Hitchens: I’d do it over again

August 18, 2010 • 5:28 am

In this very short clip, Charlie Rose asks Christopher Hitchens if he’d still smoke and drink a lot if he could rewind the tape of his life.  Some of you might be surprised at his answer.

Like Hitch, most of us have made deliberate choices that will probably shorten our lives, and we’d realize this if we thought about it at all.  We’d all live longer if we lived in a state of semi-starvation, subsisting on roots and broccoli, and completely refrained from eating any food that tastes good.  And we should exercise compulsively.  Few of us live this way. This represents a deliberate choice to exist for fewer years but to enjoy the years we have.

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66 thoughts on “Hitchens: I’d do it over again

  1. “We’d all live longer if we lived in a state of semi-starvation, subsisting on roots and broccoli, and completely refrained from eating any food that tastes good. And we should exercise compulsively. ”

    I am not sure if I agree with the “compulsive exercising” stuff; one can go too far for good health (e. g., I know I wasn’t being healthy when I finished 100 mile footraces).

    Nicholas Taleb writes about this in his book The Black Swan; he found that he was healthier if he limited his exercise to long, slow, pleasurable walks and an occasional sprint.

    Of course, athletes (including recreational ones) train hard, but they are training for athletic performance, not for health.

    1. Yeah, I’ve wondered about the semi-starvation… I know about studies about caloric reduction prolonging life, but it occurs to me that, at least in human subjects, compliance is going to be a serious problem. To what extent is it possible that those who are psychologically able to stick with such a brutal regiment have other traits that make them live longer?

      I know that for me, even if I decided I wanted to drastically cut my caloric intake for the sake of an extra decade of life (which I most certainly do not want to do, but let’s just say I did), I am pretty sure I would not be successful. It’s just not in my makeup.

      1. Its also important to note that caloric restriction has only been tested on C. elegans and mice, which don’t exactly have a great inner life. Considering our brain eats up about 25% of all the calories we use, I can imagine that caloric restrictions would have a very negative impact on mental development and thinking in general.

        1. Re brain: The regime is only meant for adults, so over all development isn’t a problem. As for the rest, the brain is prioritized, isn’t it?

          [Bummer! I *would like* my hunger, food, chill et cetera experiences to be mentally dulled in that situation. :-o]

      2. (Never posted here before, so forgive my stepping into the mix in reply to another comment. It always feels like changing schools in the middle of the year to jump into the comment section of an established blog.)

        I think you’re probably onto something. I’m in the middle of reading The Age of Absurdity, and somewhere near page fifty Michael Foley mentions a study from 1970 in which four year olds were left alone with a marshmallow. They were told if they waited till the doctor returned they could have two marshmallows rather than the one. Only a third managed. Fourteen years later, the eighteen year olds were brought back in and the third that managed to hold off on eating the marshmallow were supposedly more successful: better grades, happier, etc.

        (According to Foley, it wasn’t stronger will but detachment that enabled their marshmallow resistance.)

  2. I don’t know his complete medical details but I wonder whether his disease could have been caught at an earlier and more treatable stage. A sixty two year old who smokes and drinks liquor and whose father died of esophageal cancer should be regularly checked for barrett’s esophagus – the premalignant condition that frequently leads to esophageal cancer.

    1. Indeed. It’s curious—in his recent memoirs Hitchens talks about the death of his friend Edward Said from leukemia, implying that perhaps Said could have been saved if he’d had earlier medical attention. And then Hitchens adds that this is a lesson for us to get regular checkups.

      1. What, you mean Hitchens may have written something in his memoirs that is difficult, if not impossible, to believe?

        Surely not?

        1. Rather something that is difficult, if not impossible, to live after.

          Like abstinence from belief.

      2. Heck, aren’t we all better at figuring out what others should do than actually getting around to said things ourselves? But of course, we all mean to do so. Soon

        1. Sounds like an operative definition of religion.

          As Ambrose Bierce put it:

          Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ so long as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

  3. I don’t really see a connection between smoking and drinking heavily and enjoying life. It sounds like Hitchens felt it necessary for his writing to lead a “bohemian existence.” A pursuit which he no doubt found enjoyable. But I question the notion that either habit is in itself particularly enjoyable.

    1. It is certainly understandable if you don’t find drinking or smoking enjoyable. However, this is a very subjective thing. I think if Hitchens says that he finds those activities enjoyable we should probably just take his word for it.

      While I find smoking to be personally disgusting in every way, I can assure you that I enjoy drinking very much. I don’t drink much or often, and I don’t like to get hammered, but I would really dislike having to give up drinking and would need a damn good reason to consider doing so. It is very enjoyable, to me, to find interesting beers, wines or liquors that I have never tried before.

      1. Ditto.

        I’m not a “supertaster”, but definitely up there. I usually give wine club members a good match or beating if clued in sufficiently on districts et cetera – i.e. if a friendly competition is purely based on blind taste without prior knowledge.

        So to restrict one of my senses would not be an easy option.

    2. “But I question the notion that either habit is in itself particularly enjoyable.”

      That’s a very silly thing to say. Why does it even occur to you? Do you simply just not believe people who tell you they enjoy smoking or drinking? I can assure you that those of us who do actually do enjoy those activities. Are you similarly skeptical about people’s enjoyment of foods you personally dislike, or activities you might find frightening, like skydiving?

      1. Good answer, Josh.

        Personally, I question the notion that TV is enjoyable. But realizing how out-of-step that is, I acknowledge that it’s probably I who am the weird one, not everyone else…

      2. “Do you simply just not believe people who tell you they enjoy smoking or drinking?”

        To be clear, I’m not talking about drinking in the sense that Darrell does above or smoking in the sense of occasionally enjoying a cigar or whatever. I’m talking about having a compulsive habit, as Hitchens clearly does, to drink heavily and to chain smoke.

        For the record, I have never heard a habitual cigarette smoker say they enjoy their habit and, if I encountered such a person, I would probably be skeptical. Talking about quitting tends to be a compulsive habit of smokers as much as smoking itself.

        Moreover, Hitchens didn’t say he enjoyed either.

        1. “For the record, I have never heard a habitual cigarette smoker say they enjoy their habit and, if I encountered such a person, I would probably be skeptical. ”

          Well you’ve met one now*. Smokers tend to talk compulsively about quitting, in part, because it’s socially expected of them by nonsmokers. They have to make a habit of self-flagellation in order to fend off the tiresome lectures (some people really do want to quit, of course).

          Your narrow experience, through the lens of a non-smoker, does not constitute the complete set of all possibilities.

          *Since discovering the electronic cigarette (no smoke, just nicotine vapor) I barely smoke tobacco anymore. Yes, I like the sensation of “smoking.” Many smokers do – it’s not exclusively the nicotine habit. I’d be willing to bet good many you know a lot of people who are closet smokers but who’d never tell you. I meet them all the time – they sidle up to me when their colleagues aren’t looking and ask for a smoke. Only occassionally at parties and such, but they’re clearly not hooked, they just enjoy the occasional smoke.

        2. Just for the record, when I was in college several decades ago, I smoked on and off for about a year, sometimes up to ten cigarettes per day. And the whole time I enjoyed the hell out of it. I quit simply because I didn’t want the health consequences, and I had no trouble quitting.

          Once or twice since then (and it’s been 40 years) I’ve gone off the wagon to the tune of roughly 5 cigarettes per day or so, but I’ve no trouble stopping that either.

          I haven’t done the mini-chain-smoking thing for a long time, but I still enjoy an odd cigarette every few months, usually with a drink, and I find it a great pleasure. There’s a palpable and sensuous pleasure in that hit of smoke in your lungs. And I’m always amused that on these rare occasions when I have a smoke, people sometimes lecture me. It seems to be a morality thing as much as a health thing.

          I doubt that none those who smoke more frequently don’t enjoy it. Yes, there are addicts who may not get pleasure from smoking, but I’m pretty darn sure that Hitchens wasn’t one of them. Watch him when he lights up!

          1. Thanks Jerry! I’ve looooooved smoking. Always have, just not the health consequences. Very happy with the e-cigarette – it’s damned-near miraculous. Anyone interested in quitting tobacco should check them out. Pure “smoking” enjoyment without the smoke (and folks, nicotine is not the main problem, it’s the burnt particulates).

          2. And yes, it is a morality thing, Jerry. It’s intrusive, rude puritanism gussied up as concern for my health. You’ll pardon me for suspecting the passerby on the street who stops to (incredibly) lecture me actually cares for my health. Nope – she’s taking pleasure in excercising a socially sanctioned bit of rudeness and schadenfreude.

            1. More likely he or she is pissed about having to inhale the smoke, which is know to have detrimental effect as second or third hand (nicotine transfer) smoking. Or, come to that, smells like shit.

              I never feel the urge to “lecture” smokers, but I often have to try to ward them off from smoking in communal spaces which non-smokers use.

            2. “More likely he or she is pissed about having to inhale the smoke, which is know to have detrimental effect as second or third hand (nicotine transfer) smoking. Or, come to that, smells like shit.”

              Get off it. No one is forced to come right up to me on the street, stand there and inhale, then lecture me like they were my parent. Especially when I’m already standing politely away from other people.

              And if having to endure a whisp of smoke while walking down the street scares you that much. . oy vey.

        3. I appreciate your distinction, and I agree that there is a difference between addiction and casual use. But I still think you are wrong to doubt that anyone with an addiction could truly enjoy partaking of their vice.

          I chewed tobacco for 28 years, “snuff” not leaf. I was addicted. Just about any time that I was not eating or sleeping I had a large pinch tucked into my lip. I quit because of the potential health problems, and to set a good example of healthy living for my children. Well, and because I had always realized that it was a pretty disgusting habit, and as I got a little older that started to matter to me.

          Now, there were times when I would over indulge and feel sick, but continue on because I was addicted, and at those specific moments I did not enjoy chewing tobacco. But that happened rarely. Again, I can assure you that I truly enjoyed chewing tobacco. I could think of little more enjoyable than taking a nice pinch of Copenhagen after a good meal and shooting the shit with some good friends.

          Every aspect of that may have been learned behavior. For example, my body learned not to wretch when tobacco first contacted my lip, gums and tongue, gradually over time because I forced it upon myself due to a desire to be cool. During that time period I did not like the taste or the way it made me feel physically. But, after some time I came to really enjoy the taste and the way it made me feel. A lot. I am talking about something distinct from the craving of addiction.

          It may be that I do not know what real addiction is. Quiting tobacco was very easy for me. I had no relapses, didn’t gain weight, didn’t start any other bad habits. It seems to me that as with most all biological things, addiction is a spectrum, and I probably am not very high on the spectrum.

  4. In his Vanity Fair article he says “I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste.” He wasn’t talking specifically about smoking, however, when I read that phrase as an ex-smoker the word “waste” jumped right out. The idea of losing to cancer just because of the unnatural action of smoking was what made me quit. The waste would have been unbearable to contemplate. And I loved smoking. Even now when I see smokers, I’m jealous.

    Now, Jerry, broccoli is packed with goodness, and you don’t have to go as far as you nominate–to the Simpsons’ level 5 vegan stage. A vegan diet has a wealth of delicious options and you have the benefit of knowing you are not contributing to animal suffering, which is my main aim.

    From memory I missed meat for a couple of weeks, when I went vegetarian (I’m now vegan) but now I don’t even think about it unless prompted. I simply have no desire for it any more.

    Whether this will contribute to longevity is anyone’s guess, but some risks have been taken out of the game.

    1. Sorry, but no.

      Despite all claims to the contrary, there is no evidence whatsoever that broccoli is actually “edible”.

      On this, I will remain firm.

      1. Have you ever tried tossing it, along with cauliflower and artichoke hearts, in olive oil, salt, pepper, fresh rosemary or tarragon, and then spreading it all out on a sheet pan and roasting it at 400 F until you get some carmelization? You need to stir it up every 10 minutes or so to prevent burning. Easy and yummy.

          1. BTW: I was *this* close to predicting in my first post that the first reply to me would contain some sort of recipe.

            Sadly, I cannot prove my prescience. I am a timid prophet.

            1. That would have ruined it then, though, unless I was feeling sarcastic.

              Sorry if I made your gorge rise a bit. By all means stay as far away as possible from broccoli if you have that kind of reaction to it.

    2. The idea of losing to cancer just because of the unnatural action of smoking was what made me quit.

      Interesting. It was the idea of how stupid I’d look (dying of a known risk like that) that made me quit. I realize that doesn’t say much for my character…

      1. I think it’s perfectly valid to feel that way. It was also a factor in why I quit. My sister is a doctor and was forever admonishing me for smoking. If I’d contracted a smoking related illness, the told-you-so looks from her and others would have been worse than the chemo!

        But it was the increasing sense of smoking as unnatural, frivolous and unnecessary that actually drove me to quit. Against the profoundity of life and staying alive it simply didn’t bear any merit. Plus, I was starting to feel it had control of me and not the other way around.

  5. It reminds me of the old joke that never fails to make me laugh. A guy goes to the doctor for a check-up and is told that he has to cut out the fags, booze, late nights and womanising for health reasons.

    “Will I live longer, if I do?”, the guy enquires.

    “No”, retorts the doc, “But it will fecking seem longer”.

  6. My main argument for gastronomic equanimity would be this: It’s not longevity that matters as much as not feeling like a bucket of ass during the few years one has left.

  7. We’d all live longer if we lived in a state of semi-starvation, subsisting on roots and broccoli, and completely refrained from eating any food that tastes good. And we should exercise compulsively.

