Sometimes we hear of and in this way ‘know about’ a writer before we actually get around to reading anything they’ve written. And sometimes when we do finally catch up with the writer or particular book on our endless reading list we are disappointed, and feel cheated.
That wasn’t the case with my discovery of Christopher Hitchens. Not so long ago—though time is always playing tricks on us—I came across something somewhere, like I often do, and learned of this controversial polemicist and the columns he wrote for Vanity Fair, while he struggled for a year and a half with the esophageal cancer that ultimately won and silenced him.
“People don’t have cancer,” Hitchens writes, early in this collection of the last of those columns.
They are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.
Mortality is precisely the title of Hitchens’ short posthumous book, composed of the seven columns he managed to write for Vanity Fair while combating cancer, columns in which he chronicled his own cruel experience with the beast.
The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provisions for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival. This is a distinctly bizarre way of “living”—lawyers in the morning and doctors in the afternoon—and means that one has to exist even more than usual in a double frame of mind.
That “double frame of mind” refers to the essential nature of the writing life which is always a life simultaneously lived and observed while living it and, on top of this, continually reflected and commented upon, in writing, regardless of the degree of blatant autobiography involved in any of that writing.
Ironically—and Hitchens would definitely appreciate this—Mortality might be the best introduction to his entire oeuvre. Because while doing what he could to stay alive as long as possible (even as he wondered whether or not staying alive was worth it anymore) Hitchens touched, in this slim book, upon all of the major concerns of his life.
You wouldn’t think that he would bother, at the end, with his lifelong argument against what he regarded as the intellectual fallacies of belief in a monotheistic deity, but in the first pages of this book he vows to continue “to write polemics against religious delusions” until the very end.
Hitchens provides his readers with some of the hell-fire comments he received concerning his damnation with cancer, but as he points out it makes no sense for God to strike him down with the same disease that randomly ends so many lives of so many people, both young and old, both devout and agnostic, everywhere in the world.
But his real concern in this book is to do the only thing a writer like him could do, or would do, under any circumstances: to keep producing.
All of the best recollections of wisdom and friendship, from Plato’s “Apology” for Socrates to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, resound with the spoken, unscripted moments of interplay and reason and speculation. It’s in engagements like this, in competition and comparison with others, that one can hope to hit upon the elusive, magical mot juste. For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.
Engagement—and his use of the word ‘sin’ in this context—is an example of le mot juste. Because it was always this that Hitchens was after. And not only at the very end, but well beyond that ending.
What Hitchens seems to have sought in his “interplay” with friends and foes alike was that sharpening of the mind—like the blade of a knife—that comes from regular and steady contact with the rough but purposeful grain of resistance—with the ability to select and point out well considered contrasts and comparisons—and the honing effect of other sharpened minds clashing with his.
Hitchens manages to reflect with an alert mind—and in a fluid and elegant prose that is worth both quoting and returning to, again and again—upon all the terrible consequences of a body ravaged by a suicidal alien that can only succeed in perishing with its host. But these reflections are by no means limited to the chronicling of these consequences. Everything Hitchens says goes far beyond his particular condition.
In some ways Mortality is a body of writing containing a rich mine of metaphors, which Hitchens invites his readers to prospect. Even the temporary loss of control over his voice, and the threat of being silenced before he was done, Hitchens transforms into the repetition of a cliché endowed now with real poignancy.
“If something is worth hearing or listening to,” he writes, “it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.”
Photo by Selig Polyscope Company – http://www.south-central-media.co.uk/camethedawn.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33644572