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Young Christopher Hitchens“‘Let’s just go in and enjoy ourselves,’ Yvonne [his mother] had said after a long moment when the Hitchens family had silently reviewed the menu — actually of the prices not the courses — outside a restaurant on our first and only visit to Paris. I knew at once that the odds against enjoyment had shortened (or is it lengthened? I never remember). ‘You should be nicer to him,’ a schoolmate had once said to me of some awfully ill-favored boy. ‘He has no friends.’ This, I realized with a pang of pity that I can still remember, was only true as long as everybody agreed to it. There are more robust versions of the same contradiction: a plug-ugly labor union/Cosa Nostra figure, asked at a Senate hearing if he thought his outfit was too powerful, looked around a couple of times and leaned into the mike before saying: ‘Senator: being powerful’s a bit like being ladylike. If you have to say you are, then you prolly ain’t.’ British diplomats and Anglo-American types in Washington have a near-superstitious prohibition on uttering the words ‘Special Relationship’ to describe relations between Britain and America, lest the specialness itself vanish like a phantom at cock-crow. Never ask while you are doing it if what you are doing is fun. Don’t introduce even your most reliably witty acquaintance as someone who will set the table on a roar. ‘Martin is your best friend, isn’t he?’ a sweet and well-intentioned girl once said when both of us were present: it was the only time I ever felt awkward about this precious idea, which seemed somehow to risk diminishment if it were uttered aloud.

The fragility of love is what is most at stake here — humanity’s most crucial three-word avowal is often uttered only to find itself suddenly embarrassing or orphaned or isolated or ill-timed — but strangely enough it can work better as a literal or reassuring statement than a transcendent or numinous or ecstatic one. Ian McEwan wrote a morally faultless essay just after the atrocities of 11 September 2001, noting that almost all voicemail messages from those on the doomed aircraft had ended with this very common trinity of words, and adding (in an almost but not quite supererogatory fashion) that by this means the murder victims had outdone and outlived their butchers.

But for me this Hays Office problem complicates the ancient question that Bertrand Russell answered (to my immense surprise) in the affirmative. If you were offered the chance to live your own life again, would you seize the opportunity? The only real philosophical answer is automatically self-contradictory: ‘Only if I did not know that I was doing so.’ To go through the entire experience once more would be banal and Sisyphean — even if it did build muscle — whereas to wish to be young again and to have the benefit of one’s learned and acquired existence is not at all to wish for a repeat performance, or a Groundhog Day. And the mind ought to, but cannot, set some limits to wish-thinking. All right, same me but with more money, an even sturdier penis, slightly different parents, a briefer latency period… the thing is absurd. I seriously would like to know what it was to be a woman, but like blind Tiresias would also want the option of re-metamorphosing if I wished. How terrible it is that we have so many more desires than opportunities.”

Christopher Hitchens Cancer


From Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens.