We can be sure that the three of them never met: Russell Hoban (born of Jewish parents, who died last Tuesday, 13th), Christopher Hitchens (born, he discovered late in life, to a Jewish mother, died on Thursday, 15th), Vaclav Havel (who died on Sunday, 18th). But they meet now, in the imagination – and wherever literary souls go after death. (That snort you hear is Hitchens’ derision – the author of God is Not Great who believed in neither gods nor an afterlife nor any journey of the human soul that wasn’t filled with opposition to the status quo, to false hopes and sentimental piety, to putting our trust in any authority other than our own hard-won, rigorous and sceptical intelligence).
The Grim Reaper has harvested a rich crop this week: Hoban, a writer whose visionary fictions lodge in the psyche - in Riddley Walker (1980) he created a fully-imagined post-apocalypse feral England where language itself had mutated into barely recognisable forms of self-expression; Hitchens, polemicist and contrarian, scourge of mediocrity and hypocrisy and all those enamoured of the certainty of their causes (Henry Kissinger; Mother Teresa; Islamic – and Jewish, and Christian – fundamentalists); and Havel, the Czech playwright, dissident and political prisoner who became President of his nation with a belief that the spiritual, moral and intellectual domain of human life was as significant for human well-being as our material and economic achievements.
All three knew how to live, to live well, that is to say to live fearlessly, open to the exploration of ideas -“Explorers have to be ready to die lost” (Hoban) - and language: what it can do to us and for us: “Language is an archaeological vehicle...the language we speak is a whole palimpsest of human effort and history” (Hoban); “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” (Havel); “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and - since there is no other metaphor - also the soul”(Hitchens).
Part of living well for these three truth-seekers was knowing how to enjoy the ‘simple’ pleasures. They each knew how to drink, how to smoke - “when I don't smoke I scarcely feel as if I'm living. I don't feel as if I'm living unless I'm killing myself” (Hoban) – and how to make their personal relationships even more complicated; but also how not to take themselves too seriously: “Anyone who takes himself too seriously always runs the risk of looking ridiculous; anyone who can consistently laugh at himself does not” (Havel), “Your favourite virtue? An appreciation for irony...The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind”(Hitchens).
Strange then that Hitchens saw religion in such a literal, Dawkinsesque way. In recent years he became more and more resolute in his implacable opposition to it, claiming that it was the 1989 fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie following publication of The Satanic Verses that “completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression”. (How is it, I wonder, that for me religion belongs in the latter grouping?)
In the last decade Hitchens became a leading voice in the so-called ‘new atheism’: “The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.” I find myself in sympathy with the ethical and emotional heart of this, but as I read it I find myself thinking that Hitchens is failing to see that he is indeed articulating another kind of ‘creed’, although he explicitly denies this – “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith”.
I find it curious that such a rigorous and often sophisticated thinker should hold to a picture of religion that is so naively literal-minded. His rigid stance suffers from an internal contradiction, for it fails to meet the definition of what he characterises as his own intellectually free approach: “We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.” And yet my own post-theistic religiosity is built upon, amongst other things, ‘science and reason...free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake...’
I suppose that for Hitchens, religious radicalism would be a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless my soul (to use the metaphor that even Hitchens finds himself calling upon) is stirred over and over by the bracing clear-sightedness of much of Hitchens’ writing : “The only real radicalism in our time will come as it always has — from people who insist on thinking for themselves and who reject party-mindedness...We have the same job we always had: to say that there are no final solutions; there is no absolute truth; there is no supreme leader; there is no totalitarian solution that says if you would just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would just give up, if you would simply abandon your critical faculties, the world of idiotic bliss can be yours.”
Hitchens didn’t do humility – he had no time for it, there was too much else at stake. No holding back. Just a constant outpouring of sinuous prose and impassioned speech to convey as lucidly as he could his brilliant (and sometimes foolish) thoughts. So, at 62, an untimely loss – and yet for me, the death of Havel is the saddest of this week’s sad losses.
On one level, Havel’s philosophy of life overlapped with Hitchens’: “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility” – though the word ‘meekness’ marks out Havel’s own distinctive spiritual territory. And Havel’s wisdom - “There's always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side” – serves as an implicit rebuke to Hitchens’ decision to align himself with the Iraq war and the American neo-conservative jihad (or in George W. Bush’s terms “crusade”) against what Hitchens termed, with typical rhetorical relish, “Islamo-fascism”.
Havel’s vision never succumbed to the instinct to make humanity the pinnacle of all creation: “As soon as man began considering himself the source of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, the world began to lose its human dimension, and man began to lose control of it...The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.” There is both humility and grandeur here.
I first came across Havel’s thinking when I read the remarkable series of letters he wrote from prison in the early 1980s to his then wife Olga, written at a time when his country was suffering from the bleakness of Communist oppression, and he was gaining some prominence as a leading Czech dissident. “The noble title of "dissident" must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement” (Hitchens). Reading these texts from one of the founders of Charter 77 I found myself in the presence of someone who seemed to emanate great spiritual resourcefulness and insight. Encountering them helped me clarify my own thinking about the spiritual and religious necessity of ‘living with questions’ rather than too quickly attempting to offer answers.
Here - 6 September 1981 - is an example of what resonated with me then, and still speaks of a rare sensibility, the loss of which I mourn today:
“For me, the notion of some complete and finite knowledge, that explains everything and raises no further questions, relates clearly to the idea of an end – an end to the spirit, to life, to time and to being. However, anything meaningful ever said on the matter (including every religious gospel) is remarkable for its dramatic openness , its incompleteness” – it is this that shows Havel is a more subtle reader of texts than Hitchens – “It is not a conclusive statement so much as a challenge or an appeal...which never...attempts to settle unequivocally the unanswerable question of meaning. Instead, it tends to suggest how to live with the question...The question of the meaning of life is not a full stop at the end of life, but the beginning of a deeper experience of it. It is like a light whose source we cannot see, but in whose illumination we nevertheless live – whether we delight in its incomprehensible abundance or suffer from its incomprehensible paucity.
“Ultimately, being in constant touch with the mystery is what makes us genuinely human. Man is the only creature who is both a part of being (and thus a bearer of this mystery) and aware of that mystery as a mystery. He is both the question and the questioner, and cannot help being so...”
I know that my own life has been enriched, enlivened, in multiple ways by my contact over the years with all three of these wise men. And that - though the Festival of Lights is upon us - the world seems suddenly smaller, less luminous, without them.
Zichronam livracha: may their memory be a blessing.