As one might expect, Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality pulls no punches; one is immediately taken to the scene, and the renowned writer details his horror upon awakening in a New York hotel: “The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little.” This sounds like something out of Edgar Allan Poe. It’s shocking and hideous. Understandably, brevity befits Hitchens. He is initially shaken, but he has no apologies and no regrets.
This is, of course, classic Hitchens in terms of its dogged pursuit of the truth, though its subject matter may seem odd as well as its personal nature. Indeed, the latter point is precise but the subject has been, arguably, the principal focus of the writer’s career. For example, fellow nonbeliever Sam Harris has defined ethics as being concerned with suffering, struggling, and hardship. If one examines Hitchens’s several studies, the majority focus on suffering and the truth.
To be precise, consider his quite (in)famous polemics on Mother Teresa (whom he considered a fraud), Henry Kissinger (whom he considered a war criminal), or religion (which he considered untrue, immoral, cruel, sado-masochistic). Even his promotion of Operation Iraqi Freedom, for which he was heavily criticized by the political left, was an ethical imperative (to combat radical Islam, Saddam Hussein, autocracy). On CNN, he termed Jerry Falwell a “conscious charlatan and bully and fraud”. So, in this context of ethics and of truth, it’s not particularly singular for Hitchens to choose cancer as a topic; however, it’s unique for Hitchens to provide so many intimate glimpses into his emotional side vis-à-vis his more obvious intellectual curiosity.
For example, Hitchens is noticeably emotional about certain topics; terse, matter-of-fact, the writer manages to renounce sentiment and the nonsensical void of self-pity: “My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was seventy-nine. I am sixty-one”; “Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again?” The sadness at this point is nearly unbearable. However, Hitchens rapidly turns analytical and philosophical; and he recognizes no irony by simply noting that the cosmos is indifferent.
He also manages to view his cancer from a reasonable, scientific standpoint: “To exist, a cancer needs a living organism, but it cannot ever become a living organism. Its whole malice—there I go again—lies in the fact that the “best” it can do is to die with its host.” Is this the patient or the doctor speaking? Well, a little of both it seems. Indeed, Hitchens lauds his doctors, his friend Francis Collins in particular; he underscores his support for science by mentioning several recent breakthroughs. He, unfortunately, may be too optimistic in this respect: though much progress has indeed been made, medical researchers are still struggling to usefully interpret and comprehend it. In fact we’re only at the frontier of our understanding of the disease, Collins notes.
The section on Nietzsche is simultaneously the best and worst chapter in Mortality. Hitchens posits that Nietzsche’s popular maxim From the military school of life, “What does not kill me makes me stronger” does not apply in the context of terminal cancer; in fact, he now considers it rather hollow. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer , 1889.) Ironically, just as Hitchens repudiates this maxim, he proceeds to give biographical information about Nietzsche; it’s a subtle but pleasing identification with a distant cousin in suffering and final perspective.
Hitchens notes: “In the remainder of his life, however, Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis… which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis.” This allegation of syphilis is a much-disputed if not obsolete point that Julian Young considers in his 2010 biographical study (Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, Cambridge University Press, March 2010). Still, Hitchens pens an aphorism of his own, an incipient tribute to Nietzsche: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist dies.”
Notably, Hitchens makes it clear that circumstance, however traumatic, will not compel him to convert; to the contrary, it will only reinforce his antitheism: “I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.” To avoid dumb rumors or fabrications of any so-called deathbed conversion, he effectively writes that it will not be him at all. That is, if Hitchens converts, he will not be lucid at the time.
Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality is a brave and bold meditation on living, with adversity, in the face of certain death on one hand. On the other hand, and more importantly, this study is about a man who refused to abandon his lifelong principles at a vulnerable time when he very easily could have.