Two Sets of Books

Disclaimer: I submitted this to the New York Times as a response to the article that is mentioned here but I never heard back from them within their specified time frame for publishing, so instead I decided to publish on my site.

I set these words down to address a very particular topic, and a very particular person. It is with a considerable amount of disagreement that I address Larry Taunton regarding his piece entitled “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist,” and inform him of why his interpretations of private conversations with Hitchens are not only horrible misrepresentations of the man himself, even as lackadaisical musings, but do nothing but use as a crutch his memory and legacy to attempt to cement the supposed inherit lie that all non-religious persons adhere to, on the surface, and secretly pine for salvation in the closet, placating the ego of the pious.

Getting right to the facts, in an article in the New York Times, dated Saturday March 14th, 2016, titled “Famous Atheist’s Non-Faith Is Questioned in Friend’s Book,” an excerpt lays the foundation for Taunton’s story:

“… In September 2010, five months after Mr. Hitchens’s diagnosis of cancer, he and Hitch drove the thirteen hours from Mr. Hitchens’s home in Washington, D.C. to a Fixed Point debate in Birmingham, Ala. The next month, after an event in Billings, Mont., they took a seven-hour trip to, and around, Yellowstone National Park. As Mr. Taunton drove, Mr. Hitchens read aloud from the Gospel of John and mulled over the precise reason Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. “Where is the grace in the Old Testament?” Hitchens asked at one point, in Mr. Taunton’s telling. “I see it in the New Testament, but God is different in the Old Testament,” Mr. Hitchens observed, leading to a discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham. Based principally on these conversations, Mr. Taunton concluded that Mr. Hitchens was seeking – and that he was, at least, open to – the possibility that Christianity was true. Perhaps, Mr. Taunton writes, Mr. Hitchens “used his position as a journalist as a kind of professional cover for a very personal inquiry” into the faith.”

Later, another excerpt:

“Still, Mr. Taunton laces his book with plenty of winks toward hopeful Christians, who would be understandably glad to see the conversion of an atheist as prominent as Mr. Hitchens. He quotes John le Carre’s George Smiley, who says, in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (the movie, not the book), “The fantastic is always concealing a secret doubt.” He writes that Mr. Hitchens had to keep up the front of an unquestioning atheist because it “was a matter of professional pride for him to play the part for which he had been hired.”

Again, another excerpt quoting Michael Shermer, who had originally written a highly favorable review of the book, later asked for it to be redacted on account of a growing discomfort with Taunton’s near-abuse usage of Hitchen’s phrase “keeping two sets of books”:

“But you mean his wife, his family, his books, every interview he ever gave was all deceitful, but you, you got the real story?” he said, referring to Mr. Taunton. “I don’t think so.””

One last excerpt:

“Mr. Wilson agreed that, whatever the truth about Mr. Hitchens’s dying beliefs, the intrigue makes for a good story. “Christians like the idea of saved in the nick of time,” he said. “They like the idea of a cliffhanger ending.””

Next I would like to bring to light excerpts from Christopher Hitchens himself, from his memoir “Hitch 22.” Specifically the First Trade Edition: June 2011, published by Twelve, which contains a preface authored by Christopher Hitchens dated January 20, 2011. This puts the writing of these words after the time frame which Taunton claims to have had an enlightening experience with Hitchens. The first:

“A continuous theme in Hitch-22 is the requirement, exacted by a life of repeated contradictions, to keep two sets of books. My present condition intensifies this rather than otherwise. I am forced to make simultaneous preparations to die, and to go on living. Lawyers in the morning, as I once put it, and doctors in the afternoon.”

Another:

“Another element of my memoir – the stupendous importance of love, friendship, and solidarity – has been made immensely more vivid to me by recent experience.”

