Christopher Hitchens died yesterday of the oesophageal cancer that had plagued him for the past year and a half. Hitchens was a remarkable thinker and writer, considered by many to be the best essayist in recent times.
I’m not going to attempt any sort of eulogy. I never met the man, and have read only a small portion of his writings, and so many others have written much more eloquently than I ever could. At richarddawkins.net, they are collecting obituaries from round the world, so go there and read as many as you want. Slate magazine has a series of recollections of Hitchens as well as the complete collection of his writings for the magazine.
He also wrote for Vanity Fair, and they have his essays available as well. His last essay for this magazine struck me as very powerful. Here, he took on Nietzsche’s aphorism “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” and showed it to be absolutely false, especially in matters of health.
It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier. But does the rhyme suggest a reason? Perhaps it does, or can, in matters of the emotions. I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than “There but for the grace of god go I,” which in turn is to say no more than “The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.”
In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker. Nietzsche was destined to find this out in the hardest possible way, which makes it additionally perplexing that he chose to include the maxim in his 1889 anthology Twilight of the Idols.
The essay, in the latest issue of the magazine, concludes:
So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
Powerful last words from a remarkable man.