I spoke in my last post, on Christopher Hitchen’s posthumous Mortality, of how the diagnosis of cancer abruptly and immediately catapults one from the Kingdom of the well to that of the ill. Hitchen’s widow, Carol Blue, refers to this in the Afterword:

‘We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.’

Dennis Potter came to mind when I read this. In his last interview, with Melvyn Bragg two months before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994, Potter spoke about the ‘nowness’ of his life. Since the realisation that he had incurable cancer, his ability to see, and live, the present tense had become a celebration, a truly wondrous thing. As a result, he experienced a newly found serenity, and a true appreciation of life’s beauty, whilst at the same time also noting more acutely what is most trivial and most important, although the distinction did not seem so relevant any more.

Hitchen’s widow mentions fear. The writer himself briefly alludes to Philip Larkin and his poem Aubade (Faber, Collected Poems, 2003, ps. 190-191), a piece that overtly addresses the fear of dying:

‘…Arid interrogation: yet the dread

Of dying, and being dead,

Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.’

Referring again to Potter, during the interview the playwright discussed our innate fear of death, despite the fact that only humans, of all the animal species, know with absolute certainty that we will die. Larkin deals with this fear head on in Aubade:

‘…The sure extinction that we travel to

And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,

Not to be anywhere,

And soon; nothing, more terrible, nothing more true.’

In Mortality, Hitchens reveals how he dealt with the fact of being ‘mortally sick’ with both a ‘modicum of stoicism’ and a great interest in the ‘business of survival’, which often necessitated existing in ‘a double frame of mind’. Inevitably, Hitchens discusses religion. Being ‘mortally sick’ did not weaken his atheism. With some irony, he shares the following:

‘What if I pulled through and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.’

And:

‘If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than an atheist.’

On a more serious note, Hitchens concludes:

‘the religion which treats its flock as a credulous plaything offers one of the cruelest spectacles that can be imagined: a human being in fear and doubt who is openly exploited to believe in the impossible.’

Although not an atheist, Potter had a similar view on religion, that of a phenomenon that too often reflects man’s fear of death. Its very notion held no interest for him, even when faced with imminent mortality.

Although not fearful, Hitchens did feel cheated. He had much more to do, much more to read and to write. That very need, to achieve, at least partly, what had to be done and said, became a driving force for Hitchens, as it had also done for Potter.

For Hitchens, there were times, particularly in the throes of pain and the side-effects of very aggressive treatment, when he wondered whether, with the knowledge of the agony endured, he would go through it again. Possibly not, he concluded.

He chose to ‘do’ death in the active sense, all the time nurturing ‘that little flame of curiosity and defiance’.

As his readers, we benefit from this ‘doing’.

CQ

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