Sewell: Could you talk about those two words that you just used—“transcendent” and “numinous”? They are favorites of mine.
Hitchens: Well, this would probably be very embarrassing. I can’t compose or play music; I’m not that fortunate. But I can write and I can talk, and sometimes when I’m doing either of those things, I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. There is a sense that it wasn’t all done by my hand.
Sewell: A gift?
Hitchens: That’s the nearest I’m going to get to being an artist, which is the occupation I’d most like to have and the one, at last, I’m the most denied. Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter. But it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by priests and shamans and rabbis and other riffraff.
Sewell: You know, that might be a religious impulse that you’re talking about there.
Hitchens: Absolutely not. It’s a human one. It’s a big cultural task to separate the cultural achievement that religion laid claim to from the claims of religion itself. No one’s going to deny the role of religion in, for example, architecture or devotional painting. The poetry of John Donne or George Herbert strikes me as having been produced by people who probably really believed what they were saying. I have to be impressed.
Sewell: You write, “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and … the soul.” You use the word “soul” there as a metaphor. But what is a soul for you?
Hitchens: It’s what you might call “the x-factor”—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—but it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality, because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it only nourishes the brain.
Sewell: I wouldn’t argue with you about the immortality of the soul. Were I pastoring a church again, I would love to have you in my church because you’re so eloquent, and, I believe, some of your impulses—excuse me for saying so—are religious in the way I am religious. You may call it something else, but in a lot of our thinking we agree.
Hitchens: I’m touched that you say, as others have, that I’ve missed my vocation. But I would not be able to be this way if I were wearing robes or claiming authority that was other than human. That’s a distinction that matters to me very much.
Sewell: You have your role, and it’s a valuable one, so thank you for what you give to us.
Hitchens: Well, thank you for asking. It’s very good of you to be my hostess.