Book Review

The last word on the last words of Christopher Hitchens

Mortality keeps atheism's faith, but falters in the delivery

Originally published (in slightly different form) in the Winter 2012-13 issue of Humanist Perspective. This version published in Edifice Rex Online.

Managing Editor
Original published at Edifice Rex Online

by Christopher Hitchens
Signal (Sep 4 2012)
Hardcover, 128 Pages
ISBN-10: 0771039220
ISBN-13: 978-0771039225

It seems somehow churlish — or maybe uncouth — to take the last words of a dying man and pronounce them lacking.

But here we are. Christopher Hitchens is dead and I have at hand an elegantly-designed but very thin hardcover book, with small pages set in large type, that contains the writer's last words — at least, the last words he wrote for Vanity Fair magazine.

Hitchens, whose passing was as unexpected as the death of a man being treated for advanced oesophageal cancer could possibly be, was as much a showman as a writer. He was as comfortable on stage and at parties as he was behind a keyboard and over the years counted not just other writers but also many among the economic and political elites of the United States (and elsewhere) among his friends and drinking buddies.

A public intellectual to his admirers, his detractors saw him more as mere showman, glib and facile, a clever polemicist, but by no means a serious thinker. Though never a close student of his work, prior 9/11 I leaned towards the former position; after he allowed his personal fears to trump principle, I swung forcefully into the latter camp.

It is hard to say which was the more disappointing: the credulity that saw him buy (and try to sell) the transparent lies on which the invasion of Iraq were based, or the moral idiocy which saw him support torture, simply because it was "us" doing the torturing.

But however wrong he was on matters of state, he was and remained a strong proponent of freedom of speech and — a rarity in his adopted country, the United States of America — he was an unabashed atheist. It was his 2007 addition to the small blizzard of pro-atheist books (along with his decision to have himself water-boarded, and his subsequent admission that the "procedure" was torture after all) that convinced me to take another look at his work.

Having already read Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (which I reviewed here a while ago), I could not help but compare it to Hitchens' God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Hitchens' book turned out to be inferior to Dawkins' in just about every way possible; ironically, the professional writer didn't write as well as the professional scientist. He certainly didn't argue as well.

Where Dawkins was trenchantly analytical, Hitchens was glibly prejudiced; an undertone of contemptuous rage ruined any chance the book might achieve Hitchens' professed end, to convince at least some Believers of the error of their ways.

Those qualities that made Hitchens an entertaining polemicist at short lengths — his cruel wit, clever turns of phrase and over-the-top passion among them — proved disadvantages at longer lengths. His arguments were glib, but shallow; his anger heartfelt, but indiscriminate; his research and dialectics sophomoric at best.

• • •


Hitchens fell ill with what would prove to be advanced oesophageal cancer while promoting his memoir, Hitch-22 in June of 2010. Mortality's eight brief chapters are dispatches to those in "the country of the well" by a reporter on permanent assignment to "the land of malady," written over the next 18 months and published in the magazine Vanity Fair.

Determined to carry on as per usual and determinedly contrarian, Hitchens' first essay takes issue with the familiar Kubler-Ross "theory" of progression — "denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of 'acceptance'".

Admitting that he has "been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe" he finds that he has "succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste."

Hitchens similarly rejects the metaphor of struggle or battle when it comes to his disease as well as the urge to anthropomorphize it.

"When I described the tumour in my oesophagus as a 'blind, emotionless alien,' I suppose that even I couldn't help awarding it some of the qualities of a living thing. This at least I know to be a mistake: an instance of the pathetic fallacy (angry cloud, proud mountain, presumptuous little Beaujolais) by which we ascribe animate qualities to inanimate phenomena." [Page 11.]

In Hitchens' view there is no enemy and no war. He has a disease and he — the patient — is reduced to a kind of passive stoicism (at best), enduring pain and fear and the indignities of loss: of hair and appetite; of weight and libido; while his doctors work to stop, or even to reverse, the progression of the disease.

If he can be said to fight at all, it is through his decision to document his illness and to use the experience as a novel weapon against often-familiar enemies.

So in Chapter II he re-engages with religion, putting the lie to the so-called powers of "intercessory prayer", reporting with cynical amusement on those determined to pray for his recovery (or at least, for his salvation) and on others who (really!) prayed for his death and eternal suffering from "HELLFIRE" (caps in the original).

He writes with a melancholic irony about the advances in medical science that have kept him alive — and about those almost certain to come, but of which he has little chance of living long enough to take advantage of.

Chapter IV is a terse and very funny meditation on the etiquette of illness — of cancer in particular — for both patients and their friends and loved ones, who so often say the wrong thing.

Chapter VI is a forceful demonstration of the adolescent bullshit behind the Nietschean maxim, "whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger."

That it took the prospect of immanent death for Hitchens to realize the vacuity of the statement reflects poorly on him as an intellectual. He says that he "now sometimes wonder[s] why I ever thought it profound." As well he might; most of us plumb that statement's shallows soon after adolescence, if not before.

That said, Chapter VI could serve as a useful tonic for someone still stuck in the delusion. And further, it is a moving personal statement on the nature of pain.

It's probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. It's also impossible to warn against. If my [radiation] doctors had tried to tell me up front, they might perhaps have spoken of "grave discomfort" or perhaps of a burning sensation. I only know that nothing at all could have readied or steadied me for this thing that seemed to scorn painkillers and to attack me in my core. I now seem to have run out of radiation options in those spots (thirty-five straight days being considered as much as anyone can take), and while this isn't in any way good news, it spares me from having to wonder if I could willingly endure the same course of treat again.

But mercifully, too, I now can't summon the memory of how I felt during those lacerating days and nights ...

This is strong medicine: insightful writing that unfortunately makes only fleeting appearances in Mortality.

Too often what little there is here are the facile musings of a columnist practising his craft on autopilot. A very good columnist, but nevertheless one churning out disposal words meant to fill the space between adds in a slick magazine and, as likely as not, seeing print without benefit of a second, let alone of a third, pass through his word-processor.

Hitchens himself thought there would be a good many more columns than there were. It wasn't the cancer that ended his life, but an opportunistic infection: plain, old-fashioned pneumonia. It is certainly not his fault his personal plague diary was cut short, nor that the eighth and final chapter comprises only notes for a column never written.

Death alone, though, doesn't justify a book's existence. My copy came to me for free, but bears a cover-price of $22.95. Including the aforementioned introduction by Graydon Carter and an afterword by Hitchens' wife, the writer Carol Blue, the elegantly designed and well-made little hardcover only just breaks 100 pages of pretty large type. By word-count alone, Mortality is no bargain.

Mortality is not a bad book, but neither is it a very good one. Amusing, in places even moving, in the end there is not any great wisdom contained between its covers. It's tempting to wonder if Hitchens himself might not have decided his last words would have been better left to the impermanent pages of back issues of Vanity Fair.