Not to speak ill of the dead, but Christopher Hitchens suffered at least one failure of the imagination. Prompted by a photo caption erroneously labeling him “the late Christopher Hitchens,” he opens his 2010 memoir, “Hitch 22,” by visualizing his death. “One can only picture,” he mused, “the banal aspects of the event . . . the steady thunk of e-mail into my inbox on the day of my demise.” Hitchens imagined extinction only as the banality of being dead, ignoring the agony of dying.
Soon after publishing the memoir, Hitchens was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He died about 18 months later, in December 2011. Hitchens, the rare intellectual who was a brand unto himself, continued publishing during his “year of living dyingly.” A column in Vanity Fair, his home base since his self-exile from The Nation over his neoconservative turn, became a space where he chronicled his experience with cancer. “Mortality,” a collection of these memoiristic writings intended for a single sitting, is a frank reckoning with the anxiety and pain Hitchens endured as his life ended.
As a subgenre, the illness memoir is peculiar. What draws readers to such books isn’t a desire to comprehend the author’s suffering, which isn’t really possible, but to see how an author considers his pain. Of course, most illness memoirs tend to be written after recovery, not during final descent, lending such books an air of post-hoc, feel-good rationalization. Hitchens wasn’t graced with the chance to write about his illness after recovery, but surely his refusal to rationalize would have remained as steadfast as in this slim volume. “To the dumb question ‘Why me?,’ ” he writes, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’ ”
Hitchens does, however, train a mindful eye on the process of deterioration. Rather than hiding behind a scrim of euphemism, Hitchens, always one of our more muscular writers, directly confronts how illness renders “daily existence . . . a babyish thing.” “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine,” he writes about illness clichés, “there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.” Hitchens details a two-hour search for a usable vein that left him “lying between two bed-pads that were liberally laced with dried or clotting blood.” He mentions the swift cycle between aching constipation and its sudden, humiliating reversal. These passages, and “Mortality” in general, are typically Hitchensian, if you’ll allow the neologism: unsparingly blunt, rhetorically suave.
“It’s no fun,” he writes, “to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.” “To the full” is the operative part of that sentence. Despite Hitchens’s reputation as a man of the combative intellect, he was always a sensualist and materialist.
Hitchens’s intellectual activities were physical engagements with the world — the debate, the writing, the boozy raconteuring. Hitchens’s temporary loss of his voice, because of his illness, feels like a small death itself. Likewise with writing. “I feel my personality and identity dissolving,” he writes, “as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.” It’s rare that someone so powerfully writes of such deep connections between the death of intellectual ability and the decay of the body. The most poignant passages of “Mortality” detail such fears, idiosyncratic but compelling because they highlight the singularity of suffering.
And what of Hitchens’s loathing of religion? “Mortality” doesn’t stoop to score settling, but the book does include a rather ugly example of Christian charity. Following his diagnosis, some of Hitchens’s religious enemies wrote to express their glee with his diagnosis, as if cancer was “a slow-acting suicide-murderer — on a consecrated mission from heaven.” They also mock what they are sure will be a hypocritical, deathbed conversion to Christianity.
In the final chapter of the book Hitchens gets his last word, writing, “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.”