Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Lives They Lived

Each year at this time, the New York Times Magazine is given over to an issue that celebrates the lives and extraordinary stories of people who passed away over the last year. It's always a compelling issue, and this year's was no exception. There are deeply moving stories told here - not least in the 'These American Lives section curated by Ira Glass. Indeed, practically all of them well worth reading:

Christopher Hitchens:

       The loss of Christopher Hitchens at 62 is terribly sad. He had the appetite and aptitude of ten men, was the greatest debater of the past decade, and a sparkling orator. His learning, and his recall of all that he read, belies belief. There's plenty to disagree with him on, politically and otherwise, but that's beside the point. He was a remarkably compelling figure who's stature as an intellectual was still growing.
      I read Hitchens's memoir this year, around the time that he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, and curiously, didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped. I'm sure that his collected essays, 'Arguably' is a better book, and a more worthwhile read, based on what I've read of it so far. A few of my thoughts on his memoir can be found in an earlier post, here:

     In the days immediately after Hitchens's death, Ian McEwan published a wonderful tribute in The Guardian. It's such a skillful piece, beginning with McEwan use of a children's cancer hospital to tie-in Hitchens's fervent opposition to the idea of God:

     Hitchens was a man of enormous contradiction, and an interesting piece by Katha Pollitt appeared in The Nation on December 19. Written from a decidedly feminist viewpoint, it's contrarian and worthwhile reading.

    As a writer, Hitchens deserves to have the last word - something he clearly intended to do, even as he faced death.  Another memoir, 'Mortality,' is already scheduled, and the way Hitchens faced up to his own death is extraordinary by any measure.

Steve Jobs:

    Celebrating a life of great accomplishment isn't necessarily the same thing as hagiography. See Hitchens, above. A friend of mine noted on Facebook soon after Steve Jobs died that he was to some large extent responsible for inhumane pay and work conditions in the Apple factories in China, and as such, shouldn't be celebrated in quite the way he was being honored at that time . Fair enough.  But to paraphrase Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas and maintain the ability to function - a useful exercise when it comes to evaluating a life.
     I found Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs to be a tremendous accomplishment, particularly given the circumstance. The circumstance was of having only two years to gather a lot of complicated and contradictory information, assemble it in readily digestible form, and then beat the ticking clock on a life, and therefore, on a deadline to publish it. Isaacson managed all of this, and also delivered an account that was balanced, recognizing the talent and/or genius of an individual, without shying away from the many troubling quirks and traits of that individual's personality. 
    What it amounts to for me is that all lives are marked by asterisks. Jobs is a perfect example of this, much like Picasso, who's art we celebrate and revere while fully aware that he was a misogynistic prick. If we're going to praise only morally sound, righteous writers/ artists/ creative geniuses, the list of those we admire and approve of will be short indeed. That doesn't men disregarding all foibles, but rather, maintaining balance and perspective. 

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