Book Review: Mortality

Mortality by Christopher HitchensMortality
by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve, 2012
128 Pages (Kindle)


Many people I know consume deathbed conversion narratives like they’re crack, but Mortality—the posthumous collection of essays by Christopher Hitchens written during his fight with cancer—is proof that there are atheists in foxholes.

For those who read Hitchens’s essays in Vanity Fair, this collection will be familiar. There is, however, something special about reading them together and delving into his self-reflecting and deeply-fermented mind.

He wrote, debated, lectured, and worked himself harder than most would in their last days. “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,” writes Hitchens. He took responsibility for his lifestyle.

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.

In Mortality, Hitchens documents the dying life of a cancer victim, unmasks his own lingering magical thinking, and defends his position that there is only one life to live despite challenges from his religious critics.

As to the first, fighting cancer was, for Hitchens, the realization that he was playing with borrowed time. He wasted none of it, in that, one gets the impression that every treatment and poke or prod was a lesson to learn and share with others.

He vividly describes his time sojourning in what he calls Tumortown; this is a travel memoir for those of us who live in Wellville. We are let in on the unpleasant world of cancer and treatment. For those of us who have known friends and family who have died or fought cancer, for those of us who have said the wrong but well-intentioned comment to a cancer victim, Mortality is an insider’s perspective. From this point of view, we discover very human and vulnerable moments. “Shackled to my own corpse…the whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement,” he tells us.

As to the second, how does an atheist who is forced to deal with mortality cope with an enemy that feels organized and malicious, but is ultimately indifferent? It is human nature to put a name and personality to our enemies. For many Christians, ailing physical health may be an attack of the devil, though the doctor’s record may call it cancer or heart disease. What is beautifully human about Mortality is that Hitchens is not immune to doing the same.

His cancer becomes an entity and he is well aware of the irony. But what is fascinating is that even in his dying, Hitchens cannot veer away from criticizing his own magical thinking. When describing the “the blind, emotionless alien” inside of him, he later makes this correction:

WHEN I DESCRIBED THE TUMOR IN MY ESOPHAGUS 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.

Lastly, while his cancer may not have been a conscious enemy, Hitchens had plenty of others who were. A work like this would not be typical Hitchens if it did not address the religious. There were those Christians that he knew and respected in some way, like his evangelical friend and the renowned scientist, Francis Collins. He had debating partners that were praying for him. He appears to understand the intention, but recalls wanting to reply, “Praying for what?”

There were those who hoped openly that he would convert before that final moment came. “I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire,” says Hitchens, “who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”

At other times, responses to Hitchens’s death were absurd and ugly. Some placed bets on how long it would take before he repudiated his atheism, while others saw the cancer as divine judgment.

You haven’t lived, if I can put it like this, until you have read contributions such as this on the websites of the faithful:

Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him? Atheists like to ignore FACTS. They like to act like everything is a “coincidence.” Really? It’s just a “coincidence” [that] out of any part of his body, Christopher Hitchens got cancer in the one part of his body he used for blasphemy? Yeah, keep believing that, Atheists. He’s going to writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he’s sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire.

As to whether God gave Hitchens cancer, he asks, “why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former ‘lifestyle’ would suggest that I got.” Or more to the point:

…Why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: It’s an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Betrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random. My so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.

And it is because of statements like this that remind me what a hammer Hitchens was (and is). When he died at the end of the last year, I wrote a tribute piece at The Huffington Post on “Christopher Hitchens as a Martin Luther” (I’m well aware of the ironies in that comparison). In that article I wrote that “Hitchens (like Luther before him) forced everyone, including Christians, to be better people. Mess up and he called you on it. One couldn’t afford to be an apologist hack around him. You either stepped up or got out of the way.” Mortality makes this case in spades.

There is, however, another softer side to Hitchens. He’s not just the guy who fought fire with fire. I’m reminded of a touching clip when he greets a little girl at a speaking engagement. He tells her, “lots of love. Remember the love bit.”

Mortality is not a thick book. It begins with a foreword from his editor at Vanity Fair and ends with an afterword from his widow, Carol Blue. But it is well worth the read. For anyone, Mortality is a book that reminds the reader that how we live on this planet matters, not only in what we choose to do, but how we treat our bodies. “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,” he writes.

But as to the question of atheists in foxholes; it did not take long for rumors of a possible deathbed conversion to find their way on the internet. Anderson Cooper once asked him if there was ever a chance that one day—and in a moment of doubt—Hitchens might hedge his bets and convert. His reply:

If that comes, it will be when I’m very ill, when I’m half demented, either by drugs or pain where, I wouldn’t have control over what I say. I mention this in case you ever hear a rumor later on. Because these things happen, and the faithful love to spread these rumors. On his death bed he finally — I can’t say that the entity that by then wouldn’t be me wouldn’t do such a pathetic thing, but I can tell you that not while I’m lucid, no. I could be quite sure of that.

Don’t believe it”.

And Mortality leaves little doubt that one should.

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