Mortality

“Mortality,” by Christopher Hitchens

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An amorphous aura resonates around authors we discover on our own. Before we hear of their fame and talent, before everyone recommends their book as a “must read” we find their book, lost, broken, beat up in a pile of forgotten paperbacks at some random flea market. Perhaps the beauty stems from the feeling of serendipity in finding what appears as a treasure, a discovery, a real gift. In today’s digitized world this occurrence is increasingly rare and these moments deserve more of our love. Eudora Welty describes this experience in her introduction to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.

As it happened, I came to discover To The Lighthouse for myself. If it seems unbelievable today, this was possible to do in 1930 in Mississippi, when I was young, reading at my own will and as pleasure led me. I might have if it hadn’t been for the strong signal in the title. Blessed with luck and innocence, I fell upon the novel that once and forever opened the door of imaginative fiction for me, and read it cold, in all its wonder and magnitude.

While nothing on the magnitude of Welty’s discovery, I experienced a similar auspicious influential discovery in finding the book Love, Poverty and War: Journeys and Essays by the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens. At the age of 19, just freshly back from spending two years studying only Talmud for 12 hours a day in a right-wing yeshiva, I knew nothing of Hitchens, not of his atheism, his polemics, or his controversial political stances. I actually just liked the title. There in that flea market I stood and read the introduction. It floored me in that dingy space.

In it, Hitchens explain his choice of title, “An antique saying has it that a man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war.” Hitchens then provides a literary background to this sentiment quoting O. Henry, Orwell and Heller, then provides a personal impression of this saying:

One might phrase it like this—and I am sincerely sorry if the address here is too masculine, but there is no help for it. Men wish that they had been warriors, or are proud that they once were. They wish that they were in love now. And they like to view poverty as something that they overcame, or at least could overcome. The full time fighter is a rarity (as indeed is the full time lover). But the man who stresses his early struggles with want and scarcity is to be found practically everywhere, and will go on emptying room until the end of time.

I still think about this antique quote and Hitchens’s analysis for my own life. The whole introduction deserves its own space, but I found there what I would realize I could find in most, if not all of Hitchens’s book, articles, and speeches. Here was his characteristic wit, his penetrating and often biting insight (Hitchens embraced emotionality, but with a discerning filter), his unparalleled storytelling abilities, his library of a mind coupled with his aphoristic flair and of course, his brilliance and what I love most, his fiery conviction.

As I discovered more about his often abrasive personality I developed my own sort of ambivalent relationship to a man I so adored, but also a man bent on resting away my religious beliefs. When he wrote God is Not Great I already knew his opinions on the basic metaphysical questions and on the value of religion. However, I still felt betrayed by his decision to write a whole book, an angry virulent book full of hate, venom, reductive thinking, and yes, insight. I for the first time confronted his vitriolic arrogance and his tendency to allow his passion to cloud his rational thinking in certain realms, not only religious. I felt dissuaded from reading the book by his tone, full of blind anger, though I felt he deserved my trust at least for a read through.

I took the cover off the book for fear that people would judge me (I wasn’t wrong): a yeshiva bochur wearing a black yarmulke, leaving Yeshiva University reading a book with the sensationalistic title God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Once, taking the 1 train downtown late at night on an almost empty train, I felt more comfortable holding the book up though still without a cover. A man in a doo rag holding his dry cleaning kept stealing glances over my way until he came down and sat next to me.

“I know why you took off that cover” he said.

“Excuse me,” I replied, kindly.

“It’s ok. I did the same with my copy. I took it off because people would think it strange that such a religious man like myself would be reading a book from this atheist. But I love Hitch, you know?”

I looked at the book, then back to this man, then back to the book and I looked with astonishment at this almost absurd situation. I did know. I knew exactly the feeling so I smiled.

“So, what you think of it?”

And from there, we launched into an all-too-short conversation on the merits of the book. I agreed with the man. It was a hasty book, simplistic, often misinformed and misguided, but it still held a power for both of us. For me, Hitchens signified the first time I ever truly tested and explored my inherited beliefs. Something in me felt deeply hurt, deeply pained and wounded when I finished his book, but also oddly free. I felt unmoored, with the most tenuous connection to my system of values and beliefs more than at any other point in my life. Some of this stemmed from the reverence with which I held Hitchens, and some of it from his arguments. The moment I finished the book I spent almost three hours typing responses to the challenges he presented to an orthodox belief system such as my own. Yet, what I came to realize, and what shook my ground was that most of the responses to Hitchens rose from a less fundamentalist viewpoint than my own at the time. I found myself writing religious apology after apology until I realized I could apologize no more. I felt dishonest. I felt threatened and bit back, calling into question Hitchens’s intelligence.

