Reviews

Christopher Hitchens' Antitheism Is Reinforced in His Final Work, 'Mortality'

Photo from the cover of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: A Biography (2007)

A brave and bold meditation on living, with adversity, in the face of certain death.


Mortality

Publisher: Twelve
Length: 128 pages
Author: Christopher Hitchens
Price: $22.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-09
Amazon

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.

9

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image