Thursday, December 15, 2011

RIP Christopher Hitchens

While there are many writers I admire, Christopher Hitchens is one whom I read and get jealous. I've often disagreed with the positions he takes, and sometimes found him cruel, extreme and needlessly offensive in his provocations - but his command of the language and the depth of his cultural knowledge generally leave me embarrassed about my own shortcomings, and I read his writing in a state of awe and envy, even when the views he's advocating leave me shaking my head. His skills as an orator were also something to marvel at - whatever else one says about him, he was very, very good at being Christopher Hitchens. I've followed the news of his struggles with cancer and hoped for the best for him. It was not forthcoming - he died today, at 62. His most recently published article for Vanity Fair, dealing with his cancer, is here.

An afterthought: actually, it looks from reading that article that I can make one cultural claim Hitchens couldn't - I know my Nietzsche! (At least better than he did). The aphorism in full is (I think in the Kaufmann translation): "From the military school of life: what does not kill me makes me stronger." The first part, so often left out, makes clear that Nietzsche is not putting forth the second as a general truth (so quarrelling with it for a couple of pages doesn't make a lot of sense). He's saying that for a certain type of person - strong souls, not easily defeated - adversities can be used as something to learn, grow, and empower onself with; that the strong, the morally ambitious, the fighers (whom he imagines his proper readers to be - Nietzsche could do nothing so well as flatter) will take their defeats, incorporate them, and find a way to rise above them better people. It's meant as "words to live by," as a useful maxim to follow, kinda his way of saying "don't let the bastards grind you down." Nietzsche was not so daft to think chemotherapy and cancer and such, insofar as they didn't kill you, were somehow empowering experiences.

It's still an entertaining article, I just had to posthumously one-up Hitch. My favourite variant of Nietzsche's quote, note - from a kinda-girlfriend of yore - was "what does not kill me makes me drink more." I suspect Hitchens would have liked that one, too.

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