The following communications from Christopher Hitchens were received by me in the last few days, after some weeks of suspecting they were “on their way”. They are humbly offered with the usual caveats: Although I cannot “prove” they are from the deceased personality know by that name, I have a strong suspicion, given my experience in the field, that I have not been duped. Furthermore, I make no claim for the communications other than my conviction of their authenticity. Please find resonances where you may, and keep that bullshit detector firmly in place.
I communicate this at a time when the expanded version of my Vanity Fair article is being read around the world as the short book “Mortality”, and I do so through the kind offices of my volunteer scribe, who not only came to the much startled me after my passing, but bravely offered to disagree with several of my precious arguments on cultural, theological and philosophical issues. Declaring himself a lightweight in the forums of public debate, he nonetheless took issue with several of my weighty pronouncements, finally disarming me with the almost virulently Scottish, “Ugh Chris, dinnae be daft”, delivered in perfect Billy Connolly Glaswegian
I say “communicate”, as it is not I who executes the flow of words on the page. My willing scribe picks up my thoughts, the general drift of my ideas, and hopefully as much of my elegant and witty constructions as his “imperfect instrument”, as he so humbly puts it, will allow. People like him, the sort I never really took seriously whilst strutting my stuff on Shakespeare’s stage, must practice their craft with repeated vigour that they may perfect their art of self-effacement, becoming more and more like some submissively neutral secretary than the unique writerly voice so prized by our literary culture.
And now I am firmly removed from that stage of strutting actors, rational and otherwise, I can, or think I can, observe the action with considerable bemusement, for now I know, or think I know, that all those actors, regardless of race, religion, education or moral stature, wind up here in one or other of the neighbourhoods where I currently find myself. Of course I use the term loosely. My scribe invokes the terms “spheres” or “planes”, or even “belief system territories”, and from the little research I have found time, although time is something of a nebulous concept here, to do, these terms have been in fairly common usage, for well, more than a century earth time.
As one takes the air around one’s current neighbourhood one senses a certain commonality of feeling and thought, that could, if taken to extremes, become somewhat oppressive. As one who, while on earth, delighted in the extremes of diversity to be found in cities, enjoying the doorman and cab driver as much as the production assistant or television personality, it comes as something of a minor shock to discover a certain similarity of outlook in my new acquaintances.
While I am, as yet, in the process of accurately pinpointing such, I would suggest, to you, dear readers, that cheeriness is quite endemic to the enterprise I now find myself a part of. A willing part of I am not sure, but certainly not unwilling. Everyone hereabouts is cheery, almost determinedly so, so much so that one feels an occasional iconoclastic urge to dampen their enthusiasm with some outburst of scandalous or scurrilous behaviour. It’s a bit like a church social, the very best kind of course. No snottiness, no provocative exercise of piety, just a melodious sequence of cheery chatter and affectionate gestures. If one was to be inclined to snippiness one might say an endless round of such. But such is the benison of paradise, and some kind of paradise it most certainly is, that such a reaction could only be niggardly, not to mention ungrateful.
For after all the sufferings Mr. Hitchens endured at the hands of ravaging cancers and its equally ravaging cures, not to mention the almost helpless witnessing of the pain of family and friends, even the somewhat timorous bliss of these Elysian Fields is most welcome. Perhaps even more welcome to one who had neither longed for their gifts or bargained with a deity for their relief giving properties.
This brings me to the god story. While many of you may have felt, somewhat smugly at my demise, that some theological comeuppance was about to be delivered for the temerity of my doubt and denial, this was not the case. No gods or prophets or saviours have I seen. No judgements have been delivered, no resurrections have been experienced. No-one, other than a very few interested parties who cared to follow the arc of my public debating, has even chastised my atheistic crusade. No-one, or almost no-one, seems to care. And given the summer vacation atmosphere of the place, with all its pastimes, amusements, gorgeous landscapes and inspiring architecture, who can blame them? When one is on holiday and the weather is perfect, whose thoughts wander to the cares and worries of the the life back home?
In this I am surprised, but no more surprised than I am to be existing at all. Even the immediate post-mortem darkness in which I seemed to find myself, bodiless but still sentient, was something of a shock. Even though I had failed to imagine what non-existence could actually be like, other than some nebulous absence of stimulation, I had expected some kind of a blank, empty nothing, a pleasing vacuum. But alas, it was not to be. Although I could not seem to accurately chart the parameters of the objectless darkness in which I found myself, sort of feeling and thinking, with fleeting memories flashing before what I refused to believe was my inner eye, I knew something was up. There was an afterlife after all, dark and pointless perhaps, an affectless hell honed for the likes of Hitchens and his faith-abhoring clique. I will admit to a momentary hope that dictator type sadists were not lurking nearby.
Fortunately the only lurkers were smirking angels like my scribe, who dropped by to interview me and offer any assistance, assuring my disbelieving self that they were regularly employed in such compassionate activities. At first I refused all help, feeling in the main that I was but a brain spasm in the dying embers of some dream in the nowheresville of dementia. Further visits revealed a more curious Mr. Hitchens, one who was eventually persuaded to, “come and have a look around”.
