Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Review of Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
It’s settled in my mind: Chris Hitchens is no joke. From the moment I read one of Hitchens’ final (as in end-of-life ‘final’) essays on the internet, I was hooked. That particular essay, now only available in book format, was such a gut-punch to the euphemistic adage “what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger”. Though I found myself somewhat disheartened as he pistol-whipped this maxim which is dear to me, I had no shortage of respect for a man baring his struggles to the world, a small part of which world informs him that they relish his suffering. I am reminded of the way the theologian Harry Emerson Fosdick cautioned people not to dismiss as meaningless those brand of atheists which, in contrast to ‘pert disbelievers’, actually carefully weigh the cost of their belief system and ride it to its end. Said Fosdick, “To be sure, some denials of religion even a Christian must respect.” Existentialist theologian Paul Tillich took this call for respect a step further, “The vitality that can stand the abyss of meaninglessness is aware of a hidden meaning within the destruction of meaning…It is creative courage which appears in the creative expressions of despair.” I find this courage, even an unbowed élan, in Hitchens’ writings, especially in this his final opus.
I think Hitchens may have been one of the few men brave enough or resourceful enough to make us laugh at cancer—his cancer! Not that cancer is funny, at all, nor was Hitchens in his last days trying his hand at a Seinfeldian sense of irony: “so what is the deal with cancer?” But it was the way he poked familiar things—things like “a vulgar little tumor”—and helped us see them in a new light.“This alien can’t want anything; if it kills me it dies, but it seems very single-minded in its purpose.” He gave a few hard blows to blind, romantic optimism, and in chapter 6, probably the most powerful in the book, he charges at that kind of idealism that sanctifies suffering as a sort of purification rite that many believe secures health and happiness. He cannon-blasts this last hope of the ailing, possibly as a stroke of mercy for those taking lightly any potential encounters with pain. I have to admit, I am the type of person who hates being told ‘be careful’ (true story, ask my wife), but this little book drives home the point to be sure to count the cost of any action that would bring one closer to a weakness of mind and body which Hitchens chillingly warns may not be returned from so easily, or with all senses and abilities intact. Go too far and we are “left with something quite unusual in the annals of unsentimental approaches to extinction: not the wish to die with dignity but the desire to have died.” And suddenly cancer’s not funny anymore. In one chapter he takes a shot at Randy Pausch, who lectured and penned The Last Lecture for his posterity while he was dying of pancreatic cancer, for being sensational and flippantly epigrammatic about something as mute and unfathomable as death—especially one’s own death. While I wasn’t sure I was comfortable with his mocking jabs at another dying man, I do believe there are many who are dying that may echo his general sentiment of “it’s not like that” in response to the glamorization and commercial profit of dying. Hitchens point here is that dying is much harder than some people make it look, and it’s normal to feel whipped.
And, sadly, the book ends so startlingly abrupt, like death itself. Fragments of his writings in the last ‘chapter’ of the book is reminiscent of the waning of the powers of mind, and sense and composure begin to be islanded between the death-rattle of rambling and unfinished thoughts. Much of the final chapter is even repetitive of previous chapters, and makes me wonder why it was even included; but I am ultimately glad it was included after all, because it made it easier to let go in some strange way. Hitchens was gone, and only the blinking, bobbing head was left clicking out its last sounds while one realized he is gone. I imagine that the death of brains has a way of helping us let go of the empty casing of what once was the beloved. Matter of fact, the death of intelligence is a bit repulsive in a way, as if to remind one that the brain is just a slimy, gelatinous blob of an organ built and utilized by something greater, and its demise is much more obscene than the wasting away of external flesh. Altogether my confidence in intelligence took a hit as I read Hitchens die.
Hitchens didn’t have a whole lot to give us on his deathbed. No real insight to life or death, unless it’s how not behave as some do around death. One of Hitchens’ favorite poets, and one that I have an appreciation for, is Philip Larken who said in his poem Aubade, “Being brave lets no one off the grave. Death is no different whined at than withstood.” Maybe that’s his message with this little literary experiment. Being with him, and not necessarily having any death-bed revelations or secrets imparted to us, may have been what we best gained from this experience. Maybe being with his audience was enough to make it worthwhile for the author, and maybe it’s what we were looking for too. I’m starting to think that the fine art developed by materialists is the art of distraction, or what often takes the form of living in the present. Buddhists happen to think it’s a great idea, and call anything other than living in the present (such as worrying about tomorrow) a distraction in and of itself. Jesus held it as a virtue to “remember the lilies”, to live in the present and not waste life worrying about the future.
I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that Hitchens was a pretty good guy. In the afterward written by his wife, I couldn’t help but wish I had known him personally. It helped that this book was published in a short, 100 page hardback with heavy, quality paper…it really felt oddly special and intimate even through the quality of the binding; like a sacred moment with a dying man. I may not be interested in facing death with the same outlook as Hitchens, but witnessing him face death gives me hope—pardon me Hitchens—that deeper reserves are available for each of us when the time comes to embark on a new journey. I like to think that something deeper in him was able to withstand the abyss of the threat of non-being and meaninglessness into which he stared. Perhaps Hitchens was more than he knew. And maybe he is more than we know.