Fosl Review of Hitchens: Mother Theresa: Responses Nov/Dec 1996



[Ed. Note: Given the deaths in Sept of 1997 of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mother Teresa...and the resultant discussions on H-Women, we are posting Peter S. Fosl's review of Christopher Hitchens' book (from Dec 1996) and related H-Women discussion, as a jumping off point prior to the deaths in 1997.]


Review, cross-posted from H-PCAACA, Popular Culture List, by Peter S. Fosl, Hollins College 28 Nov 1996 to H-Women


Christopher Hitchens, _The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice_. (London: Verso, 1995. $15.00 cloth.)

From time to time, with seeming regularity, women who have devoted themselves to religious and charitable work achieve heroic stature in popular culture. Times past have borne witness to the ascendancy of the images of Florence Nightengale, Clara Barton, Jane Addams, and Mary Baker Eddy. Today, perhaps no figure has come to symbolize the undiluted goodness, piety, and compassion more than the small, elderly, Albanian nun, Agnes Bojaxkiu--known to millions as Mother Teresa. Might it be, however, that both the image and the reality of Mother Teresa serve more sinister purposes than at first meet the eye? Christopher Hitchens answers this question in the affirmative and presents in this book a series of pointed, trenchant, and effective arguments aimed at undermining the myth of Mother Teresa.

In order to subvert Mother Teresa's chances for canonization, Hitchens organizes his text around the three central Catholic criteria for deciding whether or not an individual is in fact a saint; (1) the performance of a miracle; (2) good works and heroic virtues; and (3) the curious quality of ubiquity. Does, however, Hitchens' structuring his book in this way mark simply an attempt to discredit Mpother Teresa on her own terms or (also) his having arrogated to himself the absolute moral authority to which the Church makes claim?

Mother Teresa's "miracle" is the production of divine light in an otherwise darkened room, an event purportedly captured on film by one of the midwives of the Teresa myth, Malcom Muggeridge, in the course of filming for his 1969 BBC documentary, _Something Beautiful for God_. The only miracle Hitchens can detect in this is the power of Kodak film to perform in relatively dark spaces--as well as, perhaps, Muggeridge's charming credulity.

Demystifying camera tricks is, of course, a rather trivial affair, and one is apt to suspect that the spirit animating Hitchens is the ghost of Anglican assaults on Roman Catholics--until one reads the succeeding chapters of the text. Mother Teresa is thought to work in service to the poor. In fact, however, according to the testimony of international health professionals (such as the editors of _The Lancet_) and a few of her former colleagues (one wonders if they are representative), her clinics and darkly named "Houses of the Dying" offer remarkably little in terms of diagnostics, treatment, and analgesia. She herself often seeks the most advanced medical care when afflicted. In Hitchens' portrait, Mother Teresa cares little for the suffering of the downtrodden and uses them as instruments to advance her secular ambitions of outlawing abortion, founding a religious order, and being recognized among the earth-bound as a saint.

Though Mother Teresa claims to be apolitical, she actively endorses the most brutal of right-wing governments and movements. Hitchens documents these political acts. Teresa is, in short, a right-wing fundamentalist with vicious secular ambitions who has been seized upon by the tyrants of this world to valorize their own agenda.

How has this happened? According to Hitchens, Mother Teresa is the monstrous product of the image-making power of the contemporary mass media, the desire of the privileged to salve the knowledge of their indifference, and the absurd appetite of popular religion and the "vaguely religious" for saints and holy spectacles. Yet, the same dialectic that calls forth sanctified heroines in popular culture also elicits a negative anti-hero in response. In Christopher Hitchens' book, the popular myth of Mother Teresa has met its antithesis.


This review is copyrighted (c) 1996 by H-Net and the Popular Culture and the
American Culture Associations. It may be reproduced electronically for educational or scholarly use. The Associations reserve print rights and permissions. (Contact: P.C. Rollins at the following electronic address: Rollins@osunx.ucc.okstate.edu

Responses:
From Paul Halsall Halsall@murray.fordham.edu 01 Dec 1996

To have done this as Mother Teresa is lying in what is apparently her deathbed, and on the day when a response is inhibited for 5 days [Ed. note: Apparent reference to Thanksgiving holiday in U.S.], was singularly tasteless and calls into question the critical abilities of the editors.

