About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Saturday, December 17, 2011

McEwan on Hitchens ... and some reflections on death

This New York Times article by Ian McEwan is a beautiful and moving piece about Christopher Hitchens' last days, in a hospital in Houston, as the end approached for him. In a way, no doubt, it's sad - all that intellectual energy, and all that love of life and books, destined to be snuffed out, with so many thoughts never to be articulated. And Hitchens' passing is a huge loss to the world in many, many ways.

But that energy and love are so admirable, and the lucidity that McEwan reveals in the man, right up to the edge of the dark, is almost ... well almost enviable. Almost enviable in that it's hard for me to imagine reaching this sort of level when the grim, final days eventually come round. It's a standard to aspire to.

I'm not going to say a lot about this, except maybe in just this one post, but I've had frequent occasion to think about death over the last few years - not because of any great problems with my own health, and not because I'm anywhere near approaching my own life expectancy, but because of a series of events over that time. Chief among them was the death of my mother, just coming up to four years ago now.

As things turned out, she died on my watch at her hospital bedside: it was just me and a nurse there that January morning, when she took her last, spaced apart, unconscious breaths. My father and sister missed the moment, having both stayed up all night while I'd taken a shift of getting some sleep. The final breaths came after I'd returned to the ward, and while Dad and my sister were finally snatching a short bit of rest.

There have been other things. Most recently, I've had two friends from the past - they were people I was more-or-less out of touch with, but I'd known both of them quite well at earlier stages of my life - die in just the last month. Both were much too young, as, indeed was Hitchens if it comes to that, though they were quite a bit younger still.

As it turned out, when I first heard of Christopher Hitchens' death yesterday afternoon (Australian time), I'd just come home from the funeral service for Anne. I remember her as a kind, cheerful, and beautiful young woman from my university days (when she married one of my closest friends from high school ... in a marriage that didn't last, alas, though it produced a batch of children who are now, themselves, fine young adults).

So, may the evil hour be quite a few decades away for me, all going well, but events like this do make you think ... or at least they do in my case. The thoughts, in my case, are not of any spooky synchronicity, and they are not of an afterlife, though I do want to leave some kind of worthwhile legacy behind, which may or may not count as ersatz life extension. Nor do I feel morbid or depressed, or anything of the kind. But I do reflect, and an article like McEwan's provides another occasion for it.

Most importantly, all the events of the past four years and more - the many months of severe illness that preceded Mum's loss to us belong in the accounting, too - bring home thoughts about what is most important at the end.

I admire Hitchens' mental energy in his final days and weeks: all the things that I mentioned several paragraphs up the screen, and which McEwan conveys so adroitly and sensitively. Those things, perhaps, are much to be wished for when the end approaches, if it comes slowly enough to make them even relevant. But above all, in my case, I always want the people whom I most love - that very short list of individuals whom I can count in a moment - to be in no doubt as to how I feel about them.

No doubts at the end, I hope, for those on that list who end up outliving me, and preferably none at any time in the quite-a-few-decades to come (the decades I'm hoping for, if all goes well). That's my most important ambition in how I live my life.

These are just some reflections prompted by a week when death has been an especially conspicuous presence. Take them for what they're worth. At least I know what death means to me, or something of what it means - not something spooky, not necessarily something terrifying (though I don't expect to be especially brave about it), but mainly a presence that can focus us on what really matters. From where I sit, I reckon nothing matters more than the people we most care for.

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