Another:

“The cause of my life has been that of combating superstition, which among other things means confronting the dreads upon which it feeds. For some inexplicable reason, our culture regards it as normal, even creditable, for the godly to admonish those who they believe to be expiring. A whole tawdry edifice – of fabricated “deathbed conversions” and moist devotional literature – has arisen on this highly questionable assumption. Though I could have chosen to take offense (at being silkily invited to jettison my convictions when in extremis: what an insult and what a non-sequitur too) I was actually grateful for the heavy attention I received from the faithful. It gave my atheism, if you like, a new lease on life. It also help me keep open a long debate to which I am proud to have contributed a little.”

Another:

“The irruption of death into my life has enabled me to express a trifle more concretely my contempt for the false consolation of religion, and belief in the centrality of science and reason.”

And finally:

“I wasn’t born to do any of the things I set down here, but I was born to die and this coda must be my attempt to assimilate the narrative to its conclusion.”

A very critical note that Taunton and Wilson (who was referenced briefly in the excerpts above) miss, at this juncture it would have to be inferred that it was blatantly ignored, was that Hitchens, much like the literary titans he surrounded himself with, was pursuant first and foremost toward the passion for literature. Littered throughout “Hitch 22,” and from various recorded speaking engagements, one has very little difficulty in determining this fact. It is not uncommon for an intellectual to be thirsty for knowledge – a thirsty reader will read, a thirsty writer will write, a thirsty painter will paint, etc… Nietzsche lays down this point better than most, while also laying the groundwork for the integrity of the intellectual in “On the Genealogy of Morals”: “… For nothing else befits a philosopher. We have no right to any isolated act whatsoever: to make isolated errors and to discover isolated truths are equally forbidden us. Rather, our thoughts, our values, our yeses and noes and ifs and whethers grow out of us with the same necessity with which a tree bears its fruits – all related and connected to one another and evidence of a single will, a single health, a single earth, a single sun.” This singularity is not a darling toward self-serving pious folks, as you’d have an incredibly hard time pouring over Nietzsche’s work the baptismal waters (the same person who declared himself to be the anti-Christ), but instead a reference to the insatiable thirst for an intellectual to seek knowledge, and that knowledge has no boundaries, and further that an intellectual has a responsibility to knowledge to not be isolated in its pursuit. A headline quote from the same New York Times article reads “An impious author who might have been exploring faith before he died.” – the absurdity oozing from the pores of the words here is astonishing, especially when in the context of Hitchens. – As if making inquiries into faiths, the texts behind them, and the people who are supposed to adhere to them, automatically implies that one is on the steps toward submission and salvation – please. A turn of this sort plays heavily on the intellectual’s due diligence of knowing about what it is they wish to discuss, something of which is the foundation for any serious intellectual. It is not uncommon for an atheist to read the multiple revisions of the Bible, or any other religious text, or study the principles of the religions around the world. This does not make them an active or even impending member of those religions.

As mentioned in the excerpts above, Hitchens makes reference to the “two sets of books” metaphor quite often. Not just from the quotations above, this use can be seen in his other book “god Is Not Great” and in various other recorded speaking events. Michael Shermer above requested that his positive review of Tounton’s book be redacted due to the latter having overused the dualist metaphor to an alarming degree. So what does Hitchens mean when he uses this? Yet two more excerpts from “Hitch 22”, both regarding his time at a school called Camdean:

“… We were all of us compelled to sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity as well, and nature was sometimes enlisted as illustrating god’s design, but I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern on Sundays. In fact, as you have perhaps guessed, I was getting an early training in the idea that life meant keeping two separate and distinct sets of books. If my parents knew what really went on at the school, I used to think (not being the first little boy to imagine that my main job was that of protecting parental innocence), they would faint from the shock. So I would be staunch and defend them from the knowledge.”

Second:

“Again come the two sets of books: I would escape to the library and lose myself in the adventure stories of John Buchan and “Sapper” and G.A. Hentry and Percy Westerman, and acquaint myself with imperial and military values just as, unknown to me in the England of the late 1950s that lay outside the school’s boundary, these were going straight out of style. Meanwhile and on the other side of the ledger, I would tell myself that I wasn’t really part of the hierarchy of cruelty, either as bully or victim.”

