A HITCHMAS CAROL
Larry Alex Taunton apparently prides himself on being a man who never let decency or good taste interfere with the opportunity to stretch the truth for money and attention.
To wit: he's written a book entitled The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which purports to reveal that Hitchens reconsidered his own atheism near the end of his fight with esophageal cancer. It further promises to disclose how the staunch unbeliever secretly yearned to embrace Christianity, but sadly was foiled by his own long-standing policy of rejecting manifestly false, historically baseless rubbish.
Upon hearing all this, I felt what I suppose many devoted Hitch fans did. Revulsion like you might experience watching, say, a video of Ted Cruz naked and aroused in a shower, passionately tongue-kissing his own elderly mother. In other words, someone there is clearly enjoying himself immensely, and just as clearly he really shouldn’t oughta be.
What to do, though? The principal conversations Taunton cites as evidence are alleged to have occurred on two long-distance car rides. Only he and Hitchens were present and only they could accurately report on the exchange. Unfortunately one of these two men currently lacks functioning brain cells and the other one is dead.
The solution came to me late the other night. And I mean it truly came to me.
I lay awake in bed, troubled at that time by a different ethical dilemma. I was weighing whether in toto it would be better to have Donald Trump heading the executive branch of the US government, or to gut myself with broken glass and devour my own full, hot bowels. It felt like a toss-up.
Sometime past two-thirty, as I was about to get up and look for a bottle to shatter (just in case), I heard a familiar voice.
“Sorry to interrupt your reverie, but you wouldn't happen to have a decent whiskey handy, would you? Damned hard to come by where I've been lately.”
I looked to the foot of my bed, already as certain of what I would see there as I was incredulous. That mellifluous RP accent, the spark of dark humor, the very nature of the request itself. And as I watched, the ghost of Christopher Hitchens materialized in my bedroom, raising an empty lowball glass in a hand nearly as transparent.
He twiddled his glass and offered a wry smile. “Spiritu a spiritum?”
“Sounds appropriate.” I don’t have much Latin, but in context this was pretty easy to make out. Spirits for a spirit. Whatever else he’d lost in death, Hitchens had kept his wits.
I arose from bed, donned my robe, and led the late literary pugilist into my study. There I cracked opened a lovely, twelve year old single malt I'd been saving for the death of George W. Bush. This was easily as special an occasion.
I poured out one finger for each of us. Hitchens arched a spectral brow. I poured him two. He nodded his approval, and I handed him back his glass.
We stood facing each other in front of the desk at which I am seated now, writing this account. He looked surprisingly hale and hearty for a dead man. His hair, once depilated by chemotherapy, was again full and delightfully unkempt. He wore a slightly rumpled suit of a light tan. His skin, though diaphanous, still held a better tone than it had in his final days.
The great polemicist’s poltergeist lifted his glass in a silent toast and took a nip.
I watched in fascination, half-expecting the golden liquid to dribble through his chin to the floor. It did not. All of which only added to my understandable curiosity.
“You mentioned ‘where I’ve been lately,’” I said.
“I did indeed.” He met my gaze with those wonderfully large and intelligent eyes that always seemed to suggest lugubrious depths, despite their sparkle.
“I’ve, uh, always wanted to know a bit more about ... that.” Stumbling a little on the immensity of what I was really asking.
“I’m afraid I can’t help you there.” He paused, then added, “I mean quite literally, I cannot.”
I puzzled over his precise choice of language. Was he saying that mere words would be inadequate to the task, or was there some sort of rule book the departed were privy to and perhaps bound by? I took a sip of whiskey myself and waited, letting the silence hang there between us in the hopes it might induce some minor enlargement on this cryptic statement.
Hitchens waited too.
After a few moments it occurred to me he had something of an edge there, inasmuch as he could stand here for all eternity if he liked, and I had at most about half a mortal lifespan remaining to spend.
“All right,” I said at last, “but I still have to ask...”
“The God question, yes. I should think the interview would be considered woefully incomplete without it.”
