Book Review: Mortality // Christopher Hitchens

“I am a member of a cancer elite,” says Christopher Hitchens on 60 Minutes, curling the corner of his lips with his trademark charm, rousing his interviewer to laughter, “I’d rather look down on people with lesser cancers.” 

Within this particular witticism, one among many in his entire career on the page as a writer and on stage as orator, it shows his contempt for self-pity. If both the avoidance of despair and on the other the commitment to intellectual fortitude manifested in anything, it would be the final column in his own Parthenon: Mortality.

This collection of short essays is of formidable courage. It is a deft observation of the land of the ill and sick but still remarkably lucid. There is no solemnity in his writing about death but an uncluttered mind trying to make sense of it all, not just for himself but for you, too. He demystifies the malady of cancer in general; he wasn’t battling cancer, the dignifying verb that is normally associated with it. No. It was quite the opposite. You’re sat in a hospital, still and rigid, with a transparent bag of poison being injected into you. It isn’t battling. It’s resistance. 

His life, rather than his career, was reading and writing, two of the only things at which he claimed he was any good. He admitted that he could never have been a lawyer. But his erudite manner in the way he strings sentences, the rapidity and beauty of his ability to talk in paragraphs, would stand him in good stead in the court room. 

His writing is of the highest rationality and a relentless truth seeker. Despite the book’s focus on his own death, Hitchens, as a staunch atheist, never fails to educate and entertain us about the Faith community’s contradictions. The religious prayed for him, even designating September 20, 2010, as ‘Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day’. A member from these flocks remark that his cancer is well-deserved, that it was God’s revenge on him for using his voice to ridicule against monotheistic Religion. As his enemy writes:

“Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme Him? Atheists like to ignore FACTS. They like to act like everything is a “coincidence”? 

But only it is not a coincidence if you know how Hitchens lived outside of writing and broadcasting. He incorporated in large quantities the bohemia of smoking and drinking. It is his necessity as a writer, the elixir that prolonged conversations and fired up the engaging arguments with friends. He was and knew well he was, “burning the candle at both ends but it gave off a lovely light.” As expected, and with the most admirable fluidity of language, he highlights the absurdity in opposing arguments with charm and a contextual tour of historical thought. Under his confident reasoning, like a great philosopher of our modern time, you realise the absurdity of this cancer-getting claim. His demise was not divinely ordered: as fact goes by way of biology it was the cancer he was going to get. It was so predictable that it seemed banal, even boring as he defiantly claimed. 

Until death he upheld his principles for truth. The cancer couldn’t deplete him. He never cancelled any engagements for the fear of letting people down and pursued to spread the truth even when a metastasised, “blind, emotionless alien” was eating him up from within. And Mortality is his final literary form of this monolithic courage. It is his testament to his love of life. 

He passed on 15th December 2011. 

Words by Anthony Cheng

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