Reflection on the Christopher Hitchens’ Memoir Mortality

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Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Mortality, published in 2014 by Twelve, highlights his final thoughts as he headed toward a sudden, but not altogether unexpected death. These seven pieces were printed originally in Vanity Fair and later, posthumously printed into this book in 2012. In his life, Christopher was an essayist, orator, debater, author, etc. who passionately defended and argued his views on atheism, socialism, and anti-totalitarianism. He often debated against religious leaders and held a strong anti-theist perspective. His thoughts, ideas, and very soul (although, Hitchens would likely abhor my choice of word there) come through so vividly in this 93-page book. Whilst reading this memoir, my only regret when I had finished it was that I had not known him and his work while he was still alive.

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Hitchens seems to have the world of words firmly within his grasp throughout every page, chapter, and sentence. He begins by drawing us into his fantasy world, Tumorville. One morning, EMS professionals swiftly deported him from life as he knew it to this new and unfamiliar world. His diagnosis may have been his deportation, but the cancer itself he dubs an “alien” (Hitchens, 2014, p. 4). He feels foreign and lost, while this creature within colonizes his body, starting from the esophagus and working its way around. And yet, with all of this colorful imagery, he still admits to us that he is bored. Being a heavy smoker for so long, it only seemed natural that this would be his fate. He then mentions Kubler-Ross’s stages and immediately discounts denial and anger in his own case. Sure, he continued living his life and touring his book during his time of diagnosis, but again, he was bored. He calls his diagnosis “predictable and banal” (Hitchens, 2014, p. 5). Instead, he inserts his own stage: the feeling of “[oppression] by the gnawing sense of waste” (Hitchens, 2014, p. 5). He mentions the plans he had and the things he would miss were he to die. But in true Hitchens fashion, he discounts his own complaints by quipping: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” (2014, p. 6)

He then transports us to the time of his treatment. This is the point in which he mentions “bargaining;” another of Kubler-Ross’s stages. Surprisingly, he does not mean this in the typical “God, I’ll do this for you if you give me back my life” way, as he is certainly not a man of God. Instead, the bargain is between the patient and the treatment. In exchange for successful chemotherapy or surgery, the patient must give their hair or their taste buds. His next points focus on the age-old cancer analogy: The Battle, wherein the patient is a valiant soldier, fighting each day for their life with the utmost bravery and strength. He agrees that the imagery of struggle like this appeals to him but in reality, the cancer patient is no soldier; they are merely passive, impotent, and powerless (2014, p. 7).

A very common theme in Hitchens’ writings in Mortality is his relationship with those who consider themselves religious. It is no secret that Hitchens spent much of his life debating against the existence of deities and challenging those who believed in them, but we truly get a sense of how vicious some of these people were. For example, Hitchens includes an entire paragraph from the website of a religious person condemning Hitchens and celebrating his esophageal cancer as it was “God’s revenge” for a blasphemer (2014, p. 12). Hitchens, ever a debater, brings up three arguments against this thinking: first, how can a human presume to know God’s mind; secondly, why would someone write this knowing that Hitchens’ children will also read it; and why cancer? Again, he mentions how dull and predictable esophageal cancer is for someone like him, a heavy smoker. Young, innocent children contact leukemia while psychopaths and tyrants live for ages. Illness and death are truly random in this sense. When they are not, it is not the work of some god, but rather of one’s life choices and risk-taking behaviors. On the other side of the religious spectrum, Hitchens noticed that organizations began to implement days in which congregations would get together to pray for Hitchens? He wrote back to some with the simple question: “Praying for what?” (Hitchens, 2014, p. 15). His recovery or his conversion? He goes on to explain his thoughts on prayer. His views are brilliantly summed up into the following passage:

Beyond that minor futility, the religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible. In the argument over prayer, then, please do not be shocked if it is we atheists who wear the pitying look as any moment of moral crisis threatens to draw near. (Hitchens, 2014, p. 25)

We spent some of class discussing the treatment of terminally ill patients not by their doctors or nurses, but rather by those around them like family and friends. What does one do or say to a terminally ill loved one? The first thing Hitchens mentions that he did not enjoy was the advice. “[In] Tumortown you sometimes feel that you may expire from sheer advice. A lot of it comes free and unsolicited” (Hitchens, 2014, p. 28). He could try everything that all of the people in his life have advised, and there is nothing to say he would ever get better.

