As Internet has noted, often with arresting beauty, Christopher Hitchens has finally bent to that which duly takes us all. And yet all the while he continued to write so eloquently about the experience of dying. The thing about death, unfortunately, is that it happens. As Hitchens measured his rapid metal and physical dissolution, he noted, in a moment of almost awkward sentimentality (for him, the wickedly-hilarious, scalpeler of truth):
These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise?
There’s something else to say about death. In the oft-triteness of truth, death is often terrifyingly sad. Would that Woody Allen were right and that we need not obtain immortality through our work, but instead through not dying. Or at least not dying in the way we usually do, as “etiolated” versions of formerly robust selves.
Which brings me to more sad news. Vaclav Havel, the great, polyphonous voice of freedom and former President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, has today too been taken by death.
In same way that watching a great athlete stutter through the last years of his career can be embarrassingly painful (for both you and him), watching Havel struggle recently to remain in absolute control of his former capacities has also been oddly unnerving. Not only do his expressions not cohere with the man you once knew him to be, but since that is undeniably the case, the man who did the knowing must too have changed, must too have taken a few more steps towards that most empty final state. This is not a particularly uplifting recognition. The death of an individual is always a kind of collective death. (It’s also strange, in that moment after death, that we do not know which tense to use. It seems disrespectful to consign someone so quickly to the horrible finality of the past-tense.)
When I visited the Czech Republic almost a decade ago, I found it amazing that an artist, a playwright, was the President. As in, are you serious, your President used to write plays for a living? Of course his plays often touched on politics and on the unavoidable and repressive atmosphere in which he grew up, so politics wasn’t something he didn’t think about or didn’t constantly educate himself about. But still, the man was a playwright who became a President. And this fact, this revolutionary fact which was also a kind of evolutionary fact, seemed so reveling. Not only was Havel an artist playing at politics, but the nation which he represented needed and wanted him, the artist, to represent them. They did not want the lawyer, the general, the policy wonk with the PhD, they wanted the artist. And the artist chose not to cocoon himself in the quiet space where artists work. Instead, the artist went out and got to work creating a world.
I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.
– from a speech Havel gave in October, 1989