I decided to take a break, to let his more coherent and eloquent ideas sit with me, regardless of the psychic pain it caused. This man gave me so much through his tenacity and style I at least could give his ideas a few days. He deserved that. The tactic paid off. His weakening of my initial immature defenses allowed me to embark on a more mature, well-grounded understanding of my faith. In a sense, I believe less, but more fully. What I do believe in, I actually believe in. In that sense, ironically, Hitchens’s allowed me to access a deeper religious realm cleansed of all the dross that accumulates from years of unquestioning acceptance of dogma. Not necessarily in his specific ideas, but in his attack on my beliefs. Well played Hitch, well played.

A better speaker than writer, or better yet, a writer who writes as he speaks, I only heard him speak only once at the regal Park East Ave. Synagogue. There he debated Rabbi David J. Wolpe on the topic of religion. Can you imagine walking into an obviously all Jewish crowd in a venerable synagogue to do battle with a rabbi? Though a room full of New Yorkers, there was still an air of a lion’s den about the event for Hitchens, but he appeared to revel in the challenge.

Yet, I know that Hitchens gave me something much more unique to his personality. His atheism, though an essential part of his outlook was not something singular to Hitchens at all. In fact, it might represent his weakest area, not for anything weak about atheism as a position, but in his argumentation. Our society does not lack atheistic literature. He just tended to shout the loudest.

In my ambivalence with Hitchens, I realized what I valued most about his writings, his personality. In a world in which, increasingly, we fear arguments, judgments, or this idea of forcing an opinion upon other people, Hitchens never feared to state his own opinion, with confidence bordering on arrogance, and with the belief that he was correct. So much of our thought todays entail qualifications in attempt to make room for the array of opinions. We speak of the Total noise, of the overwhelming abundance of choice that in our minds nullifies argumentation or an rational analysis of that choice. Of course, tolerance and egalitarianism deserve their place, but when it so overwhelms cultural conversation to the point at which we cannot vehemently disagree with someone, or argue in an intellectual manner then we’ve run into a problem. As is abundantly clear, Hitchens’s not only excelled in argumentation but loved it. For me, even if I disagreed, which I often did, he was in his top form as he argued about books, or about his political position. He elevated any conversation to an intellectual, highly engaged world. To read him was to be challenged by him and if you chose to rise to his level, was to learn how to think, how to argue, how to view the world even if in contrast to Hitchens.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

When I found out about his cancer diagnosis, terminal esophageal cancer, I felt betrayed, again. Who was he to go and start to die on me like that? I never got to speak to him, to talk to him, to argue with him. Why couldn’t he think of other people, for once in his life? His spate of articles on his slow decay pained me to read, yet I still devoured them while tearing. He still wrote with a similar style, but dropped much of the anger, the fury. You could feel his unflinching honesty beat on the page as he stared into his demise with equanimity. He didn’t fear his fear, or hide it, yet many of his pieces found Hitchens feeling defeated, resigned, non-heroic. He harbored no illusions about death, or the next world, and I loved him for his integrity.

We now can read many of the articles in a more holistic form in his first posthumous book, a small black book, Mortality. I tend to feel cynical about these books that appear after the writer passes away, especially these small books of recycled materials (See David Foster Wallace’s Graduation Speech turned book of Zen koans….) with slight additional material, but this feels different. Hitchens appears to have desired the publication of this book, as does his wife who writes perhaps one of the most achingly beautiful love letters in literature in awhile. Though I read most of these in their original form, there is a more holistic nature to this effort, one complemented by an additional chapter not previously published that reads almost as a stream of gorgeous consciousness from some of his last days.

His equanimity emerges most in his willingness to explore the way he deals with his death. In the first chapter he poetically personifies cancer as an “alien,” and sickness as living in “tumortown,” a new world with its own set of curious rules (unprecedentedly egalitarian but with terrible food). In the next piece he tears apart what he recently constructed. He sees this animation of death, of cancer, of his demise as nothing but a coping mechanism akin to religious, illusory metaphors that alleviate our deepest fears. As many note, if we give human dimensions to that which kills us then we create a false hope of overcoming this “person.” He then lies in the bed he makes, largely discarding this more poetic flights. Not to say that he discards his ability to write beautiful prose, far from it. He describes the initial tests as postcards from the interior, and much of his imagery coalesces into his description of these often excruciating 19 months of “living dyingly.”

As expected, read as a whole, the book is sad, funny, warm, brave, insightful, pathetic and ultimately courageous. In it Hitchens stares unflinchingly into our greatest fear: death. He moves between the smallest details of sickness and our loftiest secular ideas, delineating both the minutiae of painful treatments and some of our cultures greatest statements on life and death, adding his own thoughts for good measure. The book doubles as both a tender love letter to and from Hitchens. The editor captures much of our generation’s love of Hitchens noting how many feel he both gave us a voice and spoke to us like few other writers. And as mentioned, Hitchens wife writes a shattering public love letter to a man, as she says, “impossible to follow, in all manners.” Here she opens her rib cage for us all:

I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send while we sat in different rooms in our apartment or in our place in California and the emails he sent when he was on the road. And I miss his handwritten communiques: his innumerable letters and postcards (we dare back to the time of the epistle) and his faxes…

Conversely, Hitchens take the opportunity, in an elegant manner, to convey his fondness for his audience. He realizes how much of his life entailed a conversation, whether verbal or written, and how much of his life would be depleted to the point of despair if he could not converse anymore. (His response to the loss of his voice reminds me of Milton’s response to the loss of his vision, though, of course, without the religious element.)

