Review: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

6 comments

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens book cover
Mortality (2012) is a slim volume: the final essays that the inimitable Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair alongside a handful of unpublished jottings. Few have written about “living dyingly” so boldly or so honestly, and Hitchens springs nimbly from the daily ravages and unpleasantness of living with the “alien” of his cancer to wider and larger discussions of religion, philosophy, and the etiquette of dying. The passages where Hitchens describes the fear of losing his professional and defining faculties – his voice and his ability to write – are moving, but perhaps the most affecting passage in the book comes not from Hitchens’s pen but from his wife’s; Carol Blue’s personal afterword bringing a level of clarity and emotion that ends the book on an achingly personal note.

Hitchens writes with his familiar vigour and candour, and side-steps no issue. He remains staunch in his atheism and even-handed when discussing the various reactions of religious followers to his illness: from the vile assertion that Hitchens’s cancer was a judgement from God, to the compassion of close friends and distant followers, and the condescending “Pray for Hitchens” day. As a collection, Hitchens’s final essays are held together by their central theme of mortality and Hitchens’s own illness, and these final writings have been compiled sensitively. Hitchens's tone throughout shies away from sentimentality and engages the reader’s logical instincts far more than their emotional ones, but it is nevertheless hard to read about the discomfort suffered at the hands of the cancer, and Hitchens’s enforced subservience to the illness.

To read Hitchens in full flow as he attacks religious reactions to death and dying is a pleasure, but more impressive is his engagement with his own illness. Hitchens writes of not only his own desperate attempts to find a cutting-edge cure for himself, but also to add to the body of scientific knowledge for the benefit of humanity as a whole. These passages allow the reader the smallest of glimpses at the man behind the words, and while one is kept at arm’s length in some respects, there is great pleasure in darting, with Hitchens, around his spheres of interest; literature, politics, philosophy. One could live without the passage dismantling Nietzsche’s maxim that “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger” – the most revealing element to this passage being that an erudite and intelligent man could ever have believed in this sentiment literally, but in truth there has always been a sense that Hitchens believed himself the most potent of humans, almost a super-human. Perhaps then, one can understand more deeply his inclusion of a small quote from T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Hitchens was a divisive figure, but unarguably he was an engaging polemicist and wonderful speaker. This final entry in the Hitchens canon is an important one: an inverse of the final conversion, it commits for posterity the final months of a life lived to certain convictions, and the author’s steadfast refusal to deny or alter his beliefs in the face of death. To the end Hitchens remained a role-model; a dignified and intelligent life concluded in that vein.

Hitchens died on 15th December 2011. A true contrarian to the end, his wit and energy will be greatly missed.

It's hard to know how to discuss this, so I'll say simply that I enjoyed the fleeting glimpses of Hitchens at his best, and found myself experiencing a sense of mourning throughout the read. 


Useful Links
Reviews of Mortality on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Mortality on Amazon (US)

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6 comments:

Heather said...

I don't always agree with what Hitchens had to say, but boy do I love him. It's still hard to believe that he isn't here anymore. I'm really looking forward to reading this.

Irving Podolsky said...

This thing about dying... I constantly write about it and still pretend it's not about me.

I have a tendency to rate all personal experiences measured against the worst possible outcome, excluding death, slow death and especially slow painful death, like cancer.

My "Joy" factor is pegged against my "good day"-"bad-day" scale where a bad day is denoted by failing to achieve my goals.

And to complicate matters further, I always set my targets beyond my immediate reach.

You know what that means? It means I never fully succeed and I'm never fully fulfilled.

Now...if I re-calibrated my scale against the reality of certain death, as my parents have and all their very old friends, I just might find some peace of mind.

Or die trying...

Maybe I should read "Mortality."

Irv

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Heather

He had a great way about him, which I think engaged people whether they agreed with his arguments or not. A rare quality.

Matthew Selwyn said...

@ Irving Podolsky

An interesting theory, although I think one of the keys to being successful in whatever you choose to do is to never be satisfied. I think for those that choose a creative path there is often something they are striving to reconcile to themselves or prove to others, and this fuels a lot of their work.

So hey, maybe you've got the right idea. You should still read Mortality though. ;)

Irving Podolsky said...

Okay...I WILL read MOrtality. Right after I finish STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS by Daniel Gilbert.

(By the way, I hit the "Reply" button on your comment box but it didn't work.)

Matthew Selwyn said...

No, it never has worked - I should take it off really.

Let me know what you think if you get around to reading Mortality - have you read any Hitchens before now?