Despite an endless reading load I can never seem to keep up with, yesterday I did myself a favor and bought Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality, the last thing he wrote before succumbing to esophageal cancer just shy of a year ago. The man remained lucid and articulate enough to capture the tedium and agony of cancer treatments, including chemo and radiation therapy.
He also delves into the lonely confrontation with death without illusions, in a quiet, understated way that would almost sound detached for the formality of its erudite British tone, were it not thinly concealing the heartbreak of a man so clearly in love with life. And yet Hitchens, like fellow late cancer victim and prodigious wit David Rakoff, has the wise humility to return the question “Why me?” with another: “Why not me?”
The man takes responsibility for his irresponsible habits, such as drinking vast amounts of alcohol at meals and smoking little forests of cigarettes, but is consistent enough in his sybaritic values not to renounce these hobbies, so clearly and thoroughly did he enjoy them, and did they enhance his vision.
He also takes time to target his favorite adversary, religion, noting the futility of prayer, while likewise expressing gratitude to all those who prayed for his recovery, including friends of competing faiths who cajoled God to make him one of their team. True to his word, Hitchens declined what he saw as the false consolations of faith in favor of continued presence and engagement with those he loved, along with the sacred act of writing itself.
He has the decency to describe Francis X. Collins as “one of the greatest Americans” in spite of his contempt for Collins’ beliefs, due to his respect for the man’s work on the Human Genome Project. He also mentions Collins’ admirable embrace of Darwinian evolution as a fact, telling fundamentalists that there’s no sense in debating about it. Collins tried to help Hitchens survive with the latest, still experimental treatments, and the patient’s willingness to undergo whatever was available testifies to his optimism and courage.
Most poignantly, Hitchens describes the wrenching loss of his voice at one point. As an established raconteur who could regale house guests with all manner of jests and bon mots over epic feasts lovingly prepared by his wife, fellow author and film-maker Carol Blue, being prematurely silenced was a snub that burned almost as much as the threat of losing the use of his arms and hands to write, his confessed “raison d’etre.”
Hitchens points out the absurdity of a tumor’s determination to murder its victim despite its own insentience, along with the fact that the dogged and relentless parasite can’t outlive its host.
This suggests that for all its beauty and majesty, there is a savagery, a ruthlessness built into nature that makes it that much harder to be a devout pagan. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it evil, but it’s not exactly good either. It is what it is, and as extensions of nature ourselves we can’t seem to come up with anything better. Nature may include barnacles, poison ivy, deer ticks, and–yes–cancer cells, but it also contains an intricacy, unrepeatable originality, and infinitely fecund variety of manifestations, if I may wax incorrigibly pretentious, that nudges even the most sluggardly couch- or mouse-potato for worship, applause, or at least an infinitesimal thumb’s up as a momentary interruption from digitally patrolling the remote control device.
Finally, the title of the book, Mortality, appearing as it does in stark white letters on a somber black cover with the author’s name underneath in grave-like gray, along with his melancholy photo on the back, might mislead someone browsing in a bookstore into thinking the slim volume is just a downer to pass by in favor of something by Joel Ostein or whatever the guy’s name is.
And yet, for all the suffering poor Christopher Hitchens had to go through in the last year and a half of his life, and for the feeling that we survivors were cheated and robbed of further work from a writer in his prime (let alone the gulf his absence must leave for his wife and three children, the youngest of whom is only two years old), it pays to remember that every time you read the work of a great, departed writer, you bring that person back to life.
The carefully chosen words of the man, who had a mind that could withstand heroic degrees of self-destruction, even if his body couldn’t, live on in the minds of his readers. The act of reading as a prelude to writing is akin to a kind of literary communion. By picking up a book by an author who’s no longer living, reading it, and carrying on the tradition in your own unique voice, you help create a kind of immortality, however imperfect, however temporary.
And so, Christopher, there is a heaven after all, and you’re still in it in some sense, and it’s right here. How does it feel to be reincarnated?