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RIP, Drs. Havel and Hitchens

The world has lost two great people in the last week or so: famous "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens and Czech novelist/politician Vaclav Havel.

I think I've blogged here once or twice about how I didn't care for Dr. Hitchens's writings on religion. His death doesn't change that fact; reading them I found him more than a bit pretentions and thought he was wrong to treat moderate religiosity like insincere fundamentalism. I'm saying that bluntly because I don't think Dr. Hitchens would have wanted it any other way. Watching him die in the public eye the way he did, never withdrawing into the privacy his illness probably warranted and never betraying his convictions even as he faced death - I found that remarkably sincere and courageous. And over the last several years I have read him regularly at Slate, on issues ranging from the war in Iraq to American Anglophilia. I haven't always agreed, but his grace and his unflinching defense of what he believed was a big part of my character education.

Dr. Hitchens taught me how to fight. Or more properly how to struggle, against myself and against the universe as I found my place in it.

Dr. Havel had a less profound impact on me than Dr. Hitchens did. But I have read his works too, and have been influenced by them. My own pacifism is inspired by his own writings, and by his political work that showed how things like democracy made it a real possibility. (This is why I believe that the real way to avoid wars is to not have to fight them, and that democracy and liberalism provide the best roads to that goal.) So if Dr. Hitchens taught me how to fight, Dr. Havel taught me how to avoid the fights that were best left unfought.

The world is worse for having lost both of them, I think, but better for having had them while they lived. The internet is full of eulogies offered to Dr. Hitchens (Dr. Havel is not so long dead, and perhaps not famous enough to inspire them). But for me, the most fitting thing I can say is a passage from one of my favorite books, The Chosen by Chaim Potok:

'Reuven, do you know what the rabbis tell us God said to Moses when he was about to die?'

I stared at him. 'No,' I heard myself say.

'He said to Moses, "You have toiled and labored, now you are worthy of rest.", I stared at him and didn't say anything.

'You are no longer a child, Reuven,' my father went on. [...] 'Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?' He paused again his eyes misty now, then went on. 'I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one's life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?'"

Here are two men, I think who have earned their rest. And to the extent that legacies matter to the dead, I will do my part to help their lives' meaning carry on.



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 18th, 2011 08:20 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this. I haven't agreed with Christopher Hitchens on many things, but I've always enjoyed reading him, on pretty much any topic.

I think my favorite article of his was his recent Vanity Fair piece on the King James Bible, and how it saved the English language. It's a really tremendous bit of writing: When the King Saved God.
Dec. 19th, 2011 12:10 am (UTC)
Oh, a Hitchens piece I had missed! I read at Slate rather than VF, so it's not entirely surprising, but still - thank you for the link.

I haven't agreed with Christopher Hitchens on many things, but I've always enjoyed reading him, on pretty much any topic.

That's pretty much my experience exactly! And it's actually my experience with many of the people whose thought has influenced my life. I'd much rather have someone I disagree with if it's in an interesting and stretching way.
Dec. 18th, 2011 10:43 pm (UTC)
Dr. Havel not famous enough to inspire as many eulogies as Dr. Hitchens?!!
Well, I guess that's the Anglophone internet but, even so, how short the memory of the internet is, if that is true!
Dec. 19th, 2011 12:09 am (UTC)
I know; even as I wrote it, it sounded very... odd to me. Since I know several people from (West) Germany, I'm very familiar with his influence in those quarters. I think Hitchens spoke to my generation's interest more - secularism, freedom of expression, and all the rest.

But I have been pleasantly surprised that some people are writing about his life. So I may collect the links in a few days, for those interested.
Dec. 19th, 2011 07:15 pm (UTC)
Brit here. I would have said that Havel was more famous than Hitchens. Partly I think that's a product of my age in combination with my location (UK, not US). Hitchens' impact upon the baby boom generation in the UK was huge. By the time my generation (GenX) was old enough to reading that kind of journalism, he'd moved to the USA. Whereas Havel was one of the people who symbolised one of the defining moments of my generation in Europe: the fall of the Berlin Wall. Several friends of mine here in the UK, of roughly the same age as me, haven't read a word by Hitchens. But I think we would all know Havel.
Dec. 19th, 2011 12:55 am (UTC)
Beautiful post, on both of these two men. I love that Chaim Potok quote.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )



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