Mortality, a posthumous collection of Christopher Hitchens’s short essays on living with terminal esophageal cancer—“a distinctly bizarre way of ‘living,’” he emphasizes, “lawyers in the morning and doctors in the afternoon”—is an odd little book, neither fully a cancer memoir nor a meditation on the meanings we attribute to the disease. Though indebted to Audre Lorde’s classic The Cancer Journals and Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor (it’s hard to write about the experience of cancer free of the influence of either, regardless of whether one has read them), Hitchens cites neither. The voices he summons to his decline are mostly those of ironists: Ambrose Bierce with his Devil’s Dictionary, John Updike, Kingsley Amis. As the book progresses—if that term can be used to describe its author’s disintegration—it becomes crowded with interlocutors. Many of them are more earnest, to greater and lesser effect. The late philosopher Sidney Hook describes his own terminal disease; Hitchens describes Nietzsche’s; “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Wilfred Owen’s World War I poem of death by gas (a fate as “obscene as cancer” in Owen’s telling), is reproduced nearly in full; and YouTube sensation and best-selling author Professor Randy Pausch reveals through his video The Last Lecture, in Hitchens’s estimation, “exactly how not to be an envoy” from what Hitchens comes to call “Tumortown.”
In the book’s best essay, a literal consideration of “freedom of speech” following the partial loss of his voice—“like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow”—Hitchens writes of the “awful fact” that friends are coerced by cancer into listening to his attempts at communication “sympathetically.” And yet Hitchens had always been a sentimentalist despite himself—a quality that is no small part of his popularity with readers who think themselves too reasonable for emotional appeals. Hitchens’s sentimentalism, in fact, allowed him at his best to detect the false sweetening of public ideas—and that is also the case here, in the more private world of Tumortown. His most sustained argument is with Nietzsche’s oft-quoted maxim on being made stronger by that which doesn’t kill you, but the sharpest rebuke of Mortality is reserved for Pausch’s enormously popular farewell video made before his own death from cancer, a catalogue of clichés “so sugary you may need an insulin shot to withstand it.” Hitchens proposes the criminalization of such saccharine: “It ought to be an offense to be excruciating and unfunny in circumstances where your audience is almost morally obliged to enthuse.”
Of course, that’s also the dilemma of Mortality. “My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal melanoma of the G-spot,” he writes, mimicking the cancer tales imposed on him by ostensible well-wishers, “but she hung in there . . . and the last postcard we had was from her at the top of Mount Everest.” Funny, sort of, but more like stand-up shtick than the wit that made Hitchens famous. His arguments with the pious, too, have been whittled down, but not sharpened, by suffering. Prayer is silly, he proposes, because if god (no capitalization here) is in fact almighty, he is “enjoined or thanked to do what he was going to do anyway.” Noting the Jewish woman’s prayer thanking god “for creating her ‘as she is,’” he observes that for a true divine “the achievement would seem rather a slight one.”
One needn’t be religious to grasp that Hitchens is bickering with a straw man’s notion of prayer (or, as the case may be, a straw woman’s), a crudely utilitarian conception of the appeal to divine power that seems pointedly deaf to the nuances of meaning contained within even the most rote devotions. Almost all prayer contains at least the bones of a story about how the prayerful supplicant understands suffering—“or misunderstands,” one can imagine one of Hitchens’s own devotees quipping. Perhaps; but the distinction misses a larger truth to which Hitchens himself returns again and again throughout Mortality: To understand suffering is not to master it, or to defeat it. Whether one understands chemotherapy or not makes it no more or less painful.
In the final full essay of Mortality, Hitchens returns to his 2008 account for Vanity Fair of being waterboarded. The experience allowed him to grasp that the procedure’s description (by those he considered comrades in a war with “Islamofascism”) as a “simulation of the sensation of drowning” is not so much euphemistic as simply incorrect. “What happens is that you are slowly but inexorably drowned,” he writes, no “simulation” about it. Case closed.
But Hitchens never escaped the lesson’s echoing repetition. The last coherent words of the book are dedicated to his ongoing “post-torture stress,” bad enough in the form of a phantom panic of asphyxiation— “a smothering or choked nightmare sensation”—and much worse when elicited by tube feeding. The tube is not torture, but the body is neither rational nor subject to the mind’s attempts at logic. “I don’t have a body,” Hitchens learns, “I am a body.” Of course, such a truth ought to be basic to a rationalist—but for Hitchens, as for most of us, it needed to be learned. In Hitchens’s experience, suffering—unchosen, unstoppable—proved the most effective teacher; and its lesson, like the substance of prayer, becomes a kind of story: There is a protagonist, he is blind, then he sees. That he sees too late allows for a tragic variation; that it would have made no difference had he seen earlier allows for a comic one.
Hitchens catches on to the joke when instead of attacking prayer from on high (is there any pedestal loftier than a cancer ward?) he engages it on the ground. His very public decline made of his person a battleground for his long-running debate with religious folk, many of whom anticipated Hitchens’s deathbed conversion as if it would at long last be the definitive proof of God. Of the many prominent religious leaders who inserted him into their conversations with the Lord, he observes, “it was to them that it first occurred to me to write back, asking: Praying for what?” Indeed: What follows the prepositional phrase in “I’m praying for you”? Yes, thank you, but what prayers do you offer on my behalf?
Hitchens’s friends were honest: “Salvation was the main point,” he says they told him. In other words, they held him up to the God of the New Testament’s afterlife, when what Hitchens clearly wanted was respite in this life. Deliverance, that is, as in the deeply human story of Exodus, in which the best response to suffering is to set yourself free with your own two feet. God may follow as he pleases.
But deliverance would not be an option. “The thing about Stage Four [cancer],” Hitchens writes, “is that there is no such thing as Stage Five.” Doctors spoke to him, toward the end, of “pain management.” Even that term struck Hitchens as too reminiscent of “the language of torturers,” in which the refusal to name suffering plainly contributes to its magnification. What Hitchens hoped for was salvage. Save what you can, mourn that which is lost, and mock your enemies to the last. “If I convert,” reads one of the fragments with which Hitchens’s publisher has (unmercifully, I think) closed the book, “it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.”
That unfunny jab didn’t make it into Hitchens’s finished essays. Better, instead, the finer cut of a barb such as this: “I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20”—2010, “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day”—“comes, please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”
That’s a different kind of salvage ethics, more honestly ironic, more like the Hitchens of old, before the religion wars and the war on terror and the gonzo grandstanding. It is Mortality at its most generous and most human: just another man dying, making a joke and telling a story.
Jeff Sharlet, the Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College, is the author, most recently, of Sweet Heaven When I Die (Norton, 2011).