Just as he embarked on a tour to promote his memoir HITCH-22 in June 2010, Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with Stage Four esophageal cancer. “The thing about Stage Four,” he writes with his customary directness, “is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Nineteen months later, he died of pneumonia in a Houston hospital. In that interval, which included debilitating chemotherapy and radiation treatments that brought with them side effects often more painful than the disease that was “battling him,” Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair magazine the seven blunt, combative, unfailingly honest essays collected in MORTALITY.
As much as can be done in a work that encompasses fewer than 100 pages of his words, the book offers a snapshot of what made Hitchens’ opinionated, intellectually wide-ranging and usually infuriating (to someone) work so captivating. He was “one of life’s singular characters,” as his Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter puts it in a foreword to this slim volume, and nothing in these parting essays contradicts that description.
"It’s no consolation to his family to say this, but Christopher Hitchens lived every day of his 62 years fully and deeply. He wished for more, and whether or not we shared his views, we, his readers, shared that wish."
When Hitchens’ diagnosis became public, there was much speculation about questions like whether perhaps the world’s most unabashed atheist would renounce his beliefs and embrace religion, or how he felt about the many people (including prominent clergy and theologians he’d battled in public debate) who earnestly offered prayers for his recovery. Hitchens quickly dispels any doubt on the first point, vowing to “continue to write polemics against religious delusions, at least until its hello darkness my old friend.”
While Hitchens is mildly grateful to the “quite reputable Catholics, Jews and Protestants who think that I might in some sense of the word be worth saving,” he’s quick to “sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.” And as much as he would like to discourage the people who insisted on praying for him, he at least acknowledges the possibility that their intercessions might serve the purpose of making them feel better. In one of the fragments of unwritten essays gathered in a concluding chapter, he observes, “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” It doesn’t require a careful parsing of these sentiments to understand that Hitchens left this world clinging firmly to his atheist convictions.
But Hitchens doesn’t confine himself to philosophical musings or score settling with his theological rivals here. Some of the book’s most riveting passages are its most intensely personal, detailing, as they do, Hitchens’ darkest moments in the place he names “Tumorville,” as he makes the journey “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” He devotes an entire essay to debunking Nietzsche’s pronouncement that “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” concluding it with a grim description of the mounting difficulty phlebotomists encounter trying to draw blood from his battered veins. When his voice and hands begin to fail him, he’s keenly attuned to the irony that the two instruments that have fueled his career may be the first gifts taken from him.
Yet even amid this account of illness, decline and death, Hitchens’ caustic wit remains undiminished. Writing of one website comment that predicted an agonizing death followed by eternal damnation as his well-deserved fate, he observes, “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.” And he confesses to what would be a sense of irritation if he “pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered.”
Hitchens’ widow, Carol Blue, concludes the book with a touching tribute to her late husband. Describing a typical “raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinner” at the family’s Washington, DC apartment, she recalls Hitchens rising to proclaim, “How good it is to be us.” There’s nothing in that heartfelt sentiment to suggest any sense of overweening pride. Instead, it rings out gloriously as the expression of joy of a man intoxicated by his zest for all that life offers. It’s no consolation to his family to say this, but Christopher Hitchens lived every day of his 62 years fully and deeply. He wished for more, and whether or not we shared his views, we, his readers, shared that wish.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 14, 2012