Hitchens Debunked Facile Maxims to the End

I may be the only person on the planet who never shared a smoke or a drink with the brilliant author/bon vivant Christopher Hitchens, who died Thursday at age 62 of pneumonia brought on by esophageal cancer. But his work suggests that if his strident atheism is wrong and there is an afterlife after all, he might well be cringing at the ocean of saccharine sentimentalism now flooding the media universe.

Hitchens was so prolific, one had to pick and choose among his many books, essays and journalism. He had the erudition and wit to annihilate such deserving targets as Henry Kissinger and Pope Benedict XVI. His polemics against more admired characters like Bill Clinton and Mother Teresa can also be enlightening and entertaining even as they tip overboard.

Hitchens' defense of Bush-Cheney's disastrous Iraq War was, to put it mildly, wrongheaded, and too often arrived in the form of scathing insults against anti-war activists. The same man who expressed pride in having "soldiered against the neoconservative ratbags" in 1999 came to write "A War To Be Proud Of" for Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard just a few years later. He revealed his preference for Bush over John Kerry in an article published in The Nation just a few weeks before the worst president in our lifetimes narrowly won a second term. By 2005, Hitchens was a figure "honored throughout the neoconservative Right," according to The American Conservative.

During his last years, Hitchens' writing remained amazingly muscular even as his body betrayed him. In the January issue of Vanity Fair, he calls on his own painful experience to deliver a bullseye parting shot to the inane cliche, "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger" with an unvarnished account of how his disease made him substantially weaker. He cites others who have gotten the anything but stronger in the face of illness, including German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche -- the man usually credited with inventing the maxim -- who apparently lost his mind to syphilis and lived his final years in agony.

"What doesn't kill me makes me stronger" isn't just foolish. It can also do damage to those who believe it and yet find themselves "failing" to be strong. This outlook leads to another dumb idea: that we must fail -- and fail big -- to succeed, an especially galling canard when it emanates from mega-rich superstars and billionaires. Michael Jordan doesn't make me feel any better when he says that he only became the best basketball player in history because he "failed over and over and over again." Nor does Steven Tyler when he implies in his recent memoir that we too can become zillionaire rock gods and American Idol judges, but if and only if we "dare to suck." And when Soichiro Honda said, "Success is 99 percent failure," I doubt he meant this 99 percent.

"No pain, no gain," is another ill-conceived cliche with, er, painful implications. As David B. Morris, author of The Culture of Pain, pointed out in The Scientist, "No Pain, No Gain" is "an American modern mini-narrative: it compresses the story of a protagonist who understands that the road to achievement runs only (itals mine) through hardship."

Let's get this straight. If you fail to heed these platitudes -- that is, if you fail to fail properly -- you're sure to fail. And that brand of failure fails to lead to the right kind of success!

All this might pass for benign psychobabble but for its implications for the millions who have worked hard and played by the rules in recent years, yet have still lost their jobs, homes and health insurance. Even more insulting is the implied obverse of these tropes: if you don't work hard and don't play by the rules, you won't make it. One need look no farther than the scores of crooked millionaire and billionaire bankers who've failed epically and even criminally and still strolled away from their messes prosecution-free and with huge fortunes.

Failure to fail properly hasn't always been seen as a character deficiency. Scott A. Sandage's recent book Born Losers: A History of Failure in America says that in the early 19th century the word "failure" referred only to a business loss. It took generations until being a "loser in life" came to suggest a lack of "up-by-the-bootstraps" drive.

Common sense dictates that we can learn much from overcoming adversity. But there is no inherent virtue in suffering, and not all suffering leads to success. Sometimes, stuff just hurts.

Christopher Hitchens' deft dispatching of what he called "facile maxims that don't live up to their billing" points toward something that truly does make us stronger: the truth.