Still not sure how I feel about Christopher Hitchens.
20 June 2013
by Christopher Hitchens
I forget exactly what prompted me, recently, to request Christopher Hitchens's last book, Mortality, from the library, and it rather surprised me when it showed up for me on hold. I must have read about it again somewhere but can't remember where; and since I am clearly in the mood for downer books this summer, it seemed just as good a time to read it as any.
Hitchens is perhaps best known as a journalist and author who became quite vocal on the subject of his own atheism (one of his more recent bestsellers was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). He was also an essayist, memoirist (his memoir Hitch-22; was also a big bestseller) and frequent public speaker and debater. I forget exactly why I used to like him; I'm sure it had something to do with the fact that he's British and he was quite outspoken (I actually own his book The Missionary Position, in which he famously lambasted Mother Teresa for not being the saint everyone thought she was, because I know I think Mother Teresa was a saint, and I was just interested to see what he had to say on the subject). At some point, though, he became a big backer of George W. Bush's Iraq War, which I never quite understood (and couldn't really forgive) in light of his history of declared left/liberal viewpoints.
But all of that is beside the point here. In 2010, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, and a little under eighteen months later, he succumbed to the disease. This slim book is the collection of magazine essays he wrote as he, in his own words, spent his remaining time "living dyingly."
The essays are quite beautifully written--Hitchens was never a slouch when it came to arranging words--but I didn't find that this book packed quite the profound punch I expected it to. I certainly wasn't looking for end-of-life or afterlife revelations, due to Hitchens's atheist beliefs (which don't bother me at all, compared to his pro-war sentiments). But I was just looking for something...more. I'm explaining it badly but I've been working on this paragraph for a while, and am starting to think I just won't be able to describe the feeling.*
One chapter/essay I did think packed the old Hitchens punch was the one on the adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger." I have always believed that's bullshit, personally (when life knocks me down, as I once told my Dad, wouldn't it just be smarter for me to stay down and not get knocked around anymore?) and I think Hitchens was inclined to agree with me (in his descriptions of how hard it eventually became just to have routine injections or have blood taken):
"When the technician would offer to stop, I would urge her to go on and assure her that I sympathized. I would relate the number of attempts made on previous occasions, in order to spur greater efforts. My self-image was that of the plucky English immigrant, rising above the agony of a little needle-stick. Whatever didn't kill me, I averred, would make me stronger...I think this began to pall on the day that I had asked to 'keep going' through eleven sessions, and was secretly hoping for the chance to give up and go to sleep. Then suddenly the worried face of the expert cleared all at once as he exclaimed, 'Well, twelve times is the charm,' and the life-giving thread began to unspool in the syringe. From this time on, it seemed absurd to affect the idea that this bluffing on my part was making me stronger, or making other people perform more strongly or cheerfully either." (p. 75.)
That's the old Hitch.** I am sorry he had to feel that way; perhaps some people actually do make it all the way to the ends of their lives believing whatever adversity they've faced has made them stronger. Afterlife or no afterlife, I hope he's resting in peace (or peaceful nothingness, whatever he would have preferred).
*I can say this: I do think Miles Kington's "end of life memoir," How Shall I Tell the Dog?: And Other Final Musings, was a better read.
**And oh, I almost forgot: he takes a pretty big swing at Randy Pausch's horrible bestselling book, The Last Lecture ("It should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it."). Good on you, Hitchens.