Sunday, 9 June 2013

Christopher Hitchens: Mortality, The Monarchy, and The Missionary Position Reviews

I've been reading a lot of Christopher Hitchens recently and really enjoying his work. I also have his large collection of essays - Arguably - on my Kindle and iPod which I pick up and read a few pages of every now and then. He's a really smart, engaging, and thoughtful writer who always manages to make a subject you're not familiar with, instantly interesting. Here are three titles of his that I've written reviews of and would heartily recommend.


Most of us have had contact with cancer in our lives - we've either experienced it firsthand or know (or known) a family member or friend who has had it - and in each instance it's been horrible, an experience unlikely to provide you with much and likely to take a lot from you, if not everything. But most of us aren't Christopher Hitchens - if fact none of us are, and that's why we know who was. He was a unique voice whose essays, columns, articles, and books made the person reading them much more enriched having read them.

"Mortality" is his last book (though I'm sure further anthologies of unpublished material will appear in the years ahead) detailing his fatal encounter with esophageal cancer, from discovering it while on a book tour promoting his memoir "Hitch 22", to the final pages which are scraps of notes for future (and now forever unwritten) writings.

But it's not a sad book. Hitchens was ruthless in his approach to subjects and he is no less so when dealing with himself and "the alien" (which is how he characterises his cancer) - no sentimentality or feeling sorry for himself is allowed on the page.

He is informative, funny, and stubborn all at once when writing on the reaction among religious groups when news of his cancer was reported with some Christians instigating a "Pray for Hitch" day - a day he encourages everyone to ignore. He also reinforces his atheist position, almost aggressively, writing "What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating." As if he wanted to die to once more further his argument that there is no God! If this book shows anything it is that death and the prospect of death does not change the person, and that Hitchens remained dignified and his own person right to the end.

There are essays on coping with the cancer treatment which is almost as bad as the cancer, and a fantastic piece on Nietzsche and the etymology of the phrase "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger". The book is full of rich writing displaying a luminous and inquisitive mind, questioning death, the mundanity of illness, and moving from issues of existence to anecdotes of past columns such as the time he underwent waterboarding to experience how bad a torture it is (very bad as it turns out, traumatising in fact).

Also included is a foreword by Hitchen's editor at Vanity Fair Graydon Carter and a moving afterword by his wife Carol Blue. Our culture lost a brilliant mind on December 15, 2011, and "Mortality" is a fine coda to a man who lived life fearlessly and wrote some of the best reportage of the last 50 years. Christopher Hitchens remains an essential writer to read.



The Monarchy: A Critique:

Christopher Hitchens invites you to think about the Monarchy in Britain, or the United Kingdom - emphasis on the Kingdom - and ask yourself: do we really need it? Shouldn't we, as modern peoples, abolish it? Why do Britons define themselves with the Monarchy and why does it play such a prominent role, especially today? This is Hitchens' persuasive and interesting essay on why he believes the Monarchy should be abolished and I for one enjoyed it.

Yes, I'm a Republican (though not as Americans define the term) and have long wondered at friends and family who feel so strongly about the Queen and her family. Hitchens' essay reinforces my views but goes far deeper into exploring them than I ever have. He talks about how we rely upon invented tradition and how history is sanitised to favour the Monarchy - that the unsavoury parts are "edited" out when convenience calls (you know, the madness, the murders, the endless wars, slavery, etc.). He claims the Monarchy is a "state-sponsored superstition" that everyone in government must take part in if they are to have a career in politics. I think the BBC is party to this as well, broadcasting pro-Monarchy programmes so that vast numbers of the British population are transformed into supporters of the Queen.

I found it a brilliant read and a thoughtful, well written, and eloquent essay on our "national fetish" (excellent observation). As always Hitchens has produced a work that deserves as wide an audience as possible to provoke much needed discourse in our public sphere. The very fact that this is still a national conversation that needs to be had in the 21st century is astonishing. I'll leave this review with the ending sentences of his essay:

"A people that began to think as citizens rather than subjects might transcend underdevelopment on their own... Only servility requires the realm (suggestive word) of illusion. Illusions, of course, cannot be abolished. But they can and must be outgrown."

The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish


The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and in Practice:

The great polemicist Christopher Hitchens turns his attention to Agnes Bojaxhiu, aka Mother Teresa, in this searing look into her work that is universally accepted as humanitarian and above reproach. Hitchens presents an image of Teresa that is highly critical of her reputation in this brilliantly argued book on her life's work.

Hitchens recounts Teresa's relationships with known dictators such as the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and his wife Michele who all but bankrupted their country and fled to France. Teresa, despite supposedly caring for the poor, does little for them - she demands that they accept their lot and live with poverty rather than try to help them escape it. This is a woman whose fame rests upon her help with the poor, and yet she failed to use her power and influence to alleviate their suffering by encouraging the many world leaders she met to work on this issue.

But she's not political! you say, as she claimed many times herself. And yet she often involved herself in politics, especially when it came to the subject of abortion. She travelled to Spain to protest when post-Franco legislation was to be passed regarding the legalisation of divorce, abortion, and birth control, and even spoke to Margaret Thatcher about passing a bill that was in the House of Commons that wanted to limit the availability of abortions.

Teresa was a fond one for abortion (despite being a virgin and not knowing anything about what it's like to give birth, and sex, besides the end product) and made it the subject of her speech when she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 (a win that remains questionable as to what she actually contributed to world peace or peace in any single country), claiming that abortion was the biggest threat to mankind.

Maybe the biggest criticism of Mother Teresa above all is the way she and her order withheld painkillers from the very sick and dying. In a filmed interview, she recounted an exchange she had with a cancer patient who was dying, who she refused to give painkillers to, where she said "You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you", to which the person replied "Then please tell him to stop kissing me". Teresa, it seems, was unaware of the irony of that comment. Also, her Homes for the Dying are run by nuns who aren't medically trained or know anything about palliative care, or even basic hygiene as they wash medical equipment in cold tapwater rather than sterilise them!

Hitchens also raises the question of what Teresa did with the millions she received in donations. There will never be an audit because it's the Catholic Church but given the basic requirements of her homes, it seems likely that a lot of it didn't go into helping the poor. And a lot of the donations came from questionable sources like Charles Keating, a fraud who was imprisoned for 10 years for his part in the Savings and Loans scandal in the early 90s. He donated $1.25 million to Mother Teresa who wrote a character reference to the judge when he was on trial. It had no effect but the co-prosecutor of the case, Paul Turley, wrote back explaining to her why he was on trial, informing her that the money she had received was stolen from ordinary, hard working people who're now poor people like the ones she tries to help, and that she should return it on basic principle. He never received a reply to his letter and the money was not refunded.

Teresa comes across as a PR tool for the Catholic Church and a political pawn, willingly used for the Church's own dogmatic ideas and as a fundraising figure. Hitchens has written a fascinating book in "The Missionary Position" which rightly questions a person long held to be untouchable because of her work and yet whose actions remain highly dubious and contradictory. "The Missionary Position" is a highly recommended and thought-provoking read.

Also worth checking out is Hitchen's documentary on Mother Teresa, Hell's Angel. The first half of this book is basically a retelling of the documentary. It's available for free on Youtube.

The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice

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