Archives for posts with tag: Christopher Hitchens

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.’


‘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’.


I have long been a Hitchens fan, a huge admirer of his intellect, his extraordinary brightness, as well as his fearlessless, when well, but even more so when ill.

I followed his column in Vanity Fair from the diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, much of which is now available in the posthumously published book Mortality (London: Atlantic Books, 2012). Perhaps a somewhat mellower representation of the writer, Hitchens, within the framework of illness and the possibility of imminent death, is still Hitchens, ascerbic, ironic, pretty fearless, and palpably authentic.

Mortality opens with a terrifying image, on the day he was forced to confront his symptoms and seek medical advice:

‘The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.’

This, almost shocking, metaphor leads quickly to acute medical intervention, and ultimately ‘the diagnosis’.

Susan Sonntag spoke of the separate Kingdoms of the sick and of the well, and how narrow in reality the divide is between the two. Hitchens similarly speaks of moving from one world to another, following the diagnosis:

‘a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.’

Despite the confirmed reality of cancer, and the strange world Hitchens has sudddenly been catapulted into, a wry humour remains:

‘The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everyone smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism.’

But with the new land, comes a new language, both verbal (‘metastasized’, ‘ondansetron’) and non-verbal, gestures that needed getting used to and interpreting. I was reminded me of the words of the poet Julia Darling, who died of breast cancer, and her poem Too Heavy (The Poetry Cure, Julia Darling & Cynthia Fuller (eds), Northumberland: Bloodaxe Poetry, 2005, ps.35-36):

‘Dear Doctor,

I am writing to complain about these words

you have given me, that I carry in my bag

lymphatic, nodal, progressive, metastatic

There is much more I need to say about Hitchen’s Mortality.

More tomorrow.

For now, I end with this:

‘To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: “Why not?”‘