitchens responded: ‘No, no. I take it kindly, under the assumption that they are praying for my recovery.’  All the same, Mr. Hitchens dismissed both the notion that his cancer would lead him to make a tardy profession of faith and the idea that, if it did, such a profession would be valid.

‘The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain,’ he said. ‘I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark.’

This subject is one Mr. Hitchens has mulled over since childhood, when he decided…that it was ‘contemptible’ to rely on religion just for comfort if it ‘might not be true.’ As an adult whose hopes lay assuredly in the intellect, not in the hereafter, he concluded, ‘Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and — since there is no other metaphor — also the soul.’

Mr. Hitchens was not the only embattled British-born intellectual whose faith in articulacy caught the public eye this summer. On Aug. 6, the day of the Atlantic interview with Mr. Hitchens, the fearless historian Tony Judt died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the progressive neurodegenerative disease. Throughout this year, as his illness worsened, Mr. Judt published essays in The New York Review of Books, with his characteristic, unflinching perception, about memory, history, politics and his struggle with A.L.S.