Monday, August 9, 2010

'An astonishing number of prayer groups'

If anyone reading this happens to be teaching creative writing or running workshops or whatever, here's an article you might find useful. Certainly I plan to save it, so it's to hand should I ever find myself teaching anyone the difference between sentimentality and the real thing.

I've been a fan of Christopher Hitchens, even all through his contrarian views on Iraq, ever since the positively Damascene moment in a friend's sunny apartment overlooking Sydney Harbour on Easter Saturday 1994, where I read him for the first time. The moment of revelation was specifically this paragraph from a review in the TLS, first published 1988, which gave me a major new view, as of suddenly opened curtains on a window that turns out to be much larger than one imagined, of what it was possible for a writer to do:
If one takes the normal American ambition to be the pursuit of happiness, and charts the ways in which that pursuit is so cruelly thwarted, sooner or later one strikes across the wound profiles of Dallas, Texas on 22 November 1963. In those 'six point nine seconds of heat and light' or those 'seven seconds that broke the back of the American century', some little hinge gave way in the national psyche. The post-Kennedy period is often written up as a 'loss of innocence', a judgement which admittedly depends for its effect on how innocent you thought America had been until a quarter of a century ago. ... With Kennedy's murder, the Republic doomed itself to the repetitive contemplation of a tormenting mystery. Here is a country where information technology operates at a historically unsurpassed level; where anything knowable can in principle be known and publicised; where the bias is always in favour of disclosure rather than concealment; where the measure of attainment even in small-change discourse is the moon-shot. And nobody is satisfied that they know for certain what happened in the banal streets of Dealey Plaza.
And now here he is in the current Vanity Fair, almost another quarter of a century later, on what it's like to be diagnosed with cancer at 61.

Check out, in particular, the final paragraph, where one of the world's most famously strident and adamantine atheists and actively anti-Christian crusaders observes, briefly and neutrally, knowing that the irony does not need to be pointed out and will not escape his readers (one of the reasons I love him is his unfailing respect for his readers' intelligence), that he is getting supportive messages from 'an astonishing number of prayer groups'.

Imagine the struggle to process and reconcile this -- to do so at all, much less weakened, as he clearly is and including intellectually (though there's not much evidence of that in the writing) by the brutal treatments that all past and present cancer patients know far too much about.


via collins said...

This really is an extraordinary piece by Hitch.

It's haunting me all week long. Who would ever have imagined a person undergoing chemo could conjure up something so full of life and wit?

I so hope there's more to come, for him, and for all of us. Anyone who can fit the f#@%er with verve like this is doing the world a favour.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

There is a staggering interview with him, done very recently and up on Youtube, with a bloke from Atlantic Monthly who asks him how he is. (!) Hitchens kind of does a double take and says in a fairly neutral, detached-observer kind of way 'Well ... I'm dying.' And so, alas, it does appear to be. When they found the cancer it had already metastasized to his lymph nodes and lungs. Good on him for going through the torture of treatment anyway, presumably in the hope of giving his wife and kids a bit of extra time.

As for wit -- I think those who were already witty on top of that kind of strength of character can keep it up. I went to see a dear friend of mine who was diagnosed with breast cancer -- not Humanities Researcher, another one (!, again) -- barely a year after her husband died of lung cancer, the day after her surgery, and found her chalk-faced but up and dressed, paying bills online, with her daughter across the desk filling in applications for supplementary university exams, for the third year in a row, though in the event she never needed any of them. My friend looked across the desk at her kid and said 'Just put "Same excuse, different parent."' (NB this story has a happy ending. Just as well.)

After some thought I've removed a comment here from someone who's never commented here before, advocating 'alternative' treatments for cancer. I am sure that if such 'treatments' worked (as distinct from things like meditation and hypnotherapy for stress and pain management, which I'm sure both help), the mainstream medical profession would be onto that fact, and I recommend that that commenter read Helen Garner's The Spare Room.

Stomper Girl said...

I read that piece via Stephen Fry's blog, and was very much struck by it. It was the first time I'd read Christopher Hitchen and that now feels like a terrible shame because the writing and thinking in that piece was superb.