I have spent many, many hours over the years listening to Christopher Hitchens speak. I disagreed with some of his political stances, but I always enjoyed listening to his eloquent, and often savage, responses in religious debates.
In mid-2010, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which he sadly died from at the end of 2011. In that period of sickness, even while struggling with both the effects of the illness and the effects of the treatment, he kept writing and speaking publicly, which really speaks to his passion. His descriptions of what was happening to his body, and his thoughts when forced to face his own mortality, were both fascinating and heartbreaking.
He writes that the metaphor of ‘fighting’ or ‘battling’ cancer doesn’t really fit, and I could not agree more with that. It’s something that’s never sat right with me. I understand the positive sentiment behind it, and wouldn’t begrudge anyone for using it, but saying someone is ‘losing the battle with cancer’ leaves the lingering implication that they just aren’t trying hard enough. Cancer is, as we all know, a brutal disease. It’s something that some people are lucky enough to struggle through and survive. If someone gets pushed down in a dark alley and attacked by a mob of fifteen people, we don’t say they lost a fight. It wasn’t a fight; it was an unfair beating.
People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.
Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
A common talking point in debates was whether or not he would simply change his opinion and praise God when he was on his deathbed, and in response he would often bring up the contemptible practice of using someone’s death to spread rumours that they found religion, after they were gone and couldn’t defend themselves. Charles Darwin being the most famous case of this. One such book has already come out about Hitchens, as he suspected would be the case, so I imagine part of his drive for writing this was to preempt that.
I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.
He passed away while writing this, so the last portion of the book is just a series of his raw notes. Normally, seeing scribbles from a journal published posthumously would leave me feeling uneasy, but in this case I’m fairly sure this was at his request.
I haven’t read any of his other books, but I’m sure I will at some point. This was a short but very interesting read.