I am rather ashamed that I didn’t discover Christopher Hitchens until it was in many respects ‘too late’. I had read reviews of some of his books and I knew he was someone I ‘ought’ to read but I just hadn’t got round to doing so. Sadly I hadn’t realised what I was missing until he was already dead – passing away in December 2011 to a flurry of critical acclaim and much praise for a life that was cut short but always well lived. Hitchens himself would no doubt have realised that there’s no better publicity for a writer than his own death though it’s not a technique from which the author can hope to benefit. Strange as it will no doubt seem, I decided to spend Boxing Day morning reading his final work, Mortality, a collection of his essays written whilst he was receiving treatment for cancer of the oesophagus and its spread to other parts of his body.
I know what you’re probably thinking – that’s not exactly a festive read – but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good one. Hitchens was one of the great intellectual writers of his generation who combined a cutting wit and impeccable talent for research with prose that’s always very readable and frequently very funny. “Not too many laughs in this one” you could be forgiven for thinking – but actually, you’d be incorrect. It’s a wise and brave man who can crack jokes with his medical team, joke with the phlebotomist who can’t find a vein and never waver in his beliefs and convictions. Hitchens was famously atheist in his views and the reader who knows that will almost inevitably start this book with some sense of wondering how he’s going to deal with knowing that he’s about to meet his maker – or rather NOT. There’s an old saying that there are no atheists on the front line in a war zone or in the oncology department so how will this most extreme ‘auto de fe’ (trial of faith – or rather trial of lack of faith) be met by someone whose canon of work includes such titles as his 2007 bestseller ‘God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’?
The book starts with an introduction from Graydon Carter, a friend and colleague of Hitchens from Vanity Fair. At the other end of the book we have an afterward from his wife, Carol Blue. Sandwiched between are Hitchens’ thoughts on his situation and the response of others to his illness. Since his death, it seems all of Hitchens’ books get a foreword and most an afterword too. I’m not sure if the publishers feel they need to ‘pad out’ his typically concise books with a bit more word count or if we’re just in the stage of his ‘afterlife’ that still requires some homage be paid to this late, lamented writer.
As a man who had a prodigious appetite for life, for alcohol and for tobacco, Hitchens opens his book by telling us “I had more than once in my time woken up feeling like death”. However in June 2010 he woke up feeling so bad that he could hardly reach the phone and call for help. When the medical team turned up they started what he called “a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady”. He will soon discover his future lies in the strange land of ‘Tumorville’. By the time his cancer – the same type which had killed his father at a more expectable age of seventy-nine – had been identified, he was just sixty one years old and a self-designated ‘finalist’ in life’s great race.
When you are as controversial a figure as Hitchens was, it’s inevitable that some people will take a less than charitable attitude to your illness. He soon comes to realise just how much some people think he has got what he deserved. One website provides the question:
“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting throat cancer (sic) was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?”
Nice people, some of those Christians but not too good at biology if they don’t know that the oesophagus isn’t the throat, but we’re splitting hairs. He’s condemned to HELLFIRE and an eternity of torture which is the kind of hollow threat that almost by definition can’t really scare an atheist. He wonders if God exists why he’d bother with cancer and not just show his displeasure with a big bolt of lightning to the bad guys and if he DOES dish out cancer, how come it’s shared about between the good and the bad? Reassuringly (perhaps) he also finds online religious groups encouraging their members to pray for Hitchens which is rather nice of them but again, not a lot of comfort to the non-believer. And then he wonders how might he feel if he DID beat the cancer and then all the people who’d prayed for him claimed that it had worked. “That would be somehow irritating”, he muses. A classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Unwanted advice comes in for criticism too and anyone who has had any personal experience with cancer will recognise his thoughts. Everyone should read this part – and then read it again. Nobody with cancer wants your advice – honestly, keep it to yourself. Keep your macrobiotic diets, your aloe vera and chakra healing and stick them with all your tales of ‘someone you know who knew someone whose friend had such-and-such a cancer that cleared up remarkably after a bit of holy water or a herbal supplement’. At one point we learn of a discussion he had with a lady (I use the term lightly) who came to a book signing and told him how sorry she was to hear of his illness and then told him that her cousin died of cancer but “Of course, he was a lifelong homosexual….and his whole immediate family disowned him”. Unless someone wants to talk to him about absolutely exactly what he’s got, he’s just not interested at all. If you remember only one thing from this review, make it that. Shut up about other people’s cancers when you’re talking to people who have something else. In return, he suggests that the cancer patient should remember that “the question “How are you?” doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer”
Well worth a read is his examination and total debunking of Nietzsche’s assertion (if it was indeed him as popular history suggests) that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. Clearly it’s not the case for Hitchens as successive rounds of treatment leave him weaker than a kitten and he’s somewhat comforted by the thought that Nietzsche himself got syphilis which led to dementia and paralysis which “…cannot possibly…be said to have made him stronger”. As the book (and his treatment) progress, he’s very honest about just how horrible things are, how much everything hurts and how the only remaining joy is spending time with friends. As death comes closer he turns to favourite poetry and quotations to illustrate how he is feeling. As he gets sicker people start being nice and he reflects he’s had “so many tributes that it also seems that rumors of my LIFE have also been greatly exaggerated”. His final chapter is little more than incomplete thoughts, a sort of check list of things he intends to follow up on, parts of sentences and final reflections. Will he outlive the expiration date of his AMEX card? Should he convert to religion because “it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does”? It’s clear as we work through these notes that he’s near the end, that the energy needed to think clearly has exceeded what he can cope with.
And then finally it’s all over. After 19 months of “living dyingly” Christopher Hitchens died on 15th December, 2011. Gone but very clearly not forgotten.
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
Published by Atlantic Books, September 2012
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