Hitchens on mortality

Christopher Hitchens interviewed by Australia’s ABC TV (the full interview can be viewed on broadband here on Windows Media Player):

TONY JONES: I want to ask you what you think about Martin Amis’ idea that writers like you must actually believe in some form of life after death because not all of you, not all of the parts of you are going to die because the printed words you leave behind constitute a form of immortality. I mean, is he just being kind, or do you think that there’s a truth to that?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Littera scripta manet – “The written word will remain”. That’s true, but it won’t be that much comfort to me.

Of course I do write – I’ve always had the sense of writing, as it were, posthumously. I once wrote an introduction to a collection of my own essays. I stole the formulation from Nadine Gordimer who said you should try and write as if for post-mortem publication because it only then can screen out all those influences: public opinion, some reviewer you might want to be impressing, some publisher who might want to publish you, someone you’re afraid of offending. All these distractions, you can write purely and honestly and clearly and for its own sake. And the best way of doing that is to imagine that you won’t live to see it actually written, then you can be sure that you’re being objective and you’re being scrupulous.

I think that’s a wonderful reflection, but it doesn’t – it isn’t the same term as immortality at all.

TONY JONES: As you say in your memoirs, you’ve written for decades day in, day out – I think you said at least 1,000 words a day for many, many years – despatches, articles, lectures, books – in particular books. Doesn’t it give you some comfort that your thoughts, and indeed some version of you, is going to exist after your death, is imperishable?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, if you want to know – because I try to avoid the blues when talking about all of this, but if you want to know one of the most sour reflections that I have when I think that I’m 61 now and I might not make 65 – I quite easily might not.

One of the bitter aspects of that is, well, I put in 60 years at the coalface, I worked very hard. In the last few years I’ve got a fair amount of recognition for it. In my opinion, actually, rather more than I deserve. Certainly more than I expected. And I could have looked forward to a few years of, shall we say, cruising speed, you know, just, as it were, relishing that, enjoying it.

Not ceasing to work, not resting on the laurels, but savouring it a bit and that – I was just getting ready for that, as a matter of fact. I was hit right at the top of my form, right in the middle of a successful book tour. I’m not going to get that and that does upset me. So that’s how I demarcate it from immortality.

Similarly, I’m not going to see my grandchildren – almost certainly not. One has children in the expectation of dying before them. In fact, you want to make damn sure you die before them, just as you plant a tree or build a house knowing, hoping that it will outlive you. That’s how the human species has done as well as it has.

The great Cuban writer Jose Marti said that a man – he happened to say it was a man – three duties: to write a book, to plant a tree and to have a son. I remember the year my first son was born was the year I published my first real full-length book, and I had a book party for it and for him – Alexander, my son – and I planted a tree, a weeping willow and felt pretty good for the age of, what?, I think 32 or something.

But, the thought of mortality, in other words of being outlived, is fine when it’s your children, your books or your trees, but it doesn’t reconcile you to an early death. No, it doesn’t.

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