At the Pearly Gates
On April 20 there’s a memorial for Christopher Hitchens at the Cooper Union in Manhattan. There’s a PEN tribute, also in Manhattan, on April 30. Here’s my own little envoi. The regular Diary, tumbrils and all, will resume next week.
Antechamber to Heaven, a large reception room in the Baroque style. A door opens and an angel ushers in Christopher Hitchens, dressed in hospital clothing. The angel gestures for CH to take a seat. He is about to do so when he espies a familiar figure reading some newspapers.
CH Dr. Kissinger! The very last person I would have expected to encounter here. All the more so, since I don’t recall any recent reports of your demise.
HK You will no doubt be cast down by the news that I am indeed alive. This is a secret trip, to spy out the terrain diplomatically, assess the odds.
CH You think you have the slightest chance of entering the celestial sphere?
HK Everything is open to negotiation.
CH Have you threatened to bomb Heaven — secretly of course?
HK Very funny. As a matter of fact, Woytila — Pope John Paul II, I should say — has kindly offered to intercede at the highest level. And talking of negotiation, perhaps we could have a quiet word.
CH What about?
HK That worthless book you wrote about me — The Trial of Henry Kissinger. John Paul says that the prosecutors here have been using it in drawing up preliminary drafts of their case against me. Now, he also says it would be extraordinarily helpful if you would sign this affidavit — my lawyers have already prepared it — saying that you unconditionally withdraw the slurs and allegations, the baseless charges of war criminality, and attest under eternal pain of perjury that these were forced on you by your Harper’s editors.
CH Dr Kissinger! Your idea is outrageous. I stand behind every word I wrote!
HK Hmm. Too bad. After all, you certainly have experience in, how shall we say, adjusting sworn affidavits to changing circumstance. I believe Mr. Sidney Blumenthal could comment harshly on the matter.
CH Dr. Kissinger, let me reiterate…
HK My dear fellow, spare me your protestations. Let us consider the matter as mature adults — both of us, if I may say, now in potentially challenging circumstances.
CH Speak for yourself, Dr. Kissinger. I do not recognize this as Heaven’s gate, or you as a genuine physical presence. I do not believe in the afterlife and therefore regard this as some last-second hallucination engendered in my brain in my room in M.D. Anderson hospital in Houston, Texas. I may be dying, but I am not dead yet. I have not dropped off the perch.
HK Off the perch… How very English. You will dismiss these as a mere last-second hallucination, a terminal orgy of self-flattery on your part, but (flourishes bundle of newspapers) The New York Times certainly thinks you’re dead. The Washington Post thinks you’re dead.
CH Let me look at those… (snatches the papers from HK’s hand; skims them intently)
HK Rather too flattering, if I may be frank. But, of course, as you say, all fantasy.
CH They’re very concrete. Far more amiable than I would have dared to imagine…. I… I… (passes hand over brow) Is it possible to get a drink in this anteroom?
HK Ah, after the soaring eagle of certainty, the fluttering magpie of doubt. I think we can bend the sumptuary laws a little (pulls a large flask from his pocket). Some schnapps?
CH I would have preferred Johnnie Walker Black, but any port in a storm. (drinks)
HK Bishop Berkeley, a philosopher, claimed, like you, that the world could be all in one’s imagination. It was your Doctor Samuel Johnson who sought to rebut Berkeley’s idealist theories by kicking a stone. And what did Dr. Johnson say when he kicked that stone?
CH He said, “Sir, I refute it thus.”
HK Precisely. Let the schnapps be your empirical stone. Now, if I may, let me continue with my proposition. As you know, you wrote another pamphlet, equally stuffed with lies and foul abuse, called The Missionary Position.
CH Yes, a fine piece of work about that old slag, Mother Teresa.
HK The “old slag”, as you ungallantly term the woman, is now part of an extremely influential faction in Heaven, including Pope John Paul II. Mother Teresa remains vexed by your portrait. She says it is in libraries and all over the Internet. She, like me, would dearly love to see you make an unqualified retraction of your slurs.
CH And that, of course, I will not do!
HK You’re aware of the fate of Giordano Bruno?
CH Certainly. One of reason’s noblest martyrs. Burned at the stake in the Campo de Fiore in Rome in 1600 for heresy. He insisted, with Copernicus, that the earth revolves around the sun and that the universe is infinite.
HK Quite so. A noble end, but an extremely painful one. Perhaps, with Satanic assistance, I can remind you of it.
He claps his hands, and two fallen angels in black robes draw open a pair of heavy red velvet curtains at the far end of the room. HK makes a theatrical bow and motions CH forward. The latter edges near the space are now suffused with leaping flames. For a brief moment there’s a ghastly wailing, and CH leaps back into the room.
CH Great God!
HK You seem to have reverted to religious belief with startling speed.
CH No, no. It was purely a façon de parler. Not a pretty sight.
