“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
“One should try to write as if posthumously,” Christopher Hitchens famously opined in a New York Public Library talk three days before his fatal cancer diagnosis. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others,” he advised young contrarians years earlier. How striking, then, becomes the clash between his uncompromising ethos and the equally uncompromising realities of death, recorded in Mortality (public library), his last published work, out this week — a gripping and lucid meditation on death as it was unfolding during Hitch’s last months of life. But what makes the book truly extraordinary is his profound oscillation between his characteristic, proud, almost stubborn self-awareness — that ability to look on with the eye of the critic rather than the experiencing self — and a vulnerability that is so clearly foreign to him, yet so breathlessly inevitable in dying. The ideological rigor with which he approaches his own finality, teasing apart religion and politics and other collective and thus impersonal facets of culture, cracks here and there, subtly at first, letting the discomfort of his brush with the unknown peek through, then gapes wide open to reveal the sheer human terror of ceasing to exist.
We begin by seeing Hitchens, a true contrarian himself, defy death’s common psychology:
The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of ‘acceptance,’ hasn’t so far had much application to my case. 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? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.
One coping mechanism is stoic wryness:
To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
As a bastion of semantic clarity, Hitch doesn’t miss the opportunity to dismember a number of the metaphors we use about and around death, echoing Susan Sontag’s classic and revolutionary Illness as Metaphor in discussing the “war-on-cancer” cliché:
Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
Still, Hitchens uses his death as a vehicle for advancing his lifelong crusade against religion, which earned him a spot as one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — along with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris — and takes a number of clever stabs at religion’s paradoxes:
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.
But, every once in a while, between the busting of clichés, the complacent edge of his self-awareness softens and gives way to the real and raw human terror of his experience:
It’s normally agreed that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.
Indeed, this daily attrition of bodily dignity, which bleeds into an attrition of character, is hard even for Hitch to intellectualize, try as he might:
Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether. I had just returned from giving a couple of speeches in California, where with the help of morphine and adrenaline I could still successfully ‘project’ my utterances, when I made an attempt to hail a taxi outside my home — and nothing happened. I stood, frozen, like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow. I used to be able to stop a New York cab at thirty paces. I could also, without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall. And it may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.
Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs. In common with everybody else, I have played versions of the youthful ‘Which would you rather?’ game, in which most usually it’s debated whether blindness or deafness would be the most oppressive. But I don’t ever recall speculating much about being struck dumb. (In the American vernacular, to say ‘I’d really hate to be dumb’ might in any case draw another snicker.) Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’
The final pages of Mortality feature Hitch’s fragmentary scribbles from the days immediately preceding his death, concluding, poignantly, with this:
From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905:
With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own… Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.
Photographs via Wikimedia Commons