Of pain and poetry: A (very personal) review of Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality”

Mortality, Christopher Hitchens’ latest book (and obviously his last), is a haunting little gem of courage, dignity and wit. The book illustrates with terrifying clarity the pain its author suffered during his final 19 months of life. And yet, in spite of the dread I felt while taking in every gruesome detail of Hitchens’ fight for survival, an impossibly selfish part of me is thankful that Hitch (as his fans affectionately called him) was struck with anything other than dementia, for while this cancer may have been insidious and unbearably painful, Mortality shows it at least had the decency not to rob him of himself before it robbed him of his life.

I hate the title to this review. As adept a writer as I deem myself to be, I cannot ever recall a title I composed that made me pause and say “You know what? That’s rather clever!” Sentences, yes, but titles? Never. Given my enormous admiration for Christopher Hitchens, I certainly wish I could have conjured up a good one for him. But given the amount of both pain and poetry Mortality contains, my title does have the merit of being appropriate.

The pain which stems from the necessary but destructive treatment undergone by Hitchens predictably represents the heart of the subject at hand, and the man, I guess though I can’t even say I’m sure, handled it admirably. For much of this little book, Hitch remains the writer his readers came to know and appreciate, manipulating the English language with surgical precision and touch to deliver thoughts of near-disconcerting rationality and calm given his predicament. Most of the book’s first seven chapters are from material he sent Vanity Fair from “Tumortown.” Approximately three quarters of the way through, I can remember pausing to ask myself, “is this man human?”, so challenging to my imagination was Hitchens’ stoicism. Stoic and intelligent reflections are many in Mortality, the most poignant ones coming when the author discusses the selfish ideas that storm into the ill person’s mind. Reading this, I was reminded of Hitch’s response when he was asked at a conference the simple question “how are you?” To which he coolly answered “Very kind of you to ask. Well, I’m dying… then again, so are you.” The room burst into laughter.

The book contains its share of poetry. Rather than quote it, I would rather have you discover it, as I did most of it. However, Hitch threw me back to poetry as I read of the time when numbness in his hands had him afraid he would lose his ability to write. As the inevitable sadness filled me, the English poet A.E. Housman’s verses came to mind:

Into my heart an air that kills

from yon far country blows 

What are those blue remembered hills?

What spires, what farms are those?

It is the land of lost content

I see it shining plain

The happy highways where I went

and cannot come again

This is just about the only time we sense that Hitchens might be tempted to give up his fight, as he nostalgically looks back at the days when he could go about doing what he was born to do, unimpeded by illness. If you want fear from Hitch, this is the only place you’ll find it. And though the book moves along in a way that shows Hitchens’ progressive physical decline, the man takes it all in great philosophical stride, as evidenced by Mortality‘s appropriate and immensely touching last few lines, plucked out of Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams.

Having learned of his illness during a promotional tour for his memoir, Hitch-22, it’s only natural that Mortality is devoid of any recapping mechanisms. Everything about Hitchens’ behaviour and frame of mind suggests the great man remained wholly unapologetic for his contributions to whatever debate into which he inserted himself. The absence of any mentions of conflicts such as Vietnam or Bosnia (which was the basis of one Hitchens’ best Letters To A Young Contrarian) is bound to shock no one. Moreover, it will have come as a relief, I’m sure, to many of the Hitch’s readers to discover that he did not feel the need to revisit his puzzling support of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq (though no one defended it as aptly as Hitchens did, unsurprisingly).

In spite of this, however, it is equally unsurprising to find Hitchens eager to take yet a few more shots at the entity that wound up becoming his greatest rival, God. Having achieved worldwide fame (or infamy, depending on the person you ask) with his 2007 book God is not Great, the fight with God figured to become tougher than ever given Hitchens’ impending death. And he remains as determined as ever to channel his resentment of what he calls the “celestial dictator” through his writing. Near the end of Mortality, in one of his angriest anti-religious thoughts, Hitch writes that “if I convert, it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist does.” We also smile when he flashes his clever humour, stopping for a moment to answer the religious critics who opined with disturbing glee that it’s only appropriate Hitch would get cancer in his throat given that this was the organ he used to blaspheme. “Actually, I’ve used many other organs to blaspheme,” remains Hitchens’ response.

Anyone who has followed Hitchens’ work in any way cannot be caught off guard by this blend of wit and irony. Hitchens had, after all, devoted a full chapter, in Letters To A Young Contrarian, to the topic of humour, irony in particular. In it, he outlined how a person’s humour is revealing with regard to that individual’s intelligence and even overall worth. I had this in mind while I laughed as Hitch pastes Randy Pausch, the creator of The Last Lecture series, describing it as “so sugary you’d need an insulin shot to withstand it.” This is the kind of rhetoric that would fall under the label of what Hitchens’ considerable Youtube fanbase came to describe as the “Hitchslap.”

Clearly, Hitchens favoured a more level-headed approach, and so the underlying theme of Hitchens’ body of work remains in Mortality. Indeed, Hitch’s take on his decaying health shows resolve that seems as though it stems as much from principle as it does from courage. But we know Hitch to be a man of principle: it was the same care for principle that led him to defend his support of the Iraq war than that which compelled him to castigate the Ayatollah Khomeni for putting a fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head for writing The Satanic Verses. Needless to say anyone who emphasized the gravity of the blasphemy over that of the potential violation of freedom of speech and thought got the same treatment. To a slightly lesser degree, one could also think of his insistence that people call him “Christopher” instead of the shortened “Chris.” When asked why, he would answer, “well, among other reasons, because that’s my name.”

Principles always drove Hitchens, which we remember from Why Orwell Matters:

“what [Orwell] illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.”

Christopher Hitchens said he took to writing not because he wanted to but because he had to. This is the test he laid out for people who think of doing it for a living, and he would state it as a form of advice for his graduate journalism students at the University of California. In this way, and in so many more, Hitchens was an inspiration to me as he was to countless more. On the day of his death, I posted as part of my Facebook status that “the world is not smart enough to lose someone like Christopher Hitchens.” However, as overcome with sadness as I was on that day of December 2011, it was only after putting down Mortality that I grasped the full significance of this man’s life, as well as that of his death. It was never clearer to me than when I read Hitch’s written words. Call it a hunch, but I get the impression he’d be pleased about that. 

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