From Wellville to Tumortown
ESSAYS: In his last book, the late journalist, author and devout atheist Christopher Hitchens brilliantly describes his ‘year of living dyingly’
Mortality By Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic Books, 106pp. £10.99
THE PSYCHOANALYST and writer Adam Phillips has observed that we take death altogether too seriously. It seems a throwaway remark, the kind of thing to be expected from a person in his line of business. However, the more one considers it the more profound it becomes.
The loss of the self, of all that we were, are and might yet be, is of course a terrible, at times an unbearable, prospect. It is made all the worse, however, by the eschatological baggage we have allowed to pile up before the doors of oblivion. Nietzsche traces the process by which the yellow eyes of the wild beast at the mouth of the cave where primitive man cowered in fear became in time the all-seeing eye of God. So too our notions of death are fraught with antique terrors and magical figurations. The fact is, there is no Grim Reaper, yet ever since he stepped out of the medieval Totentanz (or Dance of Death) and into the collective imagination he has remained with us, the unavoidable bogeyman of our dreams and waking nightmares.
Christopher Hitchens spent much of his professional life trying to dispel or at least expose the primitive urges that guide so many of our thoughts and actions. He was a devout atheist, and never passed up an opportunity to challenge, subvert and mock what he saw as the absurdities and contradictions inherent in religious faith. His 2007 book, god Is Not Great, was a bestseller in the US, his adopted homeland, where it was shortlisted for the National Book Award, a remarkable achievement in that deeply religious country.
What glee there was in certain quarters, therefore, when it was announced in the summer of 2010 that Hitchens was suffering from cancer of the esophagus – he favours the American spelling – and that the prognosis was extremely grim. In Mortality, his final book, made up of a series of essays from Vanity Fair, he quotes a typical, semi-literate and of course anonymous entry on one of what he calls the “websites of the faithful”:
Atheists . . . like to act like everything is a “coincidence”. Really? It’s just a “coincidence” out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy? Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists. He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonising death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.
Hitchens was born in 1949, the son of a Royal Navy officer and a stylish and adventurous mother who was, although he did not discover the fact until many years after her death, Jewish. He was educated at Oxford University, where he joined the International Socialists and became a political activist. After college he headed for London where he entered the world of more or less engagé journalism, writing for the New Statesman and other left-leaning organs. He also made a batch of writer friends, including Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, and remained close to them for the rest of his life.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, roughly in the period between the first and second Iraq wars, Hitchens’s political stance shifted. His strong support for the invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein made him a pariah among the anti-war left; no fury is fiercer than that directed by the faithful at a political apostate. He was a relentless opponent of Islamic fundamentalism – “the three now-distinctive elements of the new and grievance-privileged Islamist mentality,” he wrote, are “self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred” – yet he was critical too of the West’s enormities and blunders in its dealings with the Middle East.
In 2010 he was on an American book tour to promote his autobiography, Hitch-22, when he woke one morning in his hotel room in New York “feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse”. He could hardly breathe and there seemed to be something amiss with his heart. He managed to summon the emergency services and was rushed to hospital, where doctors got him on his feet but strongly advised him to consult an oncologist. Two events were scheduled for that evening, a television appearance and a public conversation with Rushdie. He fulfilled both engagements, a thing he is rightly proud of, but within a very short time he had departed from, as he says, Wellville and taken up unwilling residence in Tumortown.
The essays in Mortality were written during the year and a half between the diagnosis of his illness and his death, in December 2011, in Houston, Texas, where he had been receiving radical and advanced medical treatment. Until the very end his writing betrays no diminution of his powers as a trenchant, learned, iconoclastic and splendidly witty commentator on public life and, as here, on his own private triumphs and travails. In his work he was unremittingly elegant, a master of graceful prose, and even in his last days he was still a maker of brilliant phrases: “Amazing how heart and lungs and liver have held up: would have been healthier if I’d been more sickly”; “No pretense of youth or youthfulness anymore. From now on an arduous awareness” (worthy of Rilke, that one); “Now so many tributes that it also seems that rumors of my LIFE have also been greatly exaggerated.”
As he traces the progress of his illness he is clear-eyed and entirely without self-pity. Ever the journalist, he investigates his own predicament with the same passionate detachment that he brought to his war reporting or his dissections of contemporary politics. In the early days of his illness, which must have been among the grimmest in what he calls “this year of living dyingly”, he maintains an altogether admirable insouciance. He writes of conditions in Tumortown as surprisingly welcoming and egalitarian, although “the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited”.
At all costs he will keep his end up. Asked for the umpteenth time by hospital staff how he is feeling today, “I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today’.” At other times his speculations take on a poetic intensity. Here he is ruminating on the bitter irony that a man who so loved talking should be afflicted in the very organs of speech:
In the medical literature, the word vocal “cord” is a mere “fold”, a piece of gristle that strives to reach out and touch its twin, thus producing the possibility of sound effects. But I feel that there must be a deep relationship with the word “chord”: that resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowds to pity and mobs to passion.
At times the book is mordantly funny. Hitchens derives rich amusement, as well as some comfort, from the many promises, by adversaries as well as friends, that they will pray for him. In this regard he reminds himself of the definition of prayer in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary: “Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner, himself confessedly unworthy.”
He is diverted, too, by the plethora of advice that gushes in from well-wishers. “The citizens of Tumortown are forever assailed with cures, and rumors of cures.”
And religion refuses to leave him alone. In 2010 he reports with sardonic relish that September 20th that year has been designated Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day, and notes that the YouTube video announcing this “day of intercession” is accompanied by the song I Think I See the Light, performed by “the same Cat Stevens who, as ‘Yusuf Islam’, once endorsed the hysterical Iranian theocratic call to murder my friend Salman Rushdie”. It is a sure measure of a warrior’s bravery that even when he is mortally wounded he will not permit his sword to falter.
As attested in the foreword by Vanity Fair’s editor, Graydon Carter, and the sadly sweet afterword by the author’s widow, Carol Blue, Hitchens was marvellous company right to the end. Onstage and off, as Blue wryly observes, “my husband was an impossible act to follow”. His greatest gift as a man, rather than a writer, seems to have been his gift for loving and being loved. “For me,” he writes, “to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off . . .”
It is sad indeed to realise that the conversation Hitchens has been having with us, his readers, over the past three decades, has been brought now to a premature and tragic conclusion. When the disease took his voice away he was in no doubt as to the disaster that it represented. “And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”
Mortality is a brave, exciting, beautifully written and surprisingly invigorating testament written on the brink of the grave. It tells us that death is not a mystical but a wholly mundane process, “something so predictable and banal that it bores even me”. Christopher Hitchens learned full well the bitter but necessary lesson that in order to live fully we must be fully prepared to die. One of the last entries in the book is a quote from Saul Bellow: “Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.”
John Banville’s novel Ancient Light was published by Penguin earlier this year