“A long and brave struggle with mortality”: RIP Christopher Hitchens

December 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Even when a person’s death is expected, if that person meant something to you or had some measurable effect on your life, it is never easy