God Said, "Hey"
Christopher Hitchens Argues with Anne Lamott from Beyond the Grave
Help, Thanks, Wow
by Anne Lamott
(Riverhead Books, $17.95)
by Christopher Hitchens
For the past decade, Anne Lamott's writing career has been predicated on the simple fact that when you're betting on the American public's buying tastes, you can't go wrong by leaning heavily on babies and Jesus. Lamott has evolved from a novelist to a best-selling essayist on spirituality and motherhood (and, eventually, grandmotherhood), and her ideas are getting flimsier as her career progresses. Her newest book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, is essentially a pamphlet, a tiny, expensive hardcover pep rally for cafeteria Christianity.
Lamott's prose has codified over the years into something folksy and cheery and cutely self-mocking, like the neighbor you feel guilty about hating. Early on in Help, Thanks, Wow, she offers to "lend you my higher power, this sweet brown-eyed Jew who will want you to get glasses of water for everyone, and then come to the beach for some nice fish." But Lamott's not picky about where her spiritual satisfaction comes from. She calls Rumi her "general-purpose-go-to-mystic." She just wants you to believe in some sort of higher power. Any higher power is just fine in the church of Lamottism. The first step to becoming a practitioner of Lamottism, she says, is to admit "the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little." After a little work, "it's not such a huge step to imagine yourself believing in any sort of higher power, to whom you could say, 'Hey.'"
So casual! So friendly! Lamott says "Hey" to her god when she's feeling down, when she woke up with "loneliness... sitting on my chest like a dental X-ray apron, even though I was buried in hairy dog love." Saying "Hey" to the god of Lamottism is often as simple as "splurg[ing] on a pint basket of figs, or a pair of great socks," and it makes you feel you're in a state of "wonder," no matter how much "the New York literati or your atheist friends" may despise that word.
There's an underlying bitterness, and an overt ostentatiousness, in all of Lamott's examples. Her spirituality seems to roar back at its loudest when it's confronting critics. It is showy and it loudly declares its self-love. Lamott tells the same story, over and over again: Something bad happens, or she wakes up feeling bad. Something wondrous happens (either she notices something awe-inspiring, like "the veins in a leaf, birdsong, volcanoes," or she generates kindness by "letting others go first, in traffic or in line at Starbucks") and suddenly her belief in God is restored. Hey!
Those who take their spiritual solace from Lamottism shouldn't be ashamed of themselves. But once you're feeling right again, after you've said "Hey" to the flip-flop-wearing Jimmy Buffett god of Lamott's belief system, I'd advise you to start poking around for a sturdier platform on which to rest your well-being. Lamott's spirituality is too tempestuous and too shallow to build a life on.
In Mortality, his final book, Christopher Hitchens muses on the many people who have announced that they're praying for him. Hitchens, the Vanity Fair columnist and vehement atheist who died of esophageal cancer last year, lists several Bible quotes praising the perfection of the universe as part of God's plan and then denounces the prayers of those who want to use faith to save him: "A person using prayer time to ask for the world to be set to rights, or to beseech god to bestow a favor upon himself, would in effect be guilty of a profound blasphemy or at the very least a pathetic misunderstanding."
Mortality is the story of Hitchens's worsening cancer and his approaching death, and the book is structured very much like the process of dying. Which is to say that it's all over the place, with many early good stretches, occasional very bad stretches, and it ends way before you're ready, in a flurry of confusion and half-finished thoughts. Hitchens maintains his atheism—those insecure religious zealots looking for a deathbed recantation will leave unsatisfied—but the book is not another atheist tract (his excellent God Is Not Great already serves as the best example of that genre). Instead, Hitchens writes about whatever flits across his consciousness: what it feels like to have your body fail you, how small talk becomes a certain kind of torture when you have cancer, how a profound love of Dostoevsky may have hastened Neitzsche's death. Above all, he takes part in what Martin Amis correctly identified as the war on cliché, refusing to allow himself to give in to lazy or simple thought up till the very end.
Hitchens is not nice. In fact, he's still an asshole, and at times his idle thoughts can be the most maddening of them all. (This is the man who stood proudly with Bush's neocons in the beginning of the last decade.) Through the short journey of Mortality (the book is slighter, even, than Help, Thanks, Wow, but Hitchens had the best excuse in the world for his manuscript's brevity) the words take on a whispered, emphatic tone. Hitchens knows he's running out of time, and every word seems more urgent. As a human document, it's incredibly touching. Hitchens does more to exemplify the dignity and the fragility of life in Mortality than Lamott has in years. He does this by refuting the same tired clichés that Lamott revels in, by arguing with complacency until there's no breath left in his body.