>elderly, Albanian nun... She is a "sister", not a nun.

...(I will note in passing, however, that it is "miracles" after death which count for canonization, a process which requires some decades of waiting.)

>..."Houses of Dying"...Apparently honesty about death upsets Hitchens and the
reviewer. Would it make any difference if they were called "hospices'?

>...She herself often seeks the most advanced medical care when afflicted...
The contradiction here is a valid one to point out, especially if Hitchens and the reviewer themselves eschew advanced medical treatment! I have, in fact read Hitchens' book, and he seems to have some basis in saying that the MoC facilities do not offer the best medical care. But there is, of course, no possibility of doing so in the chaotic Indian cities. The problem is systemic: a religious order or private charity cannot hope to do anything to alleviate poverty on the scale in which it exists. Only governments have proved capable of the sort of activity required. In this perspective, the activities of small "charities" (and one can include the Salvation Army along with the soup kitchen) is simply futile. Indeed it might be seen as making things worse by providing a sop to consciences which might otherwise be moved to demand action. Such is, I think, a valid perspective. But others do not share it. They think that, whether or not large scale future projects may or may not work([and often they do not), it is a moral requirement to provide whatever limited aide one can immediately, to treat and help the individual rather than change the system. In support, one can say that just as the Salvation Army and the MoC might inhibit action, so might ever-deferred dreams (like Hitchens', of a better, but never effected, systemic reform). It is also true that although "systemic" thinkers might be motivated by human suffering, far too often, as we have seen in this century, they have been willing to overlook individual humans. Mother Teresa represents, clearly, the view that individual help is basic. Hitchens may disagree with her (but let's face it, he disagrees with everyone; as the creator of an ad hominem attack against Mother Teresa, he can hardly object when his own less than human treatment of others he meets is brought to light!).

In other words, there is a clear difference of opinion in perspective here. Overall, I personally support systemic reform, but this [does] not require that the other view be demolished.

And although it might fit Hitchens' romantic fantasy of a true saint, Mother Teresa is in fact, and only after many years of obscurity (a period curiously ignored by Hitchens) a public figure and a hero within the organization she created. It is not possible either for her to roll up and die, nor is it possible for her order to supply Western medical care to the people it helps.

>...right-wing governments and movements... His pictures of her with Mme. Duvalier are indeed startling

>vicious secular ambitions...by the tyrants of this world to valorize their own >agendas.

The purple prose here is nice. But not entirely accurate. Mother Teresa clearly does have ambitions. It is not clear that these are "secular" as opposed to "religious" ( a distinction of course, which begs many questions). It seems to me that she simply does not operate in the same thought world as Hitchens, whose orientalist projection of Western European categories ought to have been caught by the reviewer, I cannot say that I like, for instance, John Paul II, but it would be quite wrong to portray him on conventional right/left terms. What Hitchens or the reviewer means by "fundamentalist" is open to question: it seems to mean "religiously committed" in this case. Whether or not Teresa has been used by Tyrants[sic] is hardly an issue. So has Marx, but that does not stop Hitchens....

>How has this happened?...Teresa is the monstrous product...power of the >contemporary mass-media...et al.<

I wonder at the critical ability of a student of popular culture who describes "popular religion" as "absurd". Perhaps "proper" non-absurd religion should be pushed?

>Yet, the same dialectic that calls forth sanctified heroines...has met its >antithesis.

Probably not.

Paul Halsall

From Don Maroc maroc@islandnet.com 01 Dec 1996

If every claim in Christopher Hitchens' book could be verified, the title of his book is enough for me to relegate it to emergency use in the outhouse. A second thought makes me wonder how long it's been since Hitchens got off his academic backside to lend someone a helping hand. Why is it always a man who has to point out the foibles in our vision of a Great Woman? As always, the vision is vastly more important than the human origin. I dare say this world is in need of a lot more visions such as Mother Teresa than sour books like Hitchens produced.