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Wednesday, August 18, 2010  

The Divided Self

A couple weeks back Christopher Hitchens gave an interview to Anderson Cooper about his cancer diagnosis. Eventually I got around to watching the extended version, which I recommend. Christopher Hitchens has no idea who I am, but I've written some sharp words about him over the years and I'm sure he'd return the favor if, like Humphrey Bogart, he gave me any thought. But the interview is a good example of why, should his illness run its course before something sudden takes me, I will miss the man. He has a rhetorical charisma that, love it or hate it, has a rare aptitude for holding one's gaze. It doesn't hurt that he's generally sober, austere, and realistic in discussing his illness. He is not given, publicly at least, to self-pity. He's even more generous to some people than one might expect.

I've not made a point of praying for him as some are, though he's included and will now no doubt be remembered in my general prayers for the sick and terminally ill. I'm not interested in trying, rather oddly it seems to me, to talk God into getting off His duff and provoking a conversion in Hitchens as he endures what may be his fatal illness. That smacks of praying to win an argument rather than a soul. I do, however, pray as Father Zossima tells his monks to do, for all who appear before the throne of God that day, that they may be dealt with mercifully. In that department I will need nothing less. I certainly wish him well in his treatments and I hope I have him around to pop off on for a long time to come.

Anyway, here was something that stood out to me:

To my [inaudible] surprise, because I'm by no means tearproof, I haven't wept, at least to this point. Perhaps that's to come. But I become moist when I think about my children, for whom it's a nasty shock. Incidentally, whatever god is punishing me, according to the other [hostile] prayer faction, is punishing them, too. I don't know if they think about that.

I wouldn't care to guess, since I don't keep much company with people who believe that cancer is a punishment for vocal atheism. Were I a potent but trifling deity, I would probably find something more redolent of divine intervention to punish a heavy-drinking long-term smoker than esophogeal cancer. But that's God for you--hiding somewhere in the causes, giving just enough to provoke our best and worst impulses but withholding too much to let either one triumph.

Anyway, I mention this point not to take up the question of how and whether God acts through such things. I mention it because it clashes rather oddly against something Hitchens says elsewhere in the interview: that his life-long habits contributed in a fairly straightforward and predictable way to his illness. Here is how he puts it in his fine column on the topic for Vanity Fair:

In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.

I don't quite know if there's a contradiction here, but there's something odd. Hitchens raises the idea that a god is punishing his children vicariously by his cancer, only to dismiss it with the brevity such a thought deserves. But likewise he accepts that his own actions substantially endangered his life. So--and I enter this minefield hesitantly, since I have no intention to judge or criticize and yet words have a life of their own--is the idea that a god is punishing one's children beyond the moral pale, but the thought that one is punishing one's own children--that is, the whole host of selves who repeatedly do unsafe and unwise things, spurning the rare chances afforded by life to change course--may be, albeit in a sidelong fashion, admitted? Willing cancer to come about is not the same thing as consciously increasing one's risk, but it's not a totally different thing either.

What concerns me here is not Hitchens' own worldview but a curious, and very widespread, dissonance in the human heart. On one hand, we are ferociously committed to our children. We are rightly afraid to leave them young and at the mercy of the world, anxious to see them reach the milestones of adulthood, and offended at the thought that there might be a lesson for ourselves or anyone else in their suffering. Greed for time with one's children is the species of greed that may come closest to righteousness. Yet many people, endowed as fully as anyone else with this parental yearning, still consciously and repeatedly endanger their health and safety while their children are young enough to be sore grieved at a parting.

Again, I am not making any judgments here. I have felt the same yearning collide with the same impulse to do stupid and short-sighted things. What kind of creature experiences this internal division? How is it that we may, as it were, act as several different selves--the one who drank too much and smoked in the heady prime of youth, the one who had children and can't easily bear the thought of leaving them prematurely, the one who persists in dangerous behavior all the same, the one who looks back on it from the standpoint of grave illness--and yet own it all as coherent parts of the same life and the same mind?

The evolutionary psychologists no doubt have an answer of sorts--probably many answers in mutual contradiction. The hypertrophy of parental attachment is obvious enough, once quaint desires for evidence are dismissed. And the brain's receptiveness to addiction is well studied at this point, as are the magnificently subtle rationalizations it creates. Maybe the whole notion of a divine agency that inflicts suffering on us for our willful departure from our best impulses arises from this internal contradiction. "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" That, anyway, would be one way of putting it.

Even granting the evolutionary explanations for this utterly curious state of of affairs, it doesn't cease to be a problem short of finally nullifying our own consciousness (which, come to think of it, is how so many of us get into this sort of problem in the first place). And I don't think the curious case of the divided self has a solution in any human terms. Some may pray. Hitchens acknowledges with perhaps unexpected grace that he is moved by the prayers of his sometime antagonists, moved, that is, by the notion that "they think that in some way, some bits of me may be worth saving." Some may write, as Hitchens himself does quite masterfully even on this unmasterable topic, finding something worth saying out of a dull and grueling experience. Either way we are striving, at the end of all things, to hold up those few bits of ourselves or others that we would have remembered, unyoked (if never separated) from all those things done to obscure or minimize them.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 12:13 AM
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