Christopher Hitchens was a remarkable and fearless man who remained true to himself and his beliefs right up until the moment that esophageal cancer claimed his life in December 2011. Admittedly, Hitchens was a man of excesses, and his lifestyle largely contributed to his death at the relatively young age of sixty-two. But it is unlikely that he gave much thought to the destructiveness of such a lifestyle until the 2010 book tour during which he was suddenly hospitalized because of the agonizing pain he experienced around his chest and thorax. Eighteen months later, Hitchens would be dead, but he spent much of his remaining time writing about his personal journey through what he called “Tumorville.” That work is captured in Mortality, the little 104-page memoir on dying he left behind.
Christopher Hitchens was, of course, not a man without enemies – thousands of them – and, early in his struggle to rid himself of the tumor that killed him, he became aware that “some who have long wished me ill” were rooting for the “blind, emotionless alien” of a tumor that was killing him. If he had not been so outspoken about his atheism and disillusionment with liberal politics, it is likely that far fewer would have openly gloated about his illness. But if the effectiveness of a man’s arguments can be measured by the number of his enemies, Christopher Hitchens was an extremely effective debater. The man knew he had enemies – and he loved it.
I do suspect that admirers of Christopher Hitchens will have already read some of what is in Mortality because portions of the book were published previously as Vanity Fair magazine essays. Although this might disappoint some readers, keep in mind that the observations Hitchens makes about living with cancer, enduring months of chemotherapy, and the specific “etiquette” of the disease are so frankly presented that they remain as powerful on subsequent readings as they are on the first. Note also, that capturing the essays in one volume this way makes it easier to keep them together for re-reading.
Hitchens was well aware that many people were wondering whether he would turn to religion before his death. He even stumbled upon a “Place Bets” video inviting people to bet on whether he would “repudiate (his) atheism and embrace religion by a certain date or continue to affirm unbelief and take the hellish consequences.” While he generally found this kind of thing to be more amusing than annoying, Hitchens offers a rather poignant thought about all those prayers supposedly being said on his behalf:
“Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime, in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed by such a hucksterish choice. Meanwhile, the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe. I don’t mean to be churlish about any kind intentions, but when September 20 comes (the official “Everybody Pray for Hitchens” day), please do not trouble deaf heaven with your bootless cries. Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”
Pure Hitchens…all the way to the end.