Review: ‘Mortality’ by Christopher Hitchens.

When Christopher Hitchens wrote about the humbling experience of being accidently referred to as the ‘late’ Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 in 2010, he could have had no idea that a ‘malignant alien’ was in fact already burrowing deep into his oesophagus.  Perhaps this earlier realisation that he, too, was an aging mortal helped soften the blow somewhat when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June 2010. Adopting the stoic tradition previously undertaken by journalist’s Richard Brookhiser and John Diamond, Hitchens decided to document, as part of an agreement with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter that he would write about anything except sports, his experience of the disease – in no uncertain detail.

At the time, many considered it an interesting experiment; imagine, if you will, your favourite intellectual faced with the subjective circumstance of their fast-impending demise and their considered reaction to this on-going malady. The results here are at least interesting not only for the humour and fluency present in the writing, even when describing excruciating pain in real time, but for displaying his contempt for euphemism and holy cows (of all kinds), an affirmation of his character and with a good deal of (cowboy, as it turned out to be) hat-tipping to the stoics gone before him (including Sir Kingsley Amis, and his own father).  Whilst he also maintained a steady output of essays on politics and culture until at least a few weeks before his death in December last year, the filings from ‘Tumortown’ have now been gathered in a short book, under the bold collective title of Mortality.

After reading the first few pages of the book, it becomes clear one was right to not simply buy it through sympathy, disregarding the grave, sheepish looking Hitchens on the front cover. This is something he would certainly have none of and berates such consolations on others himself, even previous residents of Tumortown;  Randy Pausch and Friedrich Nietzsche are hardly spared a cynical analysis – the only way we would want it to be. No, these works emit the perfume of admirable objectivity, with the central idea being to inform and educate particular groups concerned: the religious, writers, the doctors, the family members and the public regarding general cancer ‘etiquette’. It was on this last topic that I found myself laughing out loud at the description of a fan discussion at a book signing containing the following dialogue:

‘She: And then he died. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Seemed to take him forever.

Me: [Beginning to search for words.] …

She: Of course, he was a lifelong homosexual.

Me: [Not quite finding the words, and not wishing to sound stupid by echoing “of course.”] …’ [1]

The empathy is absolute. Even people like I, who fortunately have been lucky enough never to have family members felled with any such disease become engrossed in this person’s world; such is the trick of the anecdote. The easy writing style and straight forward construction of this book – and we unfortunately, know in advance the ending – make for a very speedy reading, and accordingly induce a profound regret that this is undoubtedly the final Hitchens publication.

Perhaps it is also a shame that such a last book would be riddled with pockets of distinct ugliness, like the descriptions of having skin numbing injections into his wretched body, or losing his golden voice which could previously command many-a dinner table, or the slightly distressing ‘fragmentary jottings’ included at the end of the book which display a man emerging in and out of consciousness to give a disjointed monologue, as though these thoughts are considered specially profound. These do however serve to affirm Christopher Hitchens’ lifelong belief in materialism, summed up best by the man himself: ‘I do not have a body, I am a body’. It is therefore in retrospect puzzling to learn that he firmly believed he would be in the 5% or so of patients who would ‘beat’ the disease, without special reason (his father had also succumbed to the illness) ; or resist it, as the contrary Hitchens camp might have it. His admiration for science and medicine still resonates though, with written tributes paid to personal physician Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and surely incompatibly for Hitchens, a committed Christian, as well as various doctors and nurses. Hitchens also squares up to the Nietzschien philosophical doctrine (and a personal conundrum) ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’, which he was clearly more than qualified to discuss and rather tersely resolves the thought to a populist sound bite which even Nietzsche experienced as a falsity in his last miserable, bed-ridden years.

If there is to be any criticism of this small collection about one’s inevitable demise, it might be because it is limited to solely this. Given that we know ‘Hitch’ (as he was affectionately denoted by his comrades) was writing on the topics of Dickens, Chesterton, and The Republican Party nominations until up to a matter of days before his death, why not include all these and other unpublished articles and thoughts? Mortality feels unfinished without a definite conclusion –perhaps silence can be the only conclusion? – and surely these half-hearted jottings aren’t the way he would like his last work to finish up. Widow Carol Blue’s consummate and touchingly sad afterword leaves us with a bit more information about his circumstance at the end than we had at the time (and of how it was ‘unexpected’; indeed, I remember from October last year reading how he was to attend an atheist convention earlier this year).

These final writings in Mortality act as an accessible, lucid, perfectly secular, and life-affirming reflection on our common fate, with as much vinegar as anybody dying could muster. It’s a comfort in a way to know he never let the inspective audience down up to the last point, and created a muse with the spectre of oblivion, paving the way for anybody else. With Hitchens gone, the world feels a bit lighter, with nobody to fill his shoes; it’s strange to think it will almost be a year since he went. This book works well as a tribute to the man who ‘wasn’t going to give up, until I absolutely have to’. Well, that he certainly didn’t.


[1] ‘Mortality’, Christopher Hitchens, Published 2012 by Atlantic Books (UK).

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