In 2010, Christopher Eric Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, and until his death eighteen months later, he “wrote on politics and culture, astonishing readers with his capacity for superior work even in extremis”, as it is worded in the blurb of Mortality; a soberingly candid summary of this extraordinary man’s intrepid attempts to comprehend and come to terms with the diagnoses of a particularly cruel disease which was vehemently attempting to bring him to his premature demise.
In Mortality, Hitchens describes his cancer as a “blind, emotionless alien”, which can be held accountable for a variety of explicitly stated bodily and psychological effects, ranging from “the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden and dramatic opposite” to the acceptance of the “truth of the materialistic proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.” This stunningly frank style of writing offers the reader an insight into the grinding world of living with terminal cancer minus the use of distracting euphemisms and cautious oversensitivity which is commonly employed when discussing such a delicate subject matter. It’s morbidly refreshing to experience an account of one man’s “battle with cancer” (a term which I will now likely refrain from using having read this book) from the pen of an intellectual who was as forthright as he was intelligent; I must have learned more about the reality of cancer from Hitchens’ blunt descriptions than I did from my own mother’s diagnosis of the big C a few years ago.
There is more to this deceivingly thin collection of essays, however, than a simple analysis of cancer and mortality as a whole; Hitchens also expresses a multitude of ways in which the disease affected him in a more personal manner, of which I specifically found the detailing of his fears over the possibility of losing his speaking voice to be the most harrowing. Here is a man who is famously inseparable from his speaking voice being mercilessly separated from his speaking voice. In the fifth chapter, Hitchens heartbreakingly reminisces over times of good health, before sternly acknowledging the reality of the invasive alien’s ruthless attack on his most notable quality: “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 always listening ‘sympathetically.’” The chapter concludes with a solemn lament for the author’s loss of not only his freedom of speech (emphasis on ‘speech’), but also of his freedom of speech (emphasis on ‘freedom’).
Throughout the book, there is a very noticeable underlying sense of acceptance; Hitchens knew he was dying. He didn’t downplay or attempt to ignore the adversity of his situation, he instead looked it dead in the eye, even as it finally and pitilessly struck him down (something which I can’t imagine many people would be capable of doing). Perhaps this was partly due to the death of his father in 1987, as Eric Hitchens’ life was also claimed by oesophageal cancer, which must have given Christopher a strong and sudden awareness of the reality of the disease, the aftertaste of which likely lasted until his own final days. At some points, it even felt as though Hitchens was somewhat comfortable with his condition, as if his persistent illnesses and medical side effects had become as banal and ignorable to him as a mild headache is to us, yet despite this consistent theme of the acceptance of his fate, Hitchens still somehow managed to convey a very subtle yet continual sense of optimism throughout the book and throughout the last year of his life, a juxtapositional attitude which I think Carol Blue sums up best in her touching afterword: “Without ever deceiving himself about his medical condition, and without ever allowing me to entertain illusions about his prospects for survival, he responded to every bit of clinical and statistical good news with a radical, childlike hope.”
It truly joys me to report that according to most accounts Christopher Hitchens kept his characteristically inimitable literary vibrancy and infamously sharp wit until the very end. This end, however, came much too soon to allow this exceptionally gifted writer to formulate what would be his very last thoughts and ideas into a publishable conclusion, therefore at the backend of Mortality, you will find a short series of the sporadic scribblings of a dying intellectual trying hurriedly to make note of the countless and swirling thoughts of his unusually educated mind as it approached its expiration. These ideas were surely intended to be greatly expanded upon, and certainly never meant to be published, but Hitchens died before he ever had the chance to string them together into some of his artistically eloquent sentences and paragraphs, leaving us with only the stems of an unfinished masterpiece. There is something truly disconcerting about reading the jottings of one of the world’s most poetic and articulate authors in this disjunct and fragmentary format, yet it also offers an unprecedented insight into his remarkable mind and thought processes, something which I feel brings the reader marginally closer to understanding the ‘real’ Christopher Hitchens, something which will surely never be wholly achieved by anybody given his extraordinarily complex character, but something that many people (myself included) attempt to do nonetheless. And what a way to conclude the book which concludes what is undoubtably one of the greatest collections of literary works ever to grace the page. Hitchens was unparalleled in his argumentative facility and rationality; a masterful conductor of the English language whose publications covered politics, religion, culture and history in a manner so captivating that they will unquestionably sit upon the shelves of old and young readers alike for many years to come.