Yet, despite the topic, as you would also expect, Hitchens infuses a deep sense of humor into his philosophical and existential musings. His jab at Randy Pausch, made famous for a Last Lecture, a jab for the saccharine Disneyfied sentiments strikes me not only as correct, but as hilarious from one cancer patient to the other. Yet, I cannot help but think of what the Dude tells Walter in The Big Lebowski, “you’re not wrong Walter, you’re just an asshole.” Til the end, Hitchens delights in stating abrasive, yet intelligent opinions. For his fans, myself included, this was either a part of the larger package that you needed to accept, or something you reveled in for the immature vicarious fun. Make no mistake, Hitchens often cared for the immature fun of listing his famous friends, or the books he read and wrote, or those he could manhandle intellectually with ease. Living the life of a public intellectual leaves you a lot more leeway for mistakes, for shoddy academia and for opinion than does the life of an academic. Hitchens often used his perch to pass judgment on that which he didn’t like, and he didn’t like a lot of people, ideas and things, but he always attempted to make it an argument, not a sermon.

In this book, he only mentions religion because of the vitriol religious people fired at Hitchens in the wake of his diagnosis. One Internet creep, amongst many others, posted an announcement of sorts that Hitchens’ cancer comes as divine punishment. His dismantling of the internet trolls who saw his esophageal cancer as a retribution is a clinic in dealing with idiots.

His only misstep, in this sleek and slim book, lies in his shallow understanding of prayer to those who believe in its power. This speaks to one of his only flaws as a writer, a flaw that flowed from his greatest strength, his confidence of vision. So much of his blindness of religion stemmed from his inability to see it as a personal experiential endeavor. He felt certain of its harmful nature and could not fathom the other side. His integrity to his ideas was his greatest strength and weakness and therefore he can not begin to fathom the phenomenological or the theological pull of prayer.

What’s strikes me as the most impressive about this small book is Hitchens’ balance. In this manner, he manages to transcend his own death. He writes about the inevitability of demise with such scope as to cover fear, boredom, fleeting joy, memory, voice, medicine, regrets or lack thereof, the conceits of the dying, and the beauty and frustrations of his fleeting life. In this manner he adds himself, to add to his already long list of accomplishments, to the canon of literature on death. Ultimately, the book serves as a testament to something so simple as a brilliant man who loved life, who saw injustice and wanted to correct what he could, who felt that despite all he did he could give much more to this world, and who loved, immeasurably, in his own angry way. As a human, he is that type of person that if you are friends with him, he will love you and protect you forever, but if you happen to cross him he will make it a life mission to destroy you. I find it hard to describe him as nice or kind in his writing, but he was enthralling and captivating. In this vein, he lists those friends, both religious and secular, who helped him and often prayed for him throughout the process. He evinces something of a reconciliatory attitude at least towards religious people, if not religion.

In this regard, Hitchens ended his religious agenda on a note of humor. Many people asked Hitchens if given his impending death would he convert, and if he did what would that say about his previous days. I found this question puerile and pointless. Yet, Hitchens, in his inimitable style always transcended the trash. He writes, “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.” God, this line makes me miss his writing more than usual.

I left the book feeling mournful, but glad for this gift from Hitchens. The book exudes a warm, welcoming tone with the wisdom of life. I also left wondering about Hitchens’ legacy. From a more objective perspective, I realized that we tend to gauge the importance of writers through longevity. Something in me doubts that Hitchens will stand the test of time. Not for a lack of talent, but because of his status as public intellectual. The nature of public intellectuals tends to doom them to only immediate relevance. Even Trilling now needs a book defending his enduring importance. Public intellectuals, at the same time that they attempt to see the universal in today they largely focus on the now. Yet, reading through this book with this thought in my mind, I concluded that we should celebrate this immediacy of Hitchens. He might not make it to a 100 years from now, or even 50 or 25, who knows, but he has reshaped the standard of public intellectual for years to come.


Joe Winkler is a freelance writer living in the Upper West Side. When not ingesting all things cultural, he attends classes for a Masters in English Literature at City College. To support this extravagant lifestyle, Joe teaches, tutors and babysits, unabashedly. He started writing with a personal blog - noconversationleftbehind.blogspot.com, which allows him to indulge the ramblings of his mind. He began his writing career after he quit a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology because he realized that he likes people more in the abstract than in reality. More from this author →