    I think that’s anorexia, and I’m not sure it’s good for one!

  8. I don’t care all too much long life, but I certainly am not looking forward to losing my motor skills and mental faculties. There is accumulating evidence that aerobic exericse delays the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease. Which is why I go to the gym as often as I get the chance though that is not as often as I would like to.

  9. I lost a friend to lung cancer last year and a brother-in-law to it several years ago. “Waste” is a mild term to describe someone just cut down with a terrible, progressive pain and wasting away in what seemingly “should” be the prime of his/her life.

    I’m just glad I don’t smoke and never have. Quitting seems damn-near impossible for lots of people, and I could easily be one of those.

    Of course, I’ll eventually die anyway, but why accelerate it? There have to be much easier ways to go than that.

    1. OK, but smoking actually decreases the risk of Parkinson’s. PD is often an incapacitating disease and it his people without “vices” the hardest.
      So taking up aerobic exercise may not be a bad idea if you haven’t already. Just sayin’.

  10. The part I find a bit silly is equating “a bohemian existence” with smoking and drinking – especially smoking. I can sort of see it with drinking, because it can be disinhibiting and convivial, but what the connection is between being bohemian and smoking is just beyond me. It’s kind of as if he’s still twelve and still thinks people who smoke are cool n tough n hip n grown up.

    This may be why I find I don’t like the memoir much. I like Hitch better when he’s talking about things outside himself; he’s not very good at talking about himself. His style gets surprisingly stilted.

  11. What is wrong with brocolli? Love the brassicas man – an amazing vegetable! My favourite manifestation being the humble sprout. If you could smoke them I would… mmmmm!

    1. It is bitter, and good tasters/supertasters (which seem to be an actual trait) may have problems. (See the link – though I believe smoking should also go on that list.)

      1. oops! It is bitter for _some_ (well, a majority), which is another problem. Some doesn’t feel that at all.

  12. It would be a great product if someone could create it:

    Here, look through this crystal ball, and see how your life would have been if you:

    did not smoke
    had children
    did not have children
    ate a balanced diet
    did not eat a balanced diet
    got post graduate education
    did not get post graduate education, on and on and on.

    Until then, it is what us humans like to do, muse about stuff for no reason except we just can’t not do it.

    In another interview, Hitchens did mention that perhaps his plight would discourage others from smoking. However, in general, it makes sense not to have regrets for major decisions in your own life. You just have to accept the consequences. No one has an ideal way to live–we did not come with individualized operating manuals.

    The impression I got was that he, himself, could not have the Bohemian (that is, creative and pushing-his-limits) life style he wanted if he was not under the influence of nicotine and alcohol. And he is thankful that his strong constitution allowed him to get away with such abuse until he did create some goodies.

    1. Certainly it is a double map, first the uncertainty of a distribution (say, harm from smoking), then the uncertainty of attribution to such a cause for a single individual (diagnosis) as opposed to a group (trial).

      EBM seems an iffy business, and certainly in the face of that an individual can as Hitchens wait for medical problems before instantiating action. (Though it would be more socially beneficial to reduce risks. Oh well, mores and morals.)

  13. Hitchens maintains the belief that his choice was a good one even in the face of its dire consequences. How is this not cognitive dissonance?

    1. How can this not be obvious? He knows full well about the ‘dire consequences,’ but in his subjective judgment, he’s glad to have led the life he did, on balance. Just because *you* subjectively don’t judge smoking/drinking/whatever to be worth the consequences doesn’t mean that you are *objectively* right. It’s a matter of opinion.

      1. I agree that the choice is a subjective one, but I find it incredible that anyone could rationally decide post-hoc that the benefits of smoking outweighed the downside of not getting to see one’s kids grow up. On balance, of course.

        1. Isn’t stepping outside your clean-room bubble a bit of a problem for you (on balance, of course)?

          I hope you’re not flying or driving or allowing your children to. Swimming and walking should also be a no-no for you.

          1. Hyperbole much? Of course we all take various risks throughout life, but that is not the issue; that wasn’t the question that was asked of him. We are not talking about the likelyhood of a bad result here. Hitchens is saying that even though he has cancer, he wouldn’t change anything. That’s nuts. If it happened to you, wouldn’t you prefer to not have done the thing that gave you cancer?

            1. Marc, what part of “I knew the risks of what I was doing, and on balance, I’m glad to have led the life I did just the same” do you not understand? See, you claim that you understand that these things are subjective, but you don’t actually understand that. You cannot conceive of anything that deviates from Marc’s Priorities.

