Review of Christopher Hitchens ‘Mortality’.

On December 15, 2011 renowned intellectual and writer Christopher Hitchens died in Houston, yet another among millions to succumb to “a vulgar little tumor”, as he liked to characterize his particular malignancy.
Stage four oesophageal cancer diagnosed is June 2010 as he was in the cut and thrust of promoting Hitch-22, his best selling memoir. The Vanity Fair columns he penned in the hope of demystifying ‘the big C’, were collected into a short volume Mortality which had been the intention of Hitchens to be considerably longer, but which he did not see completed. The resulting work is a fascinating look at the process of “livingly dying”, in his words. An intellectual journey into the banal machinations of terminal illness, the erudite mind struggling to express itself through ossified vocal cords, and numb fingers.

Hitchens sought to demystify cancer, or at least reduce its power to inspire terror in would be sufferers, and solipsism in those it infects. He certainly spared the reader no illusion, in his writing the anxiety is palpable, there is no attempt at dressing up or playing with the guilt of the healthy. He trashes the late Randy Pausch for taking advantage in this way in his book and film The Last Lecture. Terminal illness is not something to make a pious play out of, and in communicating his gnawing fear at becoming boring, his frustration at being unable to summon the familiar boom of his resonant voice. He also writes of the curious connection he feels with the language of the medical staff, and his famous experience of torture (he wanted to know whether waterboarding was torture and after going through it at the hands of former navy seals, he admitted it most certainly was).

The issue of religion and his staunch abhorrence of it was certainly touched upon in the first part of the book. Any suggestion of a death bed conversion was eviscerated by his argument that it makes absolutely no logical sense to say to someone that since they are in the grips of an immanent demise they might want to renege on the values and principles of a lifetime. To the outspoken evangelists who said they were praying for him, he wondered: “Praying for what?” To the thousands of ardent believers who organised a prayer day, he extended his blessing insofar as “pray if it makes you happy”. In one chapter he fully ridicules the practice of intercessory prayer, “please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries.”

Through all, Christopher Hitchens held no personal illusions about his illness. He knew precisely why he had been afflicted by this particular malignancy, a redoubtable constitution that enabled him to consume immense quantities of alcohol, and maintain a heavy smoking habit. Burning the candle at both ends to produce a “lovely light” and fuel the conversation and writing that made the Hitch, well the Hitch. Holding that all of life is indeed a wager, Hitchens decided to wager on this particular bit, and the cancer which killed him at 62, also killed his father at the rather more ripened age of 79. Dismissing questions of “why me” as silly and self-evidently nonsensical to an intellectual, Mortality avoids the pit of solipsism as much as it reaches the crest of being a beautiful final conversation with an author who writes in a way that the reader feels personally addressed.

The final part before the loving afterword by Hitchens wife Carol Blue, contains a revealing yet fragmented spluttering of sentences and paragraphs Christopher Hitchens left unfinished before his passing. They indicate through the haze of tubes and medications the razor-blade mind of the Hitch remained sharp to the very end. Through this I feel that if my life is not suddenly blown out before I come to terms with the situation, and I am taken by paramedic ambassadors across the border from the country of the well to the stark frontier of the land of malady, as Hitchens wrote in his first column about his illness, I at least have a kind of guide. Not specifically a travel book telling me where to stop,  eat, and sleep; but rather an example of how to approach the ultimate frontier. Christopher Hitchens was not so much concerned with dying with dignity, but dying livingly, a lesson as we both live and die ourselves.  

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