The meaning alone can be discerned from the first but the use of the second is to help ease along what is meant here.

Knowing that he had a distinct distaste for religion, especially a noted one for Christianity, and early on, Hitchens proceeds to say that he in fact did enjoy engaging in singing, reading, and learning. Saying it that way isn’t some coy subtraction of words in an effort to obviously remove them from the equation. It is instead used to point out that when considering the context, one taking part in activities with others, is indeed a reflection of human nature – the very real and truly inert need to be social, surrounded by others, accepted, and to reciprocate these things. The other children around him were doing the same exact things, as if it were all normal; these actions do not require qualification of the numinous to be dignified – a common misconception. The “two sets of books” metaphor holds more closely to the duality, introduced and contained within societies, enjoined on its constituents which in turn makes manifestly clear to the agent that innate desires and the results of them will nearly consistently be in conflict with the scaffolding prescribed to you. Not only does it have intimate ties with who and what we are as humans, which is not a shadow of an arrogant or indifferent god, but also to the attempts to reconcile those differences in accordance with the will to exhibit the love, friendship, and solidarity that is so important. It is not, as the pious would like to have it, and according so dotingly to Mr. Wilson, a good story that plays toward the Christian end-of-life ideal of repentance at the last moment for the dissenters.

Taunton’s assertions that Hitchens was only playing as an atheist because he was “hired” to be is as disingenuous and dishonest to a “friend” as one can be, as there is absolutely no way possible that one could ever entertain the thought that Hitchens had a last glimmer of faith and struggled with himself as to the object of commitment.

Snippet from “Junk Punch”

The following is a relatively raw snippet from my upcoming book “Junk Punch.”

 

For this, there is no training in either school or from the a posteriori position that enables one to say with conviction that they’re ready to be crippled in this way. For me, the experience was quite like this. The naivete that consumed my life while my mom was alive was not only a luxury I could no longer afford, but within it was nothing ever found about not just the outside world but how to recover the security that had been lost. Very quickly, however, certain things become manifestly clear about your new life.

First is that you’re obviously minus a parent. As startling as that may be in and of itself, I’ve already established that it alone is mostly insignificant. The only thing that rears its ugly head here is the realization that tomorrow, when you wake up, that person won’t be there. This isn’t unlike seeing them off for an extended leave, although I must confess that this epiphany may have resulted from the drawn-out winnowing process instead of making itself clear from the start. Regardless of how level headed one thinks they are in crisis situations, an adaptive process is required in some degree introspectively. Even the sharpest of minds will fall dull against this particular foe.

Second is the factor of perspective, to which it would appear that in most cases, but certainly not all, age disparity plays a more than significant role. Unfortunately, informing those fresh to the bereavement process of things like “time heals all wounds” or “you need to seek out closure” are about as meaningful functionally as a fire is to a burn victim. I will spare my full expose on it for the immediate moment and in lieu only say that time quite boorishly does nothing. Even as a function it’s honestly incapable of fulfilling such a task. As for closure, it will only ever work if one is prepared to accept within themselves a sort of multiple personality environment where the you prior to the event is no longer the same you afterward. This is in reality a method of assimilation, to which no one should be subject to professional psychiatric evaluation for. It is a default defensive mechanism and it is a required one. However, true closure is unattainable. No matter how long you wait, how many personas you develop, or how much you reflect and/or write about it, you realize that emotionally you are scarred for life. There is a distinct psychological factor here and I’ll touch on it momentarily.

“As one door closes, yet another opens.” This is true although the price to pay for the key is sometimes a fair bit too high. The sequence of opening and closing doors always occurs within the same hallway. When looking back, one sees reflections of one’s self within the snapshots contained between a set of two closed doors. Thus while you retain the same corporeal form, subject to biology, the evolution of the psyche from one gap to another will always change. Closure, in this way, is quite attainable but it is not the nature of the type that defines that delivered by the platitude. One has to take great care when engaging in the business of toggling doors. It is possible to not close doors at appropriate times or open them either too soon or too late. The caveat here though is that these particular doors can only be toggled by yourself and perspective is the only thing that will help you with navigation.

Third, and finally, is the realization that to some degree, one is faced with the Aristotelian concept of a tabula rasa. This may not be of effect on those who have reached sufficient age or who’s parents have lived to an acceptable age where the termination of life is, in a way, expected. Going back to the door analogy for one last moment, this phenomenon can be seen when one is ill equipped to open a door and does so prematurely or, in the relevant case, has the door blown open and is sucked in with the back draft. When an artist obtains an easel, they do in fact have some notion to what they intend to paint onto it. When a writer obtains a set of empty pages, they too have some concept of the words they wish to place down. In each of these examples, the person has some prior planning as to what exactly they’re going to do with their own blank slates. This goes back again to the preparatory stages mentioned before. Here is where having a lack of planning starts to reveal itself. A tabula rasa carries with it tremendous possibilities. However, it’s just as easy to discard it as it is to sit, paralyzed, and stare at it wondering who will make the first move between the two of you. This, dear reader, is what I found I was left with. A destroyed past and a blank slate for the future with absolutely no plan on what the hell to do with it.

Here I feel I must digress for a moment for if you have followed me so far then there must be an obvious logical gap. The training provided in one’s formative years, while not preparing one for the degree of emotional distress in a parental death, can indeed provide one with the tools to build upon said tabula rasa. There are still two unresolved issues here. First that the training is subjective to the society. Unless one is capable of refactoring their skills to a form as generic as possible, it is of no use to them elsewhere. This proves to be a problem when, spurred by ill-managed insurmountable grief, one becomes aimlessly migratory, in search of that special something. The second ties back to the emotional aspect. What the training cannot do is to functionally compel you to, in essence, begin the rebuilding effort. With the examples provided, it cannot make the artist paint or the writer write. The push against paralysis, induced by fear, is harder to accomplish than most realize.

This then leads to our next topic. If I had been so clearly emotionally destroyed, left with no direction whatsoever, had both my innocence and security taken away from me, been robbed of not just my mother but the life I had before and the future that included her, how in the hell did I manage to force myself to start figuring out how to create my own security?

Let’s start with the obvious matter which is to say that none of this, the things that have been discussed so far, was evident to me at the time. My philosophy and total understanding of the matter were quite absent from my mind. That is to say that there was no conscious effort toward rebuilding security at all. Everything that was done was done so in a shooting from the hip style; although that itself is not entirely accurate, it will suffice for now.

The reason for bringing this to light is because it’s an incredibly fair point, in fact one that I can attest to personally, to assert that in a case like this, one needs a little help regaining perspective. As I mentioned before, perspective is the key to both mitigation and forward momentum. Looking to the day she had died in the hospital, there were a great many things that could have been pivotal in facilitating the direction of the perspective. I will spare you the details but give instead those things that are distinct in this regard.

There was the palpable solemn chaos that was evident in all the persons present for my mom’s final diagnoses. It’s strange to think back now that even though we all shared the same orienting event/person, it wouldn’t be disingenuous to assert that there were still tangible degrees of separation between us. I can’t be quite sure if this was a result of the matter at hand, still very fresh, or if it were stemming from deep-rooted matters from years prior. Animosity, something to which no family is immune to, courses rather deeply in the veins of mine. With no time ever being the wrong time, now would have been as good as any to bring up, well, anything. I don’t recall anyone scratching the wounds open overtly, to which I’d like to credit common decency, but the idea that the chance was there wasn’t lost to me; death impacts us all in incredibly strange ways.

This feeling carried into the meeting room, where we had been handed the doctor’s assessment, something which I feel still is an area of opportunity for them. No one questioned the ability of his art, but the caveat during his here’s what we did speech, that being had we found her sooner she might have had a chance, left a bitter taste in my mouth. I can’t pretend to understand what went through my sibling’s minds. The moment of realization came when, standing in front of her bed, the overpowering stench of death singed my nostrils. This token of finality, the biological reminder of your natural shackles, leaves in its wake nothing pleasant; not to the scent but also not to the sight either.

Society is never too far behind, even in bereavement. For nearly immediately after the proclamation of death was announced, I was to be sequestered in a private room joined by the coroner, a requirement in drug-related deaths, and a representative from some organization whose name has been lost to me. She was there to take care of some matters regarding my mother’s compliance to be an organ donor. A task for which there were to be no spoils for her on account of the severe damage done to the organs from not just the drugs but also from the charcoal that had been pumped into her system in an effort to mitigate the cause. My consolation prize from her was a Memory Box. Inside was a heavy metal emblem that would have been seated inside her tombstone had she received one.

So there it was. The adjacent room contained the corpse of my mother and we were to sully on home with an organ donors tombstone headdress. Delivery of this verdict to my grandmother, who awaited at home for the return of her daughter and instead received a box made of recyclable material, was an education of a kind. All of this framed for me the very real aspect of life called fragility. It was in this, however, that I was able to find my perspective.

The following days were beyond trying as the world I’d been accustomed to rapidly deteriorated. It felt as if everything and everyone were on the brink and the outcomes, now in the future being evidently predictable, were so volatile then that each morning I made a cursory glance on the two remaining occupants just as a sanity check. But I always passed on that room.

I don’t recall in lucid detail how it transpired since it was a blur for most of it, but my youngest sister eventually did leave the house; it was to be a few years before I was to see her again. My grandmother and I held out on our own as best as we could, but her health condition coupled with my inability to find work at the time resulted in her departure as well. Before too long, it was just myself left there. Well, my pet parakeet and I to be exact. In a few short weeks, everything was entirely gone. All that remained was an empty shell of a house where not too long ago, there were four people commencing otherwise normal lives. To see the phantoms of this past seep from the pores of the walls was nauseating and I never was able to reconcile this to a degree of comfort.

One day before I left for Columbus, I mustered the courage to enter that room – the one I’d avoided. The one I’d hid from. The one I couldn’t even look at the doorknob comfortably for having invoked this ridiculously irrational fear of seeing it rotate with no hand guiding it. Standing in front of it, I inhaled deeply, more so than I’m sure Michael Phelps ever did, clasped and rotated the knob, and thrust myself inward. I know for sure I choked on the air. That door had been shut since the vultures of materialism had swooped down to descend upon the now master-less bounty that was just ripe for the picking. What was left was exactly the way it was the night she died – a Time Capsule. The dresser, bed, television, and night stand sat and waited, yearning to be used yet again. It was well beyond my grasp, or even the will of my person, to think of doing such a thing at the time. Collapsing instead on the floor against the wall, it was all I could do to take in the atmosphere around me. I didn’t emote, even as I felt all of the emotion rushing back into me. The memories of that night, the culmination of the weeks leading up to the departure I made at the very end, all rushed forth into my throat. That pinging feeling of having to swallow that ball back down was far more difficult that it needed to be.

In a way, this was a second form of finality. I imagined it being much like a photographer, who having been at once overcome by the landscape before them, captured the moment and from it created a postcard of profound beauty. This photograph, the last one I took of this time, has been locked within me ever since and to this day I can recall it vividly ad arbitrium. If one were looking to say that I’d found some kind of closure, this would perhaps be the most appropriate time to say that maybe I did. The settling of emotions pressed down within me to form the foundation for what I’d later understand as the start of the assimilation process. With one final glimpse and an incredibly deep breath, I rose from the floor and walked out the door, never to look back.