How Christopher Hitchens proved that nothing is sacred

The late author's now-classic "The Missionary Position," a takedown of Mother Teresa, resonates even louder today

Topics: The Listener, Audiobooks, audible, Our Picks: Books, Editor's Picks, Books, literature, Christopher Hitchens, Mother Teresa,

How Christopher Hitchens proved that nothing is sacred

In the foreword to “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice,” Christopher Hitchens imagined the question he invited by writing the book: “Who would be so base as to pick on her, a wizened, shriveled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and the destitute?”

The short version of Hitchens’s answer: Me.

His longer version: The implied question “Is nothing sacred?” must always be answered “with a stoical ‘No.’”

This fierce stance was central to Hitchens’s work, and now that he has been dead for a year, and Mother Teresa has been dead for 15 years, the reissue of “The Missionary Position” as an audiobook is less an opportunity to revisit the history of their disagreement (his explicit, hers implicit) than it is an opportunity to remember the value of Hitchens’s great pugnacious willingness to examine, in cold detail, the things the culture has enshrined, and to “scorn to use the fear of death to coerce and flatter the poor.”

A writer as strident as Hitchens benefits from an audiobook narrator as measured and assured as Simon Prebble. A lesser narrator might misguidedly over-perform, perhaps in the hope of matching the writer’s intensity. But Prebble is wise enough to let the prose do the performing, and in his restraint, he casts a warm light on Hitchens’ sentences, which, for all their accusatory adjectives and sharp edges, are always terribly precise, and occasionally beautiful.

The popular idea of Mother Teresa — Hitchens calls it “the whole Mother Teresa cult” —  begins with “Something Beautiful for God,” a 1969 BBC documentary that was converted by Malcolm Muggeridge, in 1971, into a hagiographic book that attempted to establish, among other things, that Mother Teresa, though still alive, had already achieved the miracle that would be the prerequisite for sainthood.

The miracle in question was “a photographic miracle” of “divine light” which brilliantly illuminated BBC cameraman Ken Macmillan’s footage of Mother Teresa’s dimly lit Home for the Dying, but which Macmillan attributes, instead, to a new and better variety of filmstock recently shipped from Kodak. “It is the first unarguable refutation of a claimed miracle,” Hitchens wrote, “to come not merely from another supposed witness to said miracle but from its actual real-time author.”



Hitchens also objected to Muggeridge’s one-dimensional characterization of Calcutta, Mother Teresa’s base of operations, as a hell hole — a condescending and locally unpopular judgment, which failed to take into account the vitality of the culture, the work ethic of the people, or the historical conditions that gave rise to the city’s crowding and poverty. Even more, he objected to the thing Muggeridge admired most: The idea that what Calcutta suffered from most wasn’t material lack or physical need, but rather “being too distant from Jesus.”

This is the attitude that Hitchens saw as the central trouble with Mother Teresa. Although her emphasis was upon “the poorest of the poor and the lowest of the low,” her solution was never to lift anyone out of poverty or lowness, much less to engage in a dialogue of change with the systems that perpetuated poverty and lowness. Since Jesus said, “The poor you always have with you,” then, in Hitchens’s estimation,  there becomes no particular hurry to ease the general condition of poverty, and the poor become objects “used to illustrate morality tales,” to advance political causes such as the outlawing of contraception, and to proselytize.

Hitchens offered disturbing examples. When Dr. Robin Fox, editor of the leading medical journal The Lancet, visited Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying operation in Calcutta, in 1994, he found that systematic approaches to diagnosing and caring for ill patients were frowned upon, because Mother Teresa preferred “providence to planning,” with one consequence being that patients were frequently misdiagnosed and given the wrong medicines. (“Investigations,” as the attending sisters told him, “are seldom permissible.”) Worse, he found a disturbing lack of the strong analgesics that are often required to manage the pain of the dying. The lack of good analgesia, Fox said, “marks Mother Teresa’s approach as clearly separate from the hospice movement. I know which I prefer.”

Other medical witnesses at Mother Teresa’s facilities spoke of inadequate beds, a lack of proper medical equipment, hypodermic needles reused without being sterilized, patients the sisters refused to transport to the hospital for relatively inexpensive antibiotics or operations, and all of it out of a logic of lack or resignation. One sister said, “If they do it for one, they do it for everybody.” Another, dismissing the unsterilized needles, said, “There’s no point. There’s no time.”

Hitchens’s response is worth quoting at length. “Bear in mind,” he wrote, “that Mother Teresa’s global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal. The decision not to do so, and indeed to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution which would expose itself to litigation and protest were it run by any branch of the medical profession, is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjugation.”

Much of the rest of “The Missionary Position” is interested in this tension between Mother Teresa’s resources and her organization’s unwillingness to deploy them in these basic and humane directions in the care facilities for which she had the final say. Particularly galling to Hitchens — and to the listener — is the contrast between a standard of care for the poor that a generous observer might have said bordered on neglect, and the extraordinary public affections, by contrast, that Mother Teresa lavished on wealthy patrons including the Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and the S&L looter Charles Keating, or the silence she granted as tacit grace to the Dergue junta in Ethiopia which used starvation as a weapon against the people of Eritrea, or to the local oligarchy in Guatemala which had its hand in the slaughter of Guatemalan Indians.

If all this seems like a harsh piling-on, it is. If it seems like old news, by now it also is. But history is always in conversation with the present, and courteous silence about the trouble of the past is a reliable ally of whatever trouble the present is cooking up for the future.

On these grounds, Hitchens couldn’t be any more timely. At the end of “The Missionary Position,” he proclaims: “It is past time that [Mother Teresa] was subjected to the rational critique that she has evaded so arrogantly and for so long.” The listener, having been convinced by the rigor of Hitchens’s evidence-gathering and the intelligent moral rightness of his argument, now might ask: What other sacrednesses in our culture conspire “to use the fear of death to coerce and flatter the poor?”

And then: Who now will be brave enough to defy the tyranny of niceness, and gather the crucial evidence, and offer it without apology?

*   *   *

New to Audible? Listen to “The Missionary Position” for free, or check out a sample.

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>