HK But in your view, a pure hallucination, nein? No need to kick the stone, like Dr. Johnson.
Before CH can answer, the fallen angels seize him and start dragging him toward the open curtains. They are about to hurl him into the pit, when…
ST. MICHAEL (suddenly appearing through the gates of Heaven) Stop!
He hands CH and HK tickets.
These are one-day passes to Heaven. In Mr. Hitchens’ case, for purposes of interrogation by the Board of Inquiry and Final Judgment.
Exeunt St. Michael, HK and CH through ornate gilded doors to Heaven.
Heaven. A vast Baroque gallery, in which an animated throng is enjoying itself in something closely resembling a cocktail party.
ST. MICHAEL We’ve just remodeled. Before, we had something in the Gothic style, but the feeling was that in keeping with the times there should be more gold, more sense of extravagant illusion. And that of course brought us to the Baroque. You will no doubt detect many echoes of the Palazzo Colonna in Rome.
HK I think I see His Holiness John Paul II, over there. With your permission, I might have a word?
ST. MICHAEL Of course. And Mr. Hitchens, before we get to the Board of Inquiry, I’m sure there are some immortals you’d like to tip your hat to.
CH The hat is all very well, but….
ST. MICHAEL How forgetful of me! In general we’re an abstemious crowd here, but there’s no ban on moderate enjoyment.
A cherub swoops down, proffering a well-stocked tray.
CH (gulping down one glass quickly and taking another) Angel!
POPE PIUS V (joining the group) Michael, I couldn’t help overhearing your reference to the Palazzo Colonna, built in the late seventeenth century, and of course memorable for the marvelous depictions on the ceiling of its Grand Gallery of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, our Holy League’s historic defeat of the Ottomans.
CH Ha! The wily Turk, lurking like a cobra ’midst the fairest flowers of God’s creation, lies ever ready to pounce upon the unsuspecting traveler and bugg…
PIUS V I don’t believe I’ve had the honor.
ST. MICHAEL This is Mr. Hitchens, a British-American writer here on a possibly brief visit. And (to CH) this is St. Pius V, who indeed occupied the Holy See at the time of Lepanto.
CH (theatrical bow) The honor is mine.
PIUS V Those were the days, when the wind was truly at our backs! 210 ships of the Ottoman armada — almost their entire fleet — sent to the bottom of the Gulf of Patras; the Counter Reformation in full spate; the Council of Trent a magnificent success; heresy confronted and extirpated by our Inquisitors.
CH The screams of their victims no doubt inaudible amid the general brays of triumph.
PIUS V Speaking as a former Inquisitor, let me say that by modern standards of bloodshed consequent upon religious or ideological conflicts, the number of those who perished by reason of their adamant heresy was startlingly small. Have you kept up with recent scholarship on the topic? I thought not. Out of 62,000 cases judged by the Inquisition in Italy after 1542, only 1,250 ended with death sentences. The Spanish Inquisition held an average of 350 trials a year between 1560-1700 and executed between 3,000 and 5,000 people.
CH (snatching two more glasses from the tray of a passing cherub) I do not propose to stand silently here, your so-called Holiness, and endure from a dotard in a white petticoat filthy apologias for atrocious barbarism in the name of his so-called God.
ST. MICHAEL Mr. Hitchens! I suggest you moderate your language immediately.
PIUS V (walking away) Brutto insolente, ignorante, ubriacone pieno di merda!
MOTHER TERESA (approaching, with Pope John Paul II; HK lurking discreetly) Brutto insolente, indeed! Mr. Hitchens, I understand from Dr. Kissinger that you are prepared to repudiate your libels upon me.
CH Certainly not.
JOHN PAUL II But why not? After all, your arguments against the Blessed Teresa were either trivial or absurd, and in all instances morally odious. To focus on the latter: by 1996, the Blessed Teresa was operating 517 missions in more than 100 countries. And you, what were you doing for the poor? Would a starving person near death be more likely to get a bowl of soup or shelter from the Blessed Teresa or from Christopher Hitchens?
CH I have never had pretensions to be in the professional charity business.
MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE If I may intrude. Of course, as a great admirer of Mother Teresa, I was in receipt of Mr. Hitchens’ barbs, so I do speak as a biased witness. I regard it as truly extraordinary that while Mr. Hitchens was blithely ladling his sewage over our heads, he was — as a sometime US correspondent, I have followed these matters closely from here in Heaven — a fierce and influential advocate of one of the most violent onslaughts on the poor in recent historical memory: first, the sanctions on Iraq, which caused untold misery to Iraq’s poorest citizens; then the actual attack of 2003, which eventually prompted the deaths of over a million Iraqis and a crisis that still virtually paralyses that wretched nation.
CH I would not change a syllable of what I wrote.
