Op-Ed Spotlight: Roger Ebert on Christopher Hitchens

Reflections on life, death, and faith

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Christopher Hitchens—religious skeptic, political activist, and public intellectual—is dying. That is how he himself puts it. To others, he is "battling" what doctors believe to be a terminal case of cancer. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert has also battled cancer—it robbed him of his voice. On Friday, he sympathizes with Hitchens over the trials of chemotherapy, reflecting on religion, death, and Hitchens as a man and thinker. Here is a taste of the thoughtful piece to whet the appetite: it is well worth reading in full.


He will come to feel increasingly like a member of the audience in the theater of his own illness. I've been there. ... Dying isn't so bad. It's getting sick and dying that's the hard part. I had radiation which made me nauseous for months. I have no reason to doubt that chemotherapy, which Hitchens is on, can be much worse.


Hitchens added that if there should be reports of his deathbed conversion, they would be reports of a man "irrational and babbling with pain." As long as he retains his thinking ability, he said, there will be no conversion to belief in God. This is what I expected him to say. Deathbed conversions have always seemed to me like a Hail Mary Pass, proving nothing about religion and much about desperation.


The man can write. He has lived a life. He has seen for himself, making it a point to travel regularly to dangerous and wretched nations. He has been a man of political passion, beginning first as a Trotskyite and becoming in recent years a supporter of the Neocon war in Iraq. ... He exists as that most daring of writers, a freelance intellectual. He's a good speaker, can be funny, has bad teeth, is passably good-looking, and is at no pains to be a charmer. ...  Some years ago when I met him at the Telluride Film Festival, I was unaware of his fairly recent defection from the Left. I told him I read him in the Nation, which he'd by then severed his ties with. His reply was a masterpiece of irony, masked as egotism: "How clever of you."


I would agree with Hitchens that we can't rule out the possibility of some indefinable first mover, although I'm sure he doesn't mean mover as a being but as a force. To hope we can learn how the universe came about is admirable; one might as well call that hope by any name. ... I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence.


Christopher Hitchens has spent his lifetime trying to figure out that small part of life the mind can comprehend. Now he's closer than most to that undiscovere'd country, from whose bourne no traveler returns. We all began that journey at the moment of our birth. We will all surely complete it. What lies beyond is no more knowable than what lay before. As a mourner in a pet cemetery in "Gates of Heaven" so truly observes, "Death is for the living and not for the dead so much."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.