This book is new territory for me in two ways. When I read Mortality, the last and unfortunately unfinished book by the late, great Christopher Hitchens, not only am I reading words written on a deathbed, but I — a book reviewer — am pretty ashamed to say that it’s also the first and, so far, only book of his that I’ve ever read. I believe in honesty, and that it would be important to admit that for the sake of context.
(I totally understand if you’ve stopped reading.)
I’m even more ashamed to say that the first time I had ever heard of the guy was…yes, the day he died, and it was only because it was all over CNN. I remember AC360 replaying snippets of Anderson Cooper’s interview with him, which was recorded some months after he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer — so at least I can say I’ll never forget the impression he left me from that one interview. He’d already begun to physically wither under the duress of his treatment; he couldn’t have known with absolute certainty that the next 16 months or so were to be his last, but even then the self-described “anti-theist” wouldn’t resign himself to fatalism (or, hypocritically, to the opposite extreme: the false comfort and over-optimism of religion). Even more impressive was his will to endure intellectually, as was his eagerness to take death unapologetically on the chin.
Mortality, a collection of musings which touch upon a variety of subjects (though mostly those one would reasonably expect a dying, suffering realist to dwell on), captures all of the same grace, unapologetic intellectualism, and inspiration — and then some. Throughout his book, your sense of him and all that makes him great is heightened precisely because it’s in writing; he bared his soul in his written words.
You get a sense for how important writing is to him in one of his more painful passages. “I often grandly say,” Hitchens writes, “that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true.” The pain is in the context: he had been injected with something to alleviate the pain in his extremities, the chief byproduct of which was a numbness that instilled within him a fear of losing the ability to write. He remarks, “Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my ‘will to live’ would be hugely attenuated.”
“I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”
He leaves pondering writers plenty to think about and admire. I’ll never forget his simple yet sensible and infinitely optimistic advice: that writing should follow the rules of talking, and that we should “avoid stock expressions and repetitions,” refrain from saying “as a boy, your grandmother used to read to you,’ unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy,” that “if something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading,” and that you should “find your own voice.”
I won’t be so foolish and arrogantly imprudent as to lay claim to all the things that I (a lazy, spoiled, unemployed, and under-educated 25-year-old) feel I have in common with a titan like Hitchens. But if I may, like Hitchens, I harbor a disdain for oversimplified or meaningless, misleading colloquialisms. In Mortality, he denounces and convincingly discredits Nietzsche’s famous maxim that “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” (citing the debilitating effects of his terminal illness — something you really can’t argue with). His laying waste to this ridiculous notion is fun to read (cleverness is always fun), and it both reminded me and enhanced my sense of an issue I’ve long had with the idea — once a fear of mine — of “dying alone.”
Mortality can very easily be depressing; I nearly welled up at the end reading his widow’s touching afterword. Surprisingly, however, despite his sobering examples of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, the book initially failed to incite any sort of intense emotional reaction. At first I thought his writing was too rife with things to contemplate, or that his undying eloquence and insuppressible wit and humor were too distracting; or that the somberly stark detail of his suffering was too numbing for me (the book was in many ways a prolonged albeit subtle anti-smoking ad).
In the end, however, I was able to trace my lack of emotions back to the strangely comforting effects of his words.
What you witness in Mortality is a man who approaches his death with dignity; he heroically accepts it and refuses to let it stop him. But the best thing he does, whether he was aware of this or not, is drive home the point that death isn’t exclusive — everyone has to do it. Death is the ultimate equalizer, and while that may sound eerily nihilistic, Hitchens encourages me, rather, to stop dwelling on questions I can’t answer and seek to serve a purpose.
No one dies alone — and nothing gives me peace of mind quite like that thought.
I should remind you (just in case) that this is technically a book review; it may not have been as obvious as my usual reviews because there isn’t a grade at the top. I refuse to give it one; at this stage of my life and maturity, I’ve yet to earn the right. Just know that this is an inspiring book penned by an awe-inspiring man, and you won’t know what Christopher Hitchens was truly made of until you’ve read Mortality.
[Note: The last chapter of Mortality consists of incomplete “fragmentary jottings” that Hitchens had been left unfinished at the time of his death. The following excerpt is the very last and, in my mind, most poignant entry of this section, and it itself is an excerpt from a novel by another author. I deem this a relevant excerpt not only because it’s one of the wisest, most resonant, and quite frankly most beautiful passages I’ve ever read, but because it was obviously of great importance to a dying Hitchens as well.]
With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great grandparents, great-aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.
From Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman