Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Burning At Both Ends: Christopher Hitchens and "Mortality"
Earlier this year, I read and explored Arguably, the most complete collection of the essays and criticisms by Christopher Hitchens, and since his death in December of 2011, I wasn't anticipating (or rather, thinking about) any posthumous publications. That massive tome seemed to be more than enough to satisfy any admirer of his works. However, an exact opposite (in size and form) has recently been released. The slender volume Mortality contains thoughts and observations written by Hitchens after his cancer diagnosis, during his chemotherapy sessions, and right before his death. In my piece on the previous collection, I wrote out two thoughts that manage to apply to Mortality: 1.) "I never got the feeling that it was published to capitalize on his expected passing" and 2.) "I really wish I could have had the chance to meet Mr. Hitchens, and while this might seem like a trite cliche, it's comforting to have access to his writings." In his introduction to this posthumous volume, Graydon Carter offers a very true assessment that seems (again) to be a trite cliche, but is anything but: "You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone."
In the face of death, Hitchens managed to use his stunning writing skills to explore his condition and thoughts without any mawkish generalizations or sentimentality; that just wasn't his style in any subject. Even though these words are so personal, there's almost a bemused detachment at times, as if he's observing himself from afar. In the opening chapter, he explores what it's like to be a "citizen of the sick country:"
"The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own--a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication--as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to (Hitchens 3)."
In another example of his previous writing style, he manages to reflect on his own lifestyle (a lifelong love of cigarettes and fine scotch), quote Edna St. Vincent Millay, create a beautifully personal reflection, take a swipe at people in power, and infuse his own take on the stages of grief, all within the span of a few words. There are few writers who can balance all of those areas into a single piece of prose.
"In one way, I suppose, I have been 'in denial' for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can't see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it's all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now 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. 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 (Hitchens 5)?"
Of course, the revelation that he had cancer caused quite a stir in religious communities, with some worshipers feeling he brought his illness upon himself for blasphemy, and some insisting on praying for him to "see the light" before his demise. For someone whose international fame is partly due to his writings on the evils of religion and a belief in gods, the book will let some people down. There's no deathbed conversion, nor any smug, self-righteous insistence. Rather, as always, he covers his jabs with genuine philosophical study, allowing his new mentality (or rather, his new awareness of death), to continue to debate religious beliefs. He explores the mentality behind prayer in relation to a "Pray For Christopher Hitchens" day that took place after his diagnosis:
"Many readers are familiar with the spirit and the letter of the definition of 'prayer,' as given by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil's Dictionary. It runs like this, and is extremely easy to comprehend:
Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.
Everybody can see the joke that is lodged within this entry: The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling. Those of us who don't take part in it will justify our abstention on the grounds that we do not need, or care, to undergo the futile process of continuous reinforcement. Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not: At any rate they do not require standing in a crowd and uttering constant and uniform incantations (Hitchens 21-22)."
There are genuinely moving and touching sections of Mortality, not that this comes as a surprise: for all of Hitchens's intense convictions and lack of patience for stupidity in the world, he was always a man who genuinely appreciated his readers, loved his family and friends, and maintained a steadfast hope for change in an increasingly scary, unstable world. His scoffing at religion does not mean that he was without fear in the face of death; part of the human condition is a fear of the unknown and a realization that things taken for granted can be taken away very quickly. He analyzes the changes in his voice, which leads to a fear of his means of communication breaking down. Like the majority of the passages in the book, it's an intricate combination of themes, equal parts personal and worldly. He explores, educates, and moves. None of his words are saccharine--there is nothing but pure emotional honesty in his thoughts:
"In the medical literature, the vocal 'cord' is a mere 'fold,' a piece of gristle that strives to reach out and touch its twin, thus producing the possibility of sound effects. But I feel that there must be a deep relationship with the word 'chord:' the resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowds to pity and mobs to passion. We may not be, as we used to boast, the only animals capable of speech. But we are the only ones who can deploy vocal communication for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining it with our two other boasts of reason and humor to produce higher syntheses. To lose this ability is to be deprived of an entire range of faculty: It is assuredly to die more than a little (Hitchens 53-54)."
The final section of Mortality is a collection of notes and jottings that were uncompleted at the time of Hitchens's death. Generally, items like these would appeal only to completists, but the fragments are a fascinating look at a side of writing that many readers don't see. For every completed page, there are always more pages of half-finished ideas, notes, and sketches that are left behind. A reader can only imagine the directions Hitchens would have taken these sketches, but by themselves, there's an eerie, beautiful poetry to them.
"The nice men with the oxygen and the gurney and the ambulance very gently deporting me across the frontier of the well, in another country.
The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death.
Now so many tributes that it also seems that rumors of my LIFE have also been greatly exaggerated. Lived to see most of what's going to be written about me: this too is exhilarating but hits diminishing returns when I realize how soon it, too, will be 'background.'
Julian Barnes on John Diamond...(Hitchens 86-87)."
There are so many other passages I've left unmentioned: a hilarious exchange between a woman and Hitchens during a book signing; a stunning recap of a religious zealot 'explaining' how god was smiting Hitchens for his atheism; and more touching reflections on what he was going to miss after his passing. There are so many books on death, written from certain angles: an outsider's perspective (Meghan O'Rourke's The Long Goodbye, written about her mother's death), and an insider's perspective (Edouard Leve's Suicide, sent to his publisher before he took his own life). But Mortality, despite its title and honest thoughts on looming demise, can be viewed as so much more: an artist statement, a final reflection of personal philosophies, and a unique perspective on death, knowing it is closing in. I'm sure this could have easily been rushed to publication immediately after Hitchens's passing, but having it available a few months later allows for some better perspectives. Readers are reminded of his talents, and there's a sadness that we'll no longer have a steady stream of books and essays. However, this isn't merely a posthumous work, it's a necessary part of his canon that, for its small size, still manages to contain a variety of ideas. Even if he was still alive, his bibliography demands multiple readings, and Mortality is no different. Even at the end, he was steadfast in his production, and future readings of this work will undoubtedly remain fresh and educational. Thank you, Christopher.
Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. Copyright 2012 by Christopher Hitchens.