by Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens’s latest book Mortality ends much too quickly, an irony that surely would not be lost on its author. Though he was known for making sharp turns from the prescribed political narratives that people who sought to categorize him expected, the narrative of his life and death followed a predictable progression that he described as “boring.” And if you expected him to see the light and suddenly embrace God just to shake off the confines of atheism that came to define him, you’ll find him more staunch than ever. In fact, he writes, if at the end of his life, he does indeed scream for a priest, the entity that did so “would not in fact be ‘me’.”
Mortality chronicles the issues Hitchens chose to reflect upon in the last 19 months of his life, after his diagnosis of stage four esophageal cancer. In an almost Didionesque detachment, Hitch dissects some of the tenets around “living dyingly,” including prayer and the Nietzschean adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” He draws upon his assignment in Vanity Fair to be voluntarily water-boarded so that he could come from a place of knowledge and experience in reporting on Dick Cheney’s admonition that it was not considered torture. Hitch concluded that it most certainly was, and that it bore a cunning resemblance to some of the symptoms and treatments of cancer. His intellect and curiosity stayed with him until the very end, as the slim book ends with a chapter of short paragraphs or sentences that piqued his interest, things he wanted to develop more fully when he returned from his hospital stay.
To say that Hitch reported in a detached style is true, but he was not unemotional. His will to live shows on every page as he writes about new developments in technology and treatments. He often adds that he fears the breakthroughs would come too late for him, and his disappointment is palpable.
Yet, it is never steeped in self-pity. Hitchens says right from the get-go that he has been tempting the reaper, burning the candle at both ends for most of his life as a heavy drinker and a smoker. Borrowing a line from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” he writes that it’s not the reaper holding his coat and urging him forth but “the snickering that gets me down.”
Reports of Hitch’s illness had two effects on his religious readers. Some called it divine comeuppance and insisted it was his due for blaspheming the Lord in his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Others simply prayed for his soul, even though they knew he did not believe in the prayers they issued, nor in the God to whom they directed them. Hitch’s reaction was to study the act of prayer itself, deeming it contradictory of believers, and even finding its effect on the sick to cause more detriment than good. The “self-canceling” in the act of prayer is that “the man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”
Secondly, Hitchens felt prayer put unnecessary pressure on those for whom the prayers are issued. If the sickness does not recede like the Red Sea, the sick can now add depression to their list of maladies. Hitch concludes that the question a cancer patient might ask is not, “Why me?” because the answer is simply, “Why not you”? Sickness is truly democratic, affecting the rich and self-righteous as well as the poor and devout, and if you look too hard for a connection between those who have been stricken and blasphemous behavior, Hitch’s question is, “Would you think that your God to be so unoriginal that he would give throat cancer to a heavy smoker?”
Hitch’s treatment was the standard for his cancer: chemotherapy and radiation and describes it all with unflinching detail. He equates a surgeon laying out his needles and surgery tools with a torturer arranging ins implements before his victim. He also notes the cross on the wall that holds up the dying Jesus, reminding him of the ghastly Crusades and the practice of holding up a cross in the face of victims just before they leave this (un)Godly world.
I first encountered Hitchens on Bill Maher‘s show; his accent made him sound pompous, but he hit those zingers like nobody’s business. (My favorite was when he addressed the rapper Mos’ Def on Maher’s panel as “Mr. Definitely.”) His voice was his trademark, the conductor that carried the electrical current of his ideas to the world through debates and interviews, in the classroom and on the page. So it’s ironic that Hitchens literally lost his voice before he died.
But in his writings, Hitchens’s voice rings out in every carefully constructed sentence. About writing, Hitchens counseled that if one can speak, one could surely write–then questioned how many of us have truly mastered the art of speaking. He connects his speaking voice with what others might call a soul: his essence, his identity. Without his voice, he became less than who he was. In the way that he said, “I don’t have a body, I am my body,” the loss of his voice was a death in itself. Yet his brain still worked, and his fingers still worked, and he famously eked out columns for Vanity Fair almost until the day he died.
The last chapter of Mortality features clipped sentences, quotes from poetry and philosophy and novels, questions, and snippets of thought. Finally, we are left with an empty page, and a void that won’t soon, if ever, be filled. Hitchens may be really and truly gone. But he was himself to the very end.