Review: Christopher Hitchens stays contrarian in ‘Mortality’
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For all that literature is an art of self-exposure, writers tend to back away from impending death. The shelf of firsthand looks at what Janet Hobhouse called “this dying business” is a short one — Hobhouse’s searing posthumous novel “The Furies”; Raymond Carver’s final collection of poetry, “A New Path to the Waterfall”; John Updike’s “Endpoint and Other Poems.”
I’m not sure why this is, exactly, other than that dying is a lot of work. I’m not trying to be glib here, just to suggest that in the face of annihilation, things get elemental quickly, leaving little room for the luxury of writing it all out. As T.S. Eliot observes, in “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.”
Those lines of Eliot’s appear in Christopher Hitchens’ “Mortality,” the latest addition to the library of the dying — although to read it on such terms exclusively is to miss the point. That’s because “Mortality” is not so much reflection as reportage, a set of dispatches from “Tumortown,” where the author found himself exiled in mid-2010.
Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer in December 2011, sets the scene in the first sentences: “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness 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.” For Hitchens, this felt very much like a “deportation … from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady,” a sensation made more pronounced by the fact that he was stricken while on tour for his memoir “Hitch-22.” He was 61.
All that makes for a peculiar set of tensions, which have as much to do with Hitchens as they do with death. Unlike Carver or even Updike, he reveled in his status as a larger-than-life figure, a character in his own drama, so to speak.
A prodigious smoker and drinker (“In one way, I suppose,” he acknowledges, “I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light”), Hitchens was also an outspoken contrarian who would not willingly walk away from a fight. He was never — not even in these pages, first composed for Vanity Fair during the final 19 months of his life — particularly emotional, preferring to rely on rhetoric instead.
Yet if that gives “Mortality” a certain clear-headed aversion to the banal, it also keeps us at a distance, even when Hitchens is speaking from the heart. Here he is on the disappointment triggered by his diagnosis: “I am 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. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read — if not indeed to write — the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.”
This is an important moment in “Mortality,” not least for what it says about Hitchens’ priorities. How can we not be moved by his lament for the decade he is losing even as we notice the oddly impersonal nature of his regrets? I’m not suggesting that Hitchens didn’t suffer on a personal level, although it’s striking to see his children’s prospective weddings equated with an obituary for the pope. But what’s telling about such a passage is its almost willful abnegation of the private, the idea that he is not going to let us in. Again and again, Hitchens steers away from feeling and toward argument, whether he is discussing atheism (the subject of his 2007 book “God Is Not Great”) or the rigors of medical treatment, which he equates with torture in both a physical and a psychological sense.
Sure, Hitchens writes about his pain, just as he addresses the mix of anticipation and frustration that comes from being at the edge of cancer research. Still, when it comes to his feelings of loss or longing, he remains almost deliberately disengaged. Referring to an experimental protocol for which he didn’t qualify, he tells us matter-of-factly, “Other similar trials are under review by the Food and Drug Administration, but I am in a bit of a hurry, and I can’t forget the feeling of flatness that I experienced when I received the news.”
Later, reflecting on cancer etiquette, he moves from a discussion of how others talk about the disease (“I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it too”) to how those with cancer deal with it. To make the point, though, he turns away from his own experience to take a shot at Randy Pausch, the late Carnegie Mellon professor and author of “The Last Lecture,” a book “so sugary,” Hitchens warns, “that you may need an insulin shot.”
On the one hand, that’s Hitchens being Hitchens — combative, macho, a critical thinker to the end. And why not? Illness doesn’t change us; it hones the essence of who we are. Still, the great, transcendent moments in “Mortality” come when, by virtue of urgency or attention, Hitchens traces the broader textures of his diminishment.
One such sequence uses the loss of his physical voice to meditate on the loss of his writerly voice. “To a great degree,” he writes, “in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice.” Another — the most fully realized section of the book — debunks the bromide “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” as it applies both to his condition and to ours.
“So far,” Hitchens writes, “I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.” There, in other words, but for the grace of circumstance, go I.
“Mortality” closes with a collection of observations left unconnected at the time of Hitchens’ death. It’s a vivid metaphor for where death leaves us, in a state of incompletion, deserted by logic and intention, no matter how fierce. This too is telling, reminding us that even the most prodigious intellect is no defense — which is, in some sense, what this little book has been arguing all along. Or, as Hitchens insists, with just the right trace of bitter irony: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
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