“I’m not interviewing you,” I lied. Somewhere in the back of my mind a number like five hundred thousand views was tickling my awareness.
Hitchens scoffed. “Well, why on earth wouldn't you be? Good Christ, man, of all of the interviews I've ever given, this surely rates among the most interesting. I'd say a half million views was selling us fairly short.”
A chill ran down my spine to my feet, bare and blue in the moonlight that seeped in through my study window. He can hear my thoughts. Holy shit. So he's hearing this thought too. And this one. I can't, I have to ... seven times seven is forty-nine, eight times seven is fifty-six, nine times seven is, um ...
"I don't know how long you can keep that up, old boy, but it's not necessary. You want me to stay out of your head, I give you a gentlemen's word I will stay out. For the remainder of this thing that is not an interview.” He winked.
I took a deep breath and made a concerted effort to pull myself together. “Good enough for me, Mr. Hitchens.”
“Christopher is fine.”
I felt my eyes misting up. I blinked and swallowed hard. The swirl of emotions was making me a bit dizzy. Or was it the whiskey? Didn't matter. It actually felt pretty good.
“So, Christopher, is there a God or not? And did you turn to Him, like Taunton is saying? Or, I don’t know, did you want to? I guess that’s more what he’s suggesting.”
“Yes, that’s what he is suggesting. He’s not saying I converted on my death bed. He doesn’t have the bollocks for that apparently. At any rate my wife was with me in those days and hours and she can refute that. He is saying that I reconsidered my atheistic convictions.”
“And...?” I braced myself for the answer.
“And what do you think? I’m not dodging the question—I truly want to know your take on all of all this, and I’ve already promised to get it the old-fashioned way.”
I felt the anger as heat in my face and neck. “It’s bullshit. I mean, you predicted this. They did the same thing with Voltaire, and Hume, and Ingersoll, and ... well they always do this.”
“And you wrote that if you ever spewed any such thing, you know, ‘I found Jesus,’ or whatever, that it would be the product of, of madness and medication.”
“I didn’t put it quite that way, but I like the alliteration. Nice little turn of phrase.”
“Thanks.” I think I blushed.
Hitchens fixed me with a hard stare. “So then, you actually know Taunton has been lying.”
“I ... yes.”
I felt a thrill of fear for the first time that night, despite that for several minutes I’d already been talking with a phantom. Because I saw now what was at stake. And it was more than my unabashed love and admiration for this man. I tried walking my answer back a bit.
“Maybe," I said, "know isn’t the right ... it’s all just too out of character.”
“Because the dying never act out of character. And besides, you and I were always so very close in life.”
The dizziness sank from my head to my stomach and I began to feel a bit sick. “I don’t think I want to play this game.”
“No, no, no, there’s nothing for it but to push on now.”
I looked straight ahead, noticing for the first time that I could make out the second hand of my study’s wall clock ticking behind him. I didn’t miss the irony. I could peer through his head, but not into it. “All right. So is it true? Taunton doesn’t say you converted, not exactly. He says you wanted to, but you balked at the cost. Which is worse, really.”
“Yes. Because that would mean I cynically kept to my original position out of sheer vanity. To protect my precious persona.”
“Yes.” I paused.“So...”
Hitchens--or this phantasm of him or this dream of him or this undigested bit of beef--took another sip of whiskey. When he looked at me again, the sadness in his eyes was tangible not tacit. “And what if I flat out told you it wasn’t true? What if I said Taunton conveniently mistook my rather extraordinary ability to enjoy true friendship with people who hold wildly different views as evidence that I longed to join them in those beliefs? What if I said that his and my reading aloud from the Gospel of John at length—and we did, mind you—amounted to no more than the usual discussion and debate prep. In this case for the very contests to which we were then en route. What if I told you all of that? Would you then know the truth?”
I took a deep breath. “No. I still wouldn’t know.”
He gave a single nod. “The one and only correct answer.”
“I would believe you, though
”He swirled his whiskey glass and seem to be watching it intently. “And what if some recordings emerged which supported everything Taunton is suggesting? That I saw the light and couldn’t face its glare. Or pure narcissism got in the way. What say you then?”
