Staring Death in the Eye and Not Blinking: On Christopher Hitchens and “Mortality”
Readers and friends, sometimes one and the same, sometimes not, know of my profound affection for the words and ideas of the late writer and polemic Christopher Hitchens.
Hitchens, who died nearly a year ago, penned some 15 books over the course a bombastically bountiful career that spanned nearly three decades — the first half spent in the U.K., the nation of his birth, and the later half in the U.S., the country to which he eventually attached himself as a naturalized citizen. But his real citizenry was to free thought, ideas, and debate.
His writings which later morphed into hundreds of speeches and lectures, weren’t merely a concoction of loose words and phrases, they were carefully calculated steamrollers which flattened centuries’ accumulation of myths, trouncing the idolatry attached to those he so deservedly disdained, including most famously — Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa.
Love him or hate him, you had to respect the man everyone who was fortunate enough to be included his inner circle of Vanity Fair elite lovingly called “Hitch.”
Hitch was unquestionably the bravest writer of our generation, almost recklessly unafraid of the fallout he would inevitably encounter for expressing what would both literally and figuratively be blasphemous to all aspects of our popular culture. I mean, you may not like to hear the things he said or read the things he wrote, and might not agree with the man, but one must admit — it takes balls to tear down Mother Teresa. Henry Kissinger, less so.
Consider the answer he once gave to a question as to what’s the most overrated virtue. Without any hestitation or ambiguity, Hitchens roared — “Faith, closely followed – in the overall shortage of time – by patience.”
There would indeed be a sad irony to Hitchens’ blistering answer here, which would be prophetic. No doubt, Hitchens’ life did finally run out of time, at a far less than complete 62 years. During the later stages of physical decline, mentally as strong as ever, he expressed his greatest regret at not being able to go another twenty more years, continuing to wage the war against intellectual servitude, where ever he saw it. And yet, faced with his own impending death and awareness thereof, Hitchens never once wavered from his own faith, a faith not cast towards some imaginary heaven, but the faith focused inward to the self. Hitchens never compromised his beliefs nor wavered in his consistency. One had to admire that.
During the final excruciatingly painful year of his life, when he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, and as he became increasingly aware of the fate awaiting him which would have no happy ending in spite of all the best doctors and alternative therapies, many who followed his career were eager to see the final fateful chapter played out. Instigated by his ceaseless bashing of religion with such veracity, some wondered if he might actually undergo a “foxhole conversion.”
That final melancholic year of his life, while being perhaps the most poignant era of his writing and speaking career, was also the most gripping. It was a car crash, a rubber-necking vouyeristic exercise for many driving by on life’s conjested highway, particularly for those who may have relished in the twisted irony of seeing a man put the ultimate test of his own “faith.” And that is the faith in one’s own constitution and belief set. Which, no matter what one’s views, are not always easy things to stand by.
Mortality is the final book written by Hitchens. It’s a far more personal narrative than anything previously written by the Oxford-educated iconoclast who made a career of arguing with cozy intellectual comfort zone of conventional wisdom.
To those unfamiliar with Hitchens – the man and his writings – the biggest surprise might be the absence of metaphorical violins in the narrative. Alas, there are no strings attached to these words, though if you admired the man as I did, his brave personal toil ultimately does pull at the heartstrings. To those more familiar with the man, remaining steadfastly convinced and comfortable with his position on matters of the spirit was hardly a surprise at all. It was, in fact, to be expected. It’s a walk to the gallows with a head held high. Even deviant.
At only 104 pages long, this is by far the shortest book of the author’s career. One plainly sees this is an incomplete work, just as it should be. There’s really no way to wrap it all up and put a pretty bow on top, as other memoirs of famous dying people often do, and Hitchens’ previous release Hitch-22 pretty much already covered all the bases of a career from A to Z. This is a closer examination of the “W-X-Y-Z” period of a man’s existence, embellished with far more personal revelations that previously released. We all know how this book is going to end, and the engrossment comes not from some 24th-hour surprise or late conversion, but rather from Hitchens’ poignant honesty, his refusal to airbrush his own angst which ultimately becomes the acquiescence of fate.
Indeed, while all of Hitchens other masterful works challenged us to think and taught us how to live, Mortality teaches us how to die, with honesty and dignity, while remaining true to ourselves. And that might be Hitchens’ most poignant parting gift to us all.