MM Worse still — I speak also as someone who reported from the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule — Mr. Hitchens displayed himself as a craven apparatchik of the Bush White House, actually going to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue the night before the invasion to give a pep talk to the President’s staff about their noble mission.
Since Beatrice Webb was my wife’s aunt, I am intimately familiar with the follies of socialists. You, in your contempt for “lesser” cultures, remind me of the German social democrat Eduard Bernstein, who argued that to oppose Rhodes’s suppression of the Matabele uprising was to oppose “the spread of civilization”, and that “the higher culture always has the greater right on its side over the lower; if necessary it has the historical right, yea, the duty, to subjugate it.”
CH The mission to Baghdad was noble: the eviction of a filthy tyrant…
MM …was worth the denial of medicine and medical equipment for babies, the forcing of hundreds of thousands of poor Iraqis into near starvation, the creation of millions of internal refugees plus those who managed to flee the country, the unleashing of sectarian bloodshed on an unparalleled scale? Just so that your hero, Tony Blair, and your supreme leader, Mr. Bush, could boast, “Mission Accomplished”?
CH Since His Holiness St. Pius V, who has departed the field of disputation, was invoking the Battle of Lepanto, I’m surprised not to hear any parallels drawn between that engagement and the Crusade against Islam, of which the war in Iraq — and the terror axis of Hussein and Osama — was a significant element.
MM You mean your precious crusade against so-called “Islamo-fascism”, the bizarre coinage of a Trotskyite, such as you once were? Lepanto at least saw the Ottoman armada, and the unfortunate slaves who rowed their galleys, sent to the bottom of the sea. Your crusade in Iraq saw the triumph of the Shi’a, and a significant victory for Iran. With Vice President Cheney you must be the last two men alive who believe in the Hussein/Osama axis.
JOHN PAUL II The Holy See strongly opposed the war. Before it began, I sent Cardinal Pio Laghi to tell Bush it would be a disaster and would destroy human life. The war was useless, served no purpose and was a defeat for humanity. Such was my view, which was the recorded opinion of the Holy See.
MM Surely, a more humane posture than your own hosannas to cluster bombs: “Those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and, guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.”
CH Rather well put, if I say so myself.
MM You are impervious to rebuke, which is not surprising, since if one rebuke is let in the door, it can usher in another, and then some serious inner reflection may become unavoidable. As Cardinal Newman put it, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”
CH Newman, that old queen!
MM Like St. Pius, I’ll quit the field now, but let me return to something His Holiness John Paul II said. “Would a starving person near death be more likely to get a bowl of soup or shelter from the Blessed Teresa or from Christopher Hitchens?”
What has constantly struck me is the desolate sterility of your atheism. We had atheists in our generation, of course, but they lived in a world and consorted with people for whom religion had profound meaning, often inspiring them to acts of nobility and extraordinary self-sacrifice. In your book, religious people are stupid. But they weren’t stupid, and the atheists — I’m thinking of my dear friend, a man you profess to have admired, Claud Cockburn — didn’t deride them, but cheerfully swapped quotations from the Sermon on the Mount. The context was one of respect and mutual striving for a better world.
What sort of moral leadership did you, the great and ultimately rather wealthy exponent of atheism display? Extreme disloyalty to close friends, constant public drunkenness and brutish rudeness, particularly to women, and a life, if I may say so, of almost psychotic self-centeredness and exhibitionism. You had your claque — Messrs Amis, Fenton and the others — and their energies in promoting you as a major intellectual and stylist were unceasing, and in their somewhat homoerotic loyalty, rather touching, but I don’t think the verdict of history will be quite so kind.
Antechamber to Heaven. CH is sitting on a bench. Door opens and St. Michael bids HK a cheerful goodbye.
HK Mr. Hitchens. You seem somewhat subdued. (proffering flask) A little schnapps?
CH My dear fellow! (drinks deeply) You arranged your affairs successfully?
HK Entirely so. In large part owing to you. Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, not to mention St. Pius V, were so shocked by your views and by your language that they entirely discounted the charges you leveled against me, and believe me to have been vilely traduced.
CH I suppose I should be glad to have been of service. But let me ask a question: since you are Jewish, why would you be taking such trouble to build up contacts in what is clearly a Christian Heaven?
HK Between ourselves, I am preparing for a final conversion and absolution. Jews are vague about heaven and, after a lifetime’s observation, I am inclined to think that the atmosphere in Gehenna would be extremely acrimonious. Your plans?
CH Once again, I feel it necessary to insist that I do not recognize myself as being in Heaven, or disputing with a sixteenth-century pope, or indeed being reprimanded by St. Michael and Malcolm Muggeridge. Or talking affably with Henry Kissinger. So, please, regard this as ongoing cerebral activity on the part of C.H. Hitchens, patient at M.D. Anderson.
HK As you wish. But here, (slips him the flask) just remember Dr. Johnson’s stone. Farewell, my friend.
Lights fade to a dark red.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com