“Then I’d be mortified.”
He looked up with a bemused expression. “No more than I.”
“I might wonder if they were fakes. No, I would wonder. And I’d want them to be fakes. I’m afraid I’d want that a lot.”
“Fair enough.” He spread his arms in an expansive gesture. “We all desire certain things to be true, if we’re honest. But when it comes to beliefs, desire isn’t data. Never conflate the two, because that way madness lies. And, if I recall correctly, Young Earth Creationism as well.”
“This is what you meant before, isn’t it? When I said how I wanted to know about ... where you’ve been. And you said you couldn’t help.”
“Couldn’t help you to know. About any of it, including the God question. The evidence alone can accomplish that. No mere account can pull it off, regardless of how respected the individual who conveys it or how ancient and revered the book that contains it. Eventually you’ll see for yourself.”
I jumped on that. “I will?”
“Or you won’t. You’re not going to catch me out that easily. Some questions simply can’t be answered. Not well, anyway. Life fairly seethes with uncertainty, my friend.”
“Yeah. I hate that.”
“Well, don’t.” He narrowed his eyes and sharpened his voice. “I’m as deadly serious right now as only the dead can be. There’s nothing the matter with uncertainty. That’s their disease not ours. They’re the ones so desperate for answers they take the collected press releases of a Bronze Age tribe as the revealed Truth.”
He set his glass down on my desk blotter and proceeded to lecture me in a kind and fatherly tone. (I was stabbed then by the sudden, sad recollection that this man had left three children behind.)
“Uncertainty is a glorious thing, Lee," he said. "And I’ll tell you why right now. Because where there is certainty there is no more possibility. Those antipodes cannot exist in the same mind at the same time. So cherish your incertitude. Shoulder it with a measure of pride that you have chosen bravely to bear that uneasy burden. And accept as your reward a sense of amazement. Einstein was right. He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead.” He smiled. “And I should know.”
I noticed the clock behind him again, and realized that I was seeing it more clearly. The apparition of Hitchens was fading. He was going away. I felt a sudden pang of grief, but tried to affect a light tone.
“Leaving so soon?”
His smile turned wistful. “How very mortal of you. All of this,” he glanced around my study, but it was clear he was gazing beyond its walls, “we do nothing to earn our initial spot here. It’s all a gift. And then we ungraciously moan that we cannot have more.”
“Any last words? For ... us?” I didn’t want to say your fans. It would have sounded too pedestrian. For good or ill we’re something more than that.
He was almost gone now. “Keep the opposition ever on the back foot. But have a hand out too for when they fall.”
“And have some goddamn fun. Otherwise, what’s the point?”
I could only just make out the edges of a man-like shape, and then it was gone too. I quickly stepped over to the space where Hitchens appeared to have been standing a moment before. Did the air feel a few degrees cooler here? Maybe. Did I want it to? Yes, doubtless I did.
When it comes to beliefs, desire isn’t data. I ran the line over a few times in my head, determined to remember it verbatim. It felt like a parting gift from an old friend.
I started to leave the study, stopped, slipped a book off the shelf, and carried it to my bedroom with the dregs of the whiskey still in my other hand.
Returning to bed, I clicked on my nightstand lamp. I opened God is Not Great to the afterword, page two eighty-seven, and read.
May 1, New York City: An evening at the Union League Club
I am interviewed by the publisher Peter Collier. He’s just
closed the meeting when a man in clerical collar puts up his hand. In a
magnanimous mood, I say, Fair enough—let’s extend the event for a man of the
cloth. This turns out to be Father George Rutler of the Church of Our Saviour,
who announces that he’s on the committee of the club and will make sure I am
never invited there again. There’s some shock at this inhospitable attitude,
but I think: Gosh. Holy Mother Church used to threaten people with eternal
damnation. Now it’s exclusion from the Union League Club. What a comedown. In a
brisk exchange near the elevator, the good Father assures me that I shall die a Catholic.
As usual, they were wrong.