Author: Christopher Hitchens (2012, Twelve, Hachette Book Group)
Reviewed by Theresa Forsman
Christopher Hitchens took on death much the same way he took on life—with an unsparing, combative gaze, an absence of sentimentality, and a deep need to figure it out by writing it down. Mortality is what he had to say about “living dyingly,” from the day of his cancer diagnosis to the end, 18 months later.
The book opens with Hitchens describing the morning in June 2010 when he woke up in a New York hotel room feeling “as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.” The well-known columnist and literary critic was on a book tour for his memoir, Hitch-22, which would become a finalist for the that year’s National Book Critics Circle Award in autobiography. He was scheduled to appear on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart and then, in the evening, to have a public conversation with his friend and fellow author Salman Rushdie at the 92nd Street Y. He made both events. Soon afterward—the day Hitch-22 hit the best-seller list—Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It had metastasized. He was 61 years old.
Graydon Carter, Hitchens’ longtime editor at Vanity Fair, is not divulging secrets when he writes in the forward to Mortality that Hitchens’ “insatiable appetites” for company, writing and conversation extended to cigarettes and scotch, too. The man with these appetites and with what Carter called “a great turbine of a mind” does not cry foul.
“I have been…knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that
it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself
smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so
unfair: 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
Hitchens, a high-profile atheist, does not back down in the face of fatal illness. Here is the author’s response to commentary suggesting that his cancer is God’s revenge on a non-believer: “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.” What he has to say about the factions praying for him—both those who want him to die in agony and those who want him to see the light—is similarly witty and withering, and although Hitchens the cancer patient is very interested in surviving, he would find it “irritating” that the pious would then think their prayers had been answered.
Also irritating is much of the unsolicited advice he receives on topics including cryogenics, this must-visit clinic, that must-see doctor. The people who tell him stories about other patients make him think that a book on cancer etiquette would be a good idea so that the “populations of Tumortown and Wellville” might stop inflicting themselves on one another in unsavory ways.
Toward the end of Mortality, Hitchens refers to what he said about dying in his earlier book Hitch-22, back when the topic was still only theory.
“Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago,
I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with
extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death
in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that
little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end
and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a lifespan.”
Doing death, for Hitchens, includes a critical dissection of Nietzsche’s declaration that “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” the realization that his identity and personality were only as strong as his ability to engage through conversation and writing, and an experience of post-traumatic stress brought on by cancer treatment and the atmosphere in which it was administered. Playing out the string forced Hitchens to conclude that he didn’t have a body, but was a body, no matter how powerful the mind it contained. Descriptions of the pain, the pills and the wearing away co-exist with the deep analysis, the hope for a miracle, the pining for life as it used to be, the struggle against despair.
Hitchens wrote seven brilliant, meaty chapters—much of it first published in his Vanity Fair column—before his death on Dec. 15, 2011. Chapter 8 in this slim volume consists of the notes he took about ideas he apparently intended to explore further. The afterward was written by Hitchens’ wife, Carol Blue, whom he had cited as one of his main reasons for never giving up.
As someone who reads to know how to live, I am very glad to have this intelligent and courageous (would Hitchens cringe at that word?) description of dying, an event that, the author points out, is our “common fate.”
Theresa Forsman is a longtime member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.