My scribe certainly knew his way abount these parts, shamelessly conducting a whirlwind of a tour, getting me home, as he smirked, before tea. Home, at the time, being that dark objectless vacuum to which I have already alluded. Not much fun, but as good a place to assimilate the apparent marvels so recently unleashed on poor bedazzled Mr. Hitchens. To employ the vernacular of my home, as opposed to my adopted, country, I was fair gobsmacked. If I had been even a smidgen religious, I might have commanded that the satan get thee behind me, but even with a heaping helping of the laconic I could not bring myself to so utter.
It was a dizzying ride, I can tell you, and as my scribe later admitted, was intentionally so. He wished, he said, to shock me out of my complacency. And damn it all, it worked. I couldn’t for the life of me, imagine how he had conjured up so many devastatingly pretty illusions on such short order. He assured me it was all very real, and objectively so to its many and varied inhabitants. These were the heavens, paradises, hells and secular retreats of the newly and longly departed
As you may expect his mention of secular retreats was intriguing to one such as I, with my horror and detestation of all godly dogmas. We have places for people like you Mr. Hitchens, he joked. I asked, stilling my sudden excitement, how they had come about. I was informed that as the grip of organized religions was loosened on an evolving humanity, the need for such spacious afterlife realms was realized and worked upon. Suddenly emboldened by I know not what, I asked if some of them had not always been there. In smaller doses was the reply. The spheres had been giant belief system enterprises for centuries, he continued, vast tracts of landscapes devoted to the nurturing of souls looking to religions to map out the dizzying enormity of the known, and unknown universe.
On his next visit to my rapidly shrinking comfort zone of darkness I insisted on being taken there. Where he asked ingenuously. Why, the secular retreats you spoke of. No sooner said than done, he promised with some kind of flourish that seemed to land us there almost immediately. When I asked about the method of transport employed he replied that instant teleportation was the favoured means hereabouts. I nodded, returning his smirk. I was getting to like this guy.
As retreats go this one was extensive. Despite the ability, courtesy of my scribe, of shifting focus and locality in a seeming instant, boundaries, including the natural ones of mountain ranges and seas, seemed unreachable. This retreat was the size of a country. My scribe nodded, a lot of them are. Forsaking the whirlwind tour we settled into a long valley, set charmingly between two lines of low forested hills. Because the air is so free of contaminants, I was duly informed, the perceived distances are deceptive, and the valley much wider than I thought. One did seem to see fine detail at great distance, almost as if an internal button called telescopic sight had been depressed. My scribe said yeah, it’s kinda like that sometimes. I challenged him for a more astute explanation. One’s vision here, is, apparently, in transition from what one was used to on earth to what one is capable of here, and has a tendency to oscillate between the poles of expectation and possibility.
I was later to hear that one does not actually see through one’s eyes at all, one just thinks one does. We were seated comfortably at a sidewalk cafe in a public square opposite a library and a museum, sipping on our caffeinated beverages and delighting in the display of birds about the multi-plumed fountains when I heard this startling factoid. I was told not to fret, that there were many aspects to the functioning of one’s new body that would come as something of a surprise to the newbie, and that it was best to let go of the inquiring mind and merely enjoy. Of course Mr. Hitchens was amused by the notion of letting go the inquiring mind, and he asked if this little barb was aimed at him. My scribe denied any such intention, adding that if he told me that I could actually perceive through the entire surface area of my body and that that body, although almost miraculous in comparison with its earthly counterpart, was in fact, merely a transitory stage on the way to even more unbelievable powers of perception and creation, I might well feel duped and discouraged.
Feeling unusually inadequate to the task of debate, I took him at his word. In such a swirl of what I can only call amazement, I had not and likely could not, stand back and assess. Of the many passers-by my scribe detained two for my edification and reassurance. No, there were no representatives of any of the major world religions on this sub-plane, at least not that she’d come across, and thank god for that she grinned. She described herself, kindly at my request, as a humanist librarian with a strong mythological bent. Turns out I’ve been a pagan all along, if I’d only fessed up to it, she continued. Astronomy told me the universe was infinite, so coupled with a conviction that we had to go somewhere and do something, I was not overly shocked to find myself here, in some kind of nursing home, after my heart attack.
A second friendly stranger spoke of his huge relief at being lead, after some initial wanderings and confusions, to this secular paradise dedicated to the arts and pursuit of greater knowledge on all fronts, except perhaps military, which seemed to have no place here. I asked him about philosophers and writers. Yes, of course I meant dead ones. He replied that there were many living here who fit that general description, and that it would not take too long to track at least some of them down. I was intrigued, but as he seemed to have places to go and things to do, I did not pester him with further questions. Instead I sipped on my caffeinated beverage, and nibbled at perhaps, dare I say, the most heavenly biscotti.