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.