Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Mortality’
No one who might have glanced over back in December at a post on my now defunct political blog, Orwell’s Hanky, about the death of Christopher Hitchens, will labor through this review with any misapprehensions regarding objectivity. I’ve grown to become very comfortable in the position that no review (or even, honestly, rather much journalism of any sort) can or should reach for objectivity. I’m ready to concede there are certain benefits to even pretending about it, but I think the cost is too high. More deserving of emphasis here however is the probability that there hasn’t been anything said about the Hitch in his entire writing and intellectual life (other than the fact of his departure) that has been objective.
While the elegance and emotional intensity apparent in the admiring interviews and essays that came in the wake of his death were often a joy to read, and very expected, equally expected were the vitriolic grandstanding of his more ludicrous detractors who rarely seemed aware of the irony that in attempting to so articulately dismantle the man they only proved to miming him, offering unabashed swings like the kind he was so famous for (if ‘Hitchslap’ doesn’t find a place in the vernacular of debate, we’ll have truly proven ourselves unworthy of the namesake) but never with near as much wit or flourish–they consistently, though loudly, missed the mark repeatedly–drunken duelists putting their rapiers right into their own feet before tripping. You honestly felt you could sense that they had been spending the nearly two years of Hitchens’s affliction saving up what they thought were outlandishly lovely barbs, really working and polishing them up, setting them aside as they awaited the grim release from the gate.
The short pieces collected here, many of which appeared originally in Vanity Fair, felt so sadly strange to me. Having spent most of the last several years reading more or less every printed word from the man, I like many had become so used to the aura of him when he was really on stride–and he nearly always was, another one of his feats as an intellectual and rhetorical superhero–while he too occasionally could fall victim to bad puns, Christopher was admirably sickened by cliche, yet the frequent description that he was ‘larger than life’ seems inescapable. The strange and beautiful sadness of this little book–it’s smallness also feels both appropriate and tortuous, a party ending that no one is ready to leave–is that it shows that while Christopher was larger than life, he was never too large so as to become unreal, truly a superman; he was ‘just’ a man, and shares the same ending we all do. While his memoir Hitch-22 to my mind lacked a bit strangely in that it felt slightly too distant (Hitchens declared several times he refused to make it only about himself, and only wrote it in a way where it was always a way to write about other people, events, historic moments), Mortality is intensely personal, acutely present in its body-ness. Christopher writes with a directness and vulnerability that can only be described as ‘brave’, another cliche, and one of the collected, disjointed notes in the book’s final chapter reveal an unsurprising opinion about this brand of ‘courage’: “Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can’t run away from.”
The other notes (and the entire collection) also reveal a mind and personality that rejects many of the shallow criticisms one finds against ‘intellectuals’ (i.e., when one encounters it in the wild being used in a pejorative sense)–his scattered, unfinished personal notes referencing Larkin, Symborska, Alan Lightman, Saul Bellow, Proust…aren’t the flippant conversational parries looking to impress party-goers. They’re the fluent, quiet constructions of a brilliant mind looking to do in its literal final chapter what it has done so many times before: using art and literature and beauty and sadness and fear and pain to make some kind of sense of the brutal but pristine reality of a universe found ever uncaring about our human ends, full as they so often are with unfairness, dullness, banality and days each full of a fresh physical agony and humiliation. A strange and painful rash, hands and feet gone numb, cruelly alternating constipation and its opposite–Christopher details these abusive little passport stamps from ‘Tumortown’ as the engine of his mind continues on seemingly unblemished.
Also unsurprising is Christopher’s refusal to give in to the sometimes overwhelming tempations to solipsism or self-pity; he knows and writes the pointlessness of asking ‘Why me?’ to a universe that’d never even be bothered to reply, ‘Why not?’ Particularly cruel, though, seems to be finding himself ‘in the land of the unwell’ just as he felt he was reaching a pleasant plateau in life. He writes, “…I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I had worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married?”
And, for a man known so well for his booming voice and the mental acrobatics with which he could fuel it, the paragraphs later on detailing his thankfully temporary loss of his voice, as well as the bouts of cloudy, sluggish ‘chemo-brain’ are inescapably afloat on an aching terror of what cancer might steal from him well before it all ended, and are some of the most poignant and starkly personal he ever wrote.
One certainly feels the sadness and quiet rage (however pointless) in these honest moments, and I’m sure to be in vast and good company with those that feel as sad and angry as only his readers can at the robbery of such a mind and personality at such a young age. As famous to his conservative opponents for his mostly liberal, Marxist ideals and (probably most famously) for his iconic anti-theism as he remains to his liberal comrades for his pro-war stances, it remains a wonder and a testament that those that were most ready to disagree with his political and religious views were ready to defend well past his death his charm, his warm and honest friendship, his generosity of time and spirit to the younger generations, and his humanistic principles towards justice and freedom in all its forms. While he’ll most likely always be famous for his atheistic debates and books, it’s very much more important to remember that God was only the biggest of the tyrants on his to-fight list. Christopher was first and foremost a philosophical soldier on the front line against any brand of totalitarianism; well before his illness he was almost famous simply as someone who knew how to live a broad and full life, and he deeply treasured the importance of allowing all people the chance to find their way to do the same. This final, minimal collection is a quiet, nearly stoic meditation of such a personality coming to a close.
The foreward by longtime friend and editor Graydon Carter speaks even more to the warmth and lasting richness of Christopher’s friendship; the afterward by his wife Carol Blue is heartbreaking and hopeful, cherishing and loving without ever being cloying or sentimental. Her words show Christopher the sweet and witty husband, the ‘impossible act to follow’ as much at home as when he took the stage. Blue’s touching voice to end the book is a generous one, and we’re all lucky to find its inclusion here. Her words will make anyone with a pulse weep.
To let myself be victim to another cliche, for many this book will be a look at the man behind the legend; Christopher says that often the mark of a good writer is that their readers always feel directly addressed, almost preternaturally so–here more than ever will this feel true. Christopher was fond of saying he always knew he had been burning the candle at both ends, but ‘had found it gave off a lovely light’–lovely feels like a word both impossibly accurate and lacking. I feel myself becoming far too saccharine for comfort to simply say this book allows what feels like a few last moments with such a singular and bettering light, but it does.
Mortality will be available in early September from Twelve Books.