Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens (New York: Twelve Books, 2012, ISBN ) 104 pp. Paperback, $22.99.
A constant reflection on demise is a good thing.
— Christopher Hitchens
To devotees of Christopher Hitchens, of which I am unabashedly one, his final tome is a heartbreaking journey’s end; not because of pathos or sentimentality, which he avoids like cliché, but because he will never again wield his mighty pen. I find Mortality painfully brief and exquisite, and I, like the author, cannot help but feel “badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste.” I want more Hitchens, but the inkwell, posthumous collections notwithstanding, has run dry.
The book begins with Vanity Fair Editor Graydon Carter’s name-dropping foreword, which creaks without snapping and is the weakest link in the tempered steel chain of Mortality. It consists mainly of previously published anecdotes and lists and leaves me feeling that Hitchens deserves a more original and profound tribute—perhaps similar in tone to one written by the author himself, a year before his death, in his introduction to George Orwell: Diaries: “By declining to lie, even as far as possible to himself, and by his determination to seek elusive but verifiable truth, he showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.”
In Mortality, Hitchens reminds us that we share a common fate: any one of us, at any moment could be facing deportation “from the country of the well to the land of malady.” The first seven chapters of this compact volume are composed of Hitchens’s Vanity Fair columns, documenting his eighteen-month struggle to survive esophageal cancer. With characteristic and brutal honesty, he begins by examining cancer as a consequence: “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”
We all live in bodies that are in the process of dying, some of them faster than others. Hitchens notes that “one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less.” Mortality, then, is Hitchens’s unflinching stare into the stark reality of his rapidly approaching demise without the dubious aid of denial, euphemism, illusion, or false hope.
He expertly excises the base interpretation of his illness as payback from an angry god: “The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former ‘lifestyle’ would suggest that I got.”
Hitchens forms a firing squad and digs a deep grave for the zombie of deathbed conversion: “Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice.” Then he deftly dispatches prayer as a hypocritical, self-cancelling, and futile act: “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.”
The final chapter of Mortality assembles what the publisher refers to as Hitchens’s “fragmentary jottings.” Vanity Fair readers will recognize the seeds of inspiration that he coaxed into his Topic of Cancer column: “The nice men with the oxygen and the gurney and the ambulance very gently deporting me across the frontier of the well, in another country.” Some of his ideas hang like plump plums, tantalizingly ripe and just out of reach: “Tragedy? Wrong word: Hegel versus the Greeks.” Others can be consumed in one bittersweet bite: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” In a post-Hitchens world, his “jottings” feel like a personal and very satisfying gift.
It is in this section that an unfortunate error occurs. A passage of text from Julian Barnes’s book Nothing to Be Frightened Of stands verbatim, unattributed, and without quotes. Because many writers had begun to attribute Barnes’s words to Hitchens, this reviewer e-mailed the publisher, Twelve Books. Editor in Chief Cary Goldstein replied that the fault lay with the publisher and would be corrected in future editions. Goldstein wrote: “One of the most remarkable (one of many) aspects to a mind like Christopher’s was his capacity for recall. Quotes and citations in Christopher’s drafts and manuscripts were routinely recalled from memory and subsequently checked against sources. In this instance I would guess he was re-reading or recalling Julian’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of. The failure here was our own, not his, in mistaking the thought for his own.”
What I find most striking about Hitchens’s Mortality is the eloquent afterword written by his wife, Carol Blue, and the haunting way his thoughts run parallel to her perceptions of the same events. For example, writing about the day he was told to see an oncologist, Hitchens muses: “Some kind of shadow was throwing itself across the negatives.” Blue reminisces about meeting him later that day outside the 92nd Street Y: “We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy.”
Reflecting on the stage between diagnosis and full-blown illness, during which he keeps all of his commitments despite feeling ill, Hitchens writes: “This is what citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile.” Blue echoes and expands his poignant metaphor: “We were living in two worlds. The old one which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.”
When treatments cause Hitchens to temporarily lose what he labels one of his two assets–his voice–pain causes numbness in his hands and arms, triggering “the real and rational fear” of losing his other asset–his pen, his writer’s voice. After ruminating that writing is not just his living and his livelihood but his very life, Hitchens reveals an unsettling and painful truth: “I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”
Hitchens regains his voice and exerts his potent pen again to describe indescribable pain, come to terms with torture, and lend meaning to mortality, until his death on December 15, 2011. With an artist’s economy of words not unlike her husband’s, Blue confides, “I miss his perfect voice… I miss, as his readers must, his writer’s voice, his voice on the page.”
Becca Challman is a freelance writer and a previous winner of the “FI and Me” contest. Her winning essay, “Free Inquiry Set Me Free,” was published in our February/March 2010 issue.