Besides the trial-and-error nature of advice, such a procedure existed, too, with his treatment plans. His doctor, Dr. Frederick Smith, created a chemo-cocktail for him. Dr. Steven Rosenberg and Nicholas Restifo introduced him to the process of genetic engineering. This turned out to be futile as his genes did not quite match the prerequisites. Then the idea of “tissue engineering” arose. Again, this was futile as his cancer had already metastasized too far. At this point, his disappointment was evident. He keeps his sense of hope by positing that his suffering may be useful to research and further generations of cancer patients. Though, once again, religion comes into play, as Hitchens argues for the use of human embryos in medical research.

At the beginning of the next article, Hitchens mentions what he calls “cancer etiquette” (2014, p. 39). This is related to his aforementioned thoughts on advice. His rules are as follows: if you are trying to present a relatable story, make sure it is about the same organs and type of cancer; keep the stories uplifting and nix the depressing ones; and find out how your audience is feeling before presenting a story they couldn’t care less about.

As Hitchens goes on, he brings his audience along with him throughout his deterioration, never once losing that trademark Hitchens wry wit and dry humor. On the cancer menu today, Hitchens serves up sores, ulcers, peripheral neuropathy, numbness, and the progressive loss of his voice – something that terrifies him and is one of those things that seems unimaginable until it actually happens. Hitchens, the orator, losing his voice and even his will to maintain lively conversation. He likens losing his voice and ability to communicate to “[dying] more than a little” (Hitchens, 2014, p. 54). Friends are what he continues to live for in this section of the book, listening to the spry debates and wise talks that ensue over a dinner he cannot imagine eating. The very last sentence in this passage is his dejected plea to grasp the freedom of speech once more.

Toward the end of the memoir – and not coincidentally, the end of Hitchens’ life – he mentions euphemisms. Euphemisms are no stranger to one living in Tumorville, as Hitchens claims to have been. He knows now that “discomfort” signals the blinding pain of needles searching his bruise-ridden arms for a drop of blood. He is aware that the hospital’s “pain management team” signifies a loss of hope. “Distress” is just a synonym of “discomfort.”

Once again, true to form, Hitchens unintentionally closes this book with a diatribe against Catholicism. He tells of a hospital he stayed at in which every room had a large, opposing black crucifix upon the wall, posed in such a way that it could be seen from every angle. He likens this experience to that of victims of the Inquisition, who – whilst being burned alive – were forced to look at cross held in front of their eyes. Essentially, that is how it ends. The next chapter has been inserted by the publisher and is comprised of scraps of writing left posthumously by Hitchens. Some passages relate directly back to earlier writings and seem to be drafts and notes, plans for what he wanted to write. In the end, Hitchens succumbed to hospital-related pneumonia and died December 15th, 2011.

I have already inserted some of my own thoughts and feelings into the paragraphs above, perhaps prematurely, but my true reflections on Mortality are as follows. Other books I have read, whose themes surrounded death, brought with them the sort of pall one would expect books about death to bring. However, this book truly felt like a conversation between Hitchens and me. After having read the book, I decided to watch some videos of him debating and presenting and it is truly a wonder how he managed to capture his exact voice on paper. I feel that it has been a privilege to read this book and to have a conversation about the end of life with Christopher Hitchens. His views on religion, dying (or “living dyingly,” as he so brilliantly puts it), and the world around him were truly refreshing and eye-opening in this day where debate and dissent are so often dismissed and frowned upon.

Hitchens did touch upon many of the themes we have explored in class, as mentioned above. He brings up Kubler-Ross’s stages and promptly discounts them in his own experience —though that may not be entirely true. Throughout the memoir, he continues to use her terms to illustrate his own descent toward death. His writing is also rich with euphemisms and imperceptible forms of denial, from the dubbing of his diagnosis his “deportation to Tumortown” to his calling the tumors “aliens,” intent upon colonizing his innards. He mentions his distaste for the advice of others, especially with the conversation on page 38, wherein a mother relates an incredibly depressing story of a cousin with cancer to Hitchens’ very unrelated situation. This idea came up in class quite often while speaking of Dr. Barry’s daughter and her experience with cancer.

This collection of writings truly provides an interesting perspective on death. Hitchens tries to keep it lowkey, boring, banal. So many other writings on death catastrophize it, make it out to be this unexpected, unwanted, undue punishment. He so matter-of-factly states that death is inevitable, it merely comes more slowly or more quickly for some than others. For him, it came quick. Even too quickly for him to finish his writings. But I wouldn’t lament over that. I feel as though Hitchens said all that he wanted to and all he was meant to say. He had a profound impact upon the debating world and left favorable impressions on many, even those he went up against. The naysayers will never know just how much of a brilliant mind left us that day.

Works Cited

  1. Hitchens, C., Carter, G., & Blue, C. (2014). Mortality. New York: Twelve.

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