            2. Hitchens maintains the belief that his choice was a good one…

              …decide post-hoc that the benefits of smoking outweighed the downside…

              Hitchens is saying that even though he has cancer, he wouldn’t change anything.

              Marc, I listened again to the snippet and I just don’t think these ‘framings’ of yours represent what Hitchens is actually saying. Rose asked him, “If you had known that there was a possibility of getting cancer…” (emphasis mine). Not “Knowing what you know now…”

              I think Hitchens just honestly replies that, aware of some element of risk, he chose to gamble; and, in the same position, would probably do so again. I don’t think he’s defending his choice as “a good one,” or “outweighing the downside.” More existential melancholy than cognitive dissonance, I’d say.

  14. Sounds like the old geezer being told that he could live much longer if he gave up drinking alcohol and eating rich food, to which he responded: “What for?”

  15. Thank you for highlighting this, Jerry. It’s so wearying that most people assume that longevity (or the *chance* at it) is, by default, the most rational, obvious choice. That’s become such an article of faith that ordinarily sensible people are genuinely shocked and baffled that other people could even think of valuing other things (drinking/smoking/over-eating. . pick your “vice”) over the (statistical likelihood, *not certainty*) of living longer by abstaining. Their reaction on hearing what someone like Hitchens has to say is literally as dumbfounded as the reaction you get from a sheltered theist meeting, for the first time, someone who says they don’t believe in God. The believer literally can’t conceive of that as an option to be contemplated.

    This is especially true of smoking, since antismoking sentiment has become so fraught and moralistically burdened it’s often *antismoker*. It’s not uncommon to talk to people who, for example, sympathize with hard drug users and support needle exchange programs, but in the very next breath have nothing but smug contempt for smokers and have no problem saying things like “why should they have health insurance I have to pay for? They’re stupid, so let them deal with the consequences.”

  16. We’d all live longer if we lived in a state of semi-starvation, subsisting on roots and broccoli, and completely refrained from eating any food that tastes good.

    lol. LEARN. TO. COOK. Seriously.

    It’s not that hard. And you don’t have to make overly-fussy dishes to eat healthily.

    Here is a great dish:

    1 head of cauliflower. Break into florets and steam until tender, but not soft. A fork should have some resistence.

    Place the steamed cauliflower in the food processor. Four tablespoons of butter. Salt and pepper to taste. Process until smooth and fluffy.

    Serves 4. Easily.

    There are, about, 12 grams of fat per serving. That’s 1/5 your daily max.

    Even people that hated cauliflower as a child (such as myself) love this.

    1. I’d ask: Why do some people insist on cooking certain things (cauliflower, broccoli, spinach come to mind) that taste perfectly fine raw, but are often gag-inducing when cooked?

      1. Well, they’re easier to digest, for one thing. And many people find them more palatable cooked, especially if they’re spiced up in something like an Indian curry dish. Gag-inducing? I know everyone’s taste is different, but that seems an odd reaction.

      2. Nix the butter..? That is a gagworthy amount of butter. I hope you arent considering that healthy. Get your fats from nuts, seeds, and avocado.

  17. I think it’s a ridiculous question to ask someone. I wish that they would not ask him that. He lives grand, and keeps summing it up in word as he goes along. Anything else is gossip.

  18. Maybe it is just the booze and cigarettes talking, but it seems to me that when you criticize him for his lifestyle choices you are saying he deserves it just like the christians say he deserves it for not worshipping god. The smoking and drinking and talking until the wee hours of the morning, solving all the worlds problems, preceeded the chat rooms and blogs we have today.

    Eat, drink, smoke, fuck and be merry
    For tomorrow you may be hit by a bus.

  19. “…most of us have made deliberate choices…”

    …and some of them lead to addictions which can be hard to break. I smoked and drank for more than thirty years, then lost my taste for alcohol followed, six months later, by my lost taste for tobacco. Both habits were deliberate choices in the beginning, but every effort I made to quit failed until I lost my taste for it.

    If I had known when I started what I learned thirty years later, I would not have started, but that’s a silly thought.

    As for cancer, I had my seven months of chemo (eight years after quitting) and survived. I have some idea what Hitch is going through and respect his forthrightness on the matter.

    Be well, Hitch.

  20. I enjoyed the hell out of every cigarette I ever smoked — and initially quit to impress a girl, believe it or not — but even long after she was gone, I stuck it out tobacco-free because I didn’t feel the cigarettes were giving me a good enough deal, as far as the benefits-risk ratio was concerned. Hitch did, and isn’t afraid to say so. I have to say I admire his courage a great deal.

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