Review: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

August 13, 2013 6:28 pm

christopher hitchensOn June 8th 2010 Christopher Hitchens was struck with a pain in his chest and thorax, a feeling so great that he was unable to move and one that even prompted the calling of the emergency services. After a range of tests Mr Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, learned that he had cancer of the esophagus. Despite an admirable defence by many oncologists and by Hitchens himself (which, if we are to take his comment that “I [Hitchens] am not fighting cancer. Cancer is fighting ME!” seriously, even turned offensive) Christopher suddenly passed away on December 15th 2011 at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

During his illness Hitchens continued his contribution to the American magazine Vanity Fair, only now his attention had shifted. No longer would he discuss anything he wished (with the only exception being sports according to Mortality): now his illness would be a framing device from which to focus his attention. Mortality, published 4th September 2012, is a published anthology of these columns.

It is difficult to encapsulate and communicate one’s opinion on Mortality. It is not a book of essays, or complete thoughts. It is a man’s inner most thoughts as he stares into the mouth of the great beyond. There is still the energy and swagger that Hitchens was known for here, although it is perhaps a little subdued as much of the material contained within involves friends and family. It is nice to see however that even to the end Hitchens was defiant in refusing to compromise in his Atheism. If one were to be overly cynical you could say that this is a repetition of the story of Voltaire on his deathbed; how when he was dying a Catholic priest approached Voltaire and begged him to renounce Satan and all his worldly promises to which Voltaire replied ‘now is not the time to be making enemies’. The irony of this comparison is not lost on Hitchens who not only discusses the story, but also manages to deconstruct it in such a way that we are reminded that the very notion of Hitchens refusing to sponsor one interpretation of the almighty in fear of enraging a different, possibly correct one, is nothing but simply utter nonsense.

Religion and the divine doesn’t feature as much in Mortality as much as would be expected under the circumstances, and instead Hitchens fills the book’s 104 pages with discussions of the science behind the treatment of cancer and the nature of the pharmaceuticals involve with keeping him active and independent in the final year and a half of his life. He pays great attention to the effects of the drugs that he subjects himself to in order to stay free of pain, describes harshly and frankly the way in which numerous blood tests had mangled his arm and given it a ‘junky’ like appearance. He never shied away from scientific terminology in order to describe his disease and the techniques the numerous doctors used in their attempts to save his life.Christopher hitchens

Hitchens never stopped being Hitchens though. No matter what his article was about he would always take that cold, analytical mind to exploring it and expressing that viewpoint. Here, Hitchens’ continues to excercise that keen intellect that made him international known, and uses such figures as  Nietzsche, Leonard Cohen, Wilfred Owens, Bob Dylan, Heraclitus and Neils Bohr in order to illustrate his points. The writing is beautiful: intellectual, yet understandable and relatable. Hitchens was never willing to pull any punches, but he was always willing to offer a helping hand when it came to his work.

But as voyeuristic as it sounds the real joy behind these articles, if such a term can be applied to articles about terminal cancer, is the way in which Hitchens describes the sheer outpouring of support that he received in the months following the diagnosis. He lavishes praise upon his doctors, and the nurses that attend to him, and although professionally critical of the outpouring of support from the religious community, is never outwardly critical of the people themselves. Hitchens’ friends are almost always supportive, and his family are always by his side.  Ultimately from the day that he was diagnosed until the day that he died Hitchens was never alone.

In summary Mortality should be considered Christopher Hitchens’ Swan Song. It contains everything that made him great in life and everything that he should be remembered by: it is eloquent, intelligent, argumentative and yet highly respectful towards its subject matter. But Mortality shouldn’t be the start of a study of Hitchens’ writing, it is the ending and should be considered as such. It is for that reason that whilst I would recommend Mortality to those already familiar with the work of Christopher Hitchens I wouldn’t do the same for those who haven’t read any of his work beforehand.

For those people who are interested in Hitchens’ work and are looking for somewhere to start I highly recommend his 2012 collection of articles and essays Arguably.

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