Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 25-26, 2012
On June 8, 2010, Christopher Hitchens awoke in a New York hotel room feeling very ill indeed. “I came to consciousness,” he later wrote, “feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.” He could scarcely breathe. With difficulty he made it to the telephone and called an ambulance. At the hospital, scans indicated the presence of “some kind of shadow.” Hitchens, a lifelong smoker, had cancer of the oesophagus. Eighteen months after hearing that diagnosis he died, at the age of 62.
Until that day in New York, Hitchens had been on a roll. He had a fair claim to being the most scintillating off-the-cuff speaker on earth. His political journalism was likewise never boring. After the September 11 attacks on America he turned savagely against his former comrades on the Anglo-American left, calling them “soft on crime and soft on fascism.” Dashing, prolific, superbly articulate, he was both an old-school man of letters and a scruffily willing verbal brawler. On YouTube, his fans coined a name for the way he trounced his hapless opponents: they called it the “Hitch slap.” In 2007, his atheist polemic God is Not Great became a best-seller. His 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, proved he was getting better with each new book.
Then cancer intervened. Robbed of his strength but not his mental fire, increasingly bedbound, Hitchens used his regular column in Vanity Fair to write about his illness and some attendant social themes: the etiquette of terminal disease, the politics of cancer research, the uselessness of “facile maxims”. His final book, Mortality, is a compilation of those magazine pieces, fleshed out with one additional essay and some unpublished notes. Readers who followed the Vanity Fair columns as they came out will find most of the book familiar, except in one crucial respect. Back then, these essays were the work of a man who was still with us. Now they take on the weight of a posthumous text. Put together in one volume, they constitute a moving and deeply civilised work – the last meditations of a man who never stopped trying to think beyond cant and cliché, even in the direst of circumstances.
That the great atheist declined to embrace faith on his deathbed almost goes without saying. Those who hoped he would – those who prayed for a conversion – underestimated the richness of Hitchens’s humanism. There are believers who think atheists are so ill-equipped to deal with the prospect of their own deaths that a late and hasty seeing of the light is the only response available to them. This book shows that a literate unbeliever has many more things to throw at death than that. Hitchens faced death the way he faced life: with wit, a hard head, a supreme talent for language, and a bracing lack of fear. He reminds you that a writer armed with these resources can leave behind works at least as wise as any holy text.
On the theme of religion, the dying Hitchens remained as acerbic and rigorous as he always was. In the second of the book's essays he cruises the “websites of the faithful,” and encounters this gem of cyber-punditry: “Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?”
Compare the fatuity of that effort with the sprightly irony of Hitchens’s riposte. “Why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? 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.” Moreover, Hitchens assures us, “my so far uncancerous throat … is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”
Irony was always Hitchens’s chief weapon against the closed or literal mind. You’d have forgiven him if he stopped laughing towards the end, but Mortality is one of his funniest books. It proves that wit was not a detachable component of the Hitchens world-view. It was the purest expression of his intelligence and love of life. When chemotherapy deprives him of his hair, he wonders if “the chest hair that was once the toast of two continents” will go next. His libido is another casualty. “If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice.”
There is nothing in this book about Hitchens’s controversial support for the Iraq war, or about his vexed past as a Trotskyist. Readers wishing to hear his last word on those matters will have to turn to Hitch-22, or else to Arguably, the whopping volume of essays he published in 2011. Mortality is about the end of a life. As his body declines, Hitchens’s gaze – not unsurprisingly – begins to narrow, and to zero in on the pressing question of his own fate.
Even so, he scrupulously avoids self-indulgence. “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’” he says, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’” The message is bleak, but the excellence of Hitchens’s phrasing – the way he catches the sheer indifference of the universe's shrug – counteracts the grimness. This is why we read literature. Reality seems more bearable – more human – when it is described by a writer as good as Hitchens. There are no Oprahesque slogans of hope here. Hitchens provides a deeper sort of uplift – the uplift that comes from watching a beautiful mind face the end with clarity and candour.
Mind you, there are stretches of the book that are not easy to read. Hitchens doesn’t spare the reader much. He describes the vomiting, the “lacerating” pain, the despair when technicians must make twelve agonising attempts to get a needle into his sunken veins. Radiation treatment leaves him with burns so excruciating that he wonders if he’d have been better off dying. The subject matter is as dark as it gets. But Hitchens’s luminous intelligence is a match for it. To the end, he paid his readers the great compliment of assuming they were as tough-minded and free of illusions as he was.
Before the book closes Hitchens is already gone, and we are left with a chapter of notes and fragments retrieved from his laptop, some of which offer tantalising flashes of the essays he didn’t live to write. The last of these fragments is a quotation from Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams. The novel imagines a world in which people do not die: “Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers … No one ever comes into his own … Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.” Who would want that? Not Hitchens, who relished freedom above everything else.
In his time, Hitchens wrote about most other aspects of life. In the end he wrote about death, which is an aspect of life too. When the niece of Marcel Proust was mourning her uncle’s death, a kind man consoled her by saying that nobody was less dead than Proust. In the literary sense the author of Mortality is still with us, and will be for as long as people remain inclined to read good books. At a time when verbal culture is shrivelling, Hitchens reminded us of the value of a life devoted to literature, rational argument, free thought, free speech. He didn’t need to see the light on his deathbed. He had seen it already.