Those of us who have followed Christopher Hitchens for any length of time knew the time of his death was coming sooner than we would like. “Followed” is not the right word. We did not “follow” him. Many of us hung on his words; his books, essays, lectures, debates, videos, television appearances, the many works he edited, everything. A new anything by Christopher Hitchens was like waking up on Christmas morning all over again. He has had a profound impact on me and on my thinking.
Yes, we knew this time was coming. We remember the day the diagnosis of esophageal cancer was made public and we watched in horror and sadness. We watched as he lost his hair, lost his voice, lost weight, lost energy and even, as he said, lost some of his vinegar, but never his intellect, passion or courage as he documented his struggle with disease and the end of his life in more detail than was sometimes comfortable. It is his courage that most stood out to his own brother, Peter:
Here’s a thing I will say now without hesitation, unqualified and important. The one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’. By this I don’t mean the lack of fear which some people have, which enables them to do very dangerous or frightening things because they have no idea what it is to be afraid. I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it.
So. Like in all death, we who are living are left wondering, “What now?” How is this void filled, if it can be filled at all?
It wasn’t even a week ago or so, right after his powerful essay Trial of the Will appeared online from Vanity Fair that I mentioned Hitchens in my class on Artist Management. Perhaps this sounds unlikely. In the essay Hitchens takes on Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” He talks about Nietzsche’s syphilis, the suffering of atheist philosophy professor Sidney Hook and in powerful, heart-rending detail about some of his own suffering, sufficient to stir compassion even in the most callous of hearts I imagine. That kind of suffering does not always make us stronger, he says;
But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less.
Moving and compelling to be sure, but what could this possibly have to do with artist management? We were at the end of the semester and were talking about how we define success as artist managers, as artists, as people. I have a list of quotes from various managers and artists addressing this and I bring them up each semester for the students’ consideration and comments. We talked about having one’s priorities straight as human beings, on sharing accomplishments with loved ones, about loving one’s work and giving 100% to whatever it is one decides to pursue. Bob Dylan, for example, has this to say:
A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night and in between he does what he wants to do.”
We talked finally about the idea of the journey as the reward rather than the destination, trite and over-worn as that metaphor might be. When they graduate they will receive their diplomas proudly, and many of them will look at theirs with a profound sense of anti-climactic emptiness. It’s not really all about the lambskin after all, but the transformation they undergo, the friends they make, their accomplishments and hard lessons, doors of the mind that have been thrown open. I had just read Hitchens’ article and remembered this:
Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span.
“Wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span.” Who among us has such courage? Yes, that has everything to do with what I think it means to be an artist, and what artist managers should make every effort to cultivate in their own lives and in the lives and work of the artists in their keep. On the fly and in a flash, I told my students of this article. I told them a little about Christopher Hitchens. Most had never heard of him. I told them where to find this article and others he had written[i], equally applicable to what it means to be alive and to find meaning in one’s life, loved ones, work and shared accomplishments.
I never saw Christopher Hitchens speak and never met him. I had hoped to be able to do that knowing full well that he did not have long to live. He lived not very far from me, in Washington DC and I held out some hope that he would go into remission or otherwise gain enough strength to continue his work and that I’d have a chance to hear him. It would have been an honor to thank him personally for his courage, for giving voice to so many – to me – and for his work. And so it was just after his essay, not more than a week or so before he played out the string to the end that I was able to share him with some young minds. One always hopes it sticks, that it doesn’t just go in one ear and out the other. But then at the end of the class one student raised his hand and asked, “What was the name of that guy who wrote the article again?”
“Christopher Hitchens. H-i-t-c-h-e-n-s. Hitchens. Christopher Hitchens.”
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[i] I cannot let the opportunity pass to mention another classic and brilliant essay Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair, The New Commandments, which starts, “The Ten Commandments were set in stone, but it may be time for a re-chisel. With all due humility, the author takes on the job, pruning the ethically dubious, challenging the impossible, and rectifying some serious omissions.” I have many other favorites, way too many to mention, but this is a start.