A Review of Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality
This article was originally published in First Things.
A few days before he fell ill, Christopher Hitchens said in an interview, “One should try to write as if posthumously. Because then you’re free of all the inhibition that can cluster around even the most independent-minded writer.” At the time, he was on a book tour in New York promoting his new memoir, Hitch-22. One morning he woke up in his hotel room, “feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.”
Thus begins the account of Hitchens’ final days, the nineteen months between his diagnosis of esophageal cancer in June 2010 and his death in December 2011 at age sixty-two. The essays he produced for Vanity Fair during this period, while he was deported “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady,” form the bulk of Mortality, Hitchens’ first (but perhaps not last) posthumous collection of writing.
He took his own advice: these essays, written no doubt with the weight of impending posthumousness bearing down on him, are as free of inhibition or embarrassment as anything he wrote. With characteristic wit and aplomb, Hitchens reports on the language and culture of “Tumorville,” the futility of prayer, the error of Nietzsche’s claim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and, most movingly, the loss of his voice. In that piece, we get a more personal glimpse of the man himself as he grapples with the loss of something he considered indispensable to his life and work:
To a great degree, in public and in private, I “was” my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. . . . And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that.
Being robbed of such a vital instrument is a loss most bitter, because in the process he begins to lose something even more precious: conversation with the people he loves. “For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.” Those conversations were the spice of life to Hitchens. But once he was unable to speak, or to speak for very long, even the company of friends—his “chief consolation in this year of living dyingly”—was not what it should be. And here we sense a profound sadness lurking in the background: Losing his voice is a precursor to a greater and more permanent silence.
But that particular essay stands out in a collection that is otherwise almost devoid of self-reflection. Throughout his ordeal, Hitchens comes off every bit the sharp-witted contrarian, by turns defiant and self-deprecating and humorous. But he is a dying man, and one begins to suspect that the writing here is less serious than it ought to be. There is something awry in it; too much wit, too many barbs. As a writer, Hitchens was never very good at self-reflection or introspection (probably because he was unwilling, not because he was unable) and it shows in this work. He does confess, at one point, that he is “badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste.” “I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it,” he continues, and he wonders whether he will live to see his children married. These are thoughts that we all, unless we die suddenly, must grapple with. But he immediately retracts them. “I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.”
So careful is Hitchens to avoid even a whiff of “sentimentality and self-pity” that he refuses to reflect on his own mortality or acknowledge any kind of inner struggle. He will not even admit that facing death is a harrowing business fraught with fear and doubt, whether you believe in a deity or not. Hitchens veers away from the private and personal time and again, and instead, he argues.
Among his arguments, he takes special care to target those Christians who relished his fate as some kind of divine punishment for atheism. Such people are easy targets, whose views hardly seem worthy of a response. Yet Hitchens goes at them anyway, and then moves on to deal with anyone who prays at all. One of his tendencies (and limitations) was to attack the weakest part of an opponent’s argument but ignore the strongest or most compelling parts—a penchant that sometimes eroded his credibility, or at least made him less convincing. When he mocks Christians and Jews and Muslims for praying—for him or for anyone else—it rings false. He beseeches his readers, “please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better,” and then claims a fresh sympathy with Voltaire, “who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.” These jabs are not as funny as they used to be, or would have been in another circumstance. And anyway, one doesn’t quite believe him.
Not that any serious reader of Hitchens suspected that he, of all people, would recant his lifelong atheism and convert on his deathbed. But it seemed reasonable to expect that a mind, and a pen, as strong as his would at least take death more seriously, or have more to say about it. Perhaps Hitchens did experience some kind of spiritual struggle during his nineteen-month illness, but if he did then he did not write about it.
His chief concern seems to have been cementing his legacy. Hitchens wanted to be remembered in a certain way: unrepentant atheist, loquacious contrarian, combative right to the end. Here was a man, larger than life, who left behind a prodigious amount of great polemical writing and a reputation to match. He wanted it all to remain intact, unsullied by whatever doubts or fears or feelings of loss he might have had at the end. With this volume, for better or worse, that legacy is secure.