Christopher Hitchens died this week. Death by esophageal cancer is ugly, and it must have been a terrible year for him and his family.
But he’s not one of the writers I’ve looked forward to reading. I’ve read many of his pieces because they were talked about, or because they appeared in magazines I read. They were smoothly done, and I appreciated an occasional phrase or sentence.
Of the articles I’ve read commemorating his life, two have been by women, and they were both interviews. “Let’s have a woman interview him,” I can imagine the male editor saying, pleased with the incongruity.
Esophageal cancer is frequently associated with smoking and drinking, Hitchens’s trademarks. And that is a good bit of what is being celebrated: his massive capacity for drink and the ability to write under its influence. And the polemics, which make me think of a nasty drunk, but perhaps that’s uncharitable.
I keep thinking of the phrase, “a man’s man,” which would go with the smoking, drinking, and anger. Yes, Hitchens claimed that all that made him creative, productive. Those celebrating his life seem to agree that this is a path to creative productivity.
But I’m of a different temperament. Let’s imagine paens to sitting quietly and meditatively, knitting, finding creative productivity there. Or walking in the woods. Yes, that works better: stretching our masculine muscles, striding along assertively. Certainly creativity there. But wait. I like to sit on a boulder, feel its boulderness, rub my hand against a crusty treebark, wait for a bird to pose or the light to reach its peak. And the ideas come.
I’ve been angry, but I can’t think of any time when it’s done me much good. Perhaps men’s anger is more useful in this world, although I can’t think of a lot of examples. Yes, it’s occasionally useful for someone to puncture the pompous or the actively dangerous. Too bad Hitchens was too busy making macho noises when that opportunity arose with George Bush’s adventure in Iraq.
It’s odd that the world that Hitchens and I grew up in marked women as the emotional sex. Those emotions, of course, were the ones not associated with masculinity. The masculine indulgence in another set of emotions was normed along with other things masculine.
But now we’ve seen through that, or have we?
For the past year or so, I’ve been running into writings and actions that seem shockingly unaware of how blind they are to anything outside a narrow band of experience, that sometimes further valorize that experience above all other possibilities. No, I’m sorry, I don’t have links just now; and I know this is awfully abstract. The tributes to Hitchens overlap with this category: experiences that are pretty much alien to me.
I’m wondering how much this sort of macho goes into the fictions currently permeating American politics: self-made men, don’t need help from the government, just let us live free. Not so different from Hitchens’s ethic, although backed by a Christianity abstemious in his drinking and smoking, not so abstemious in anger.
But you can’t run a country on adrenaline rush. Daniel Kahneman’s new book distinguishes between that rush and what makes us human: reflective thought. He calls them Systems 1 and 2. System 1 is automatic and easy; System 2 needs cultivation and protection.
I’m sure Christopher Hitchens was a great drinking buddy. I’m not sure how much further that goes than Saturday night.
Update (12/20/11): Okay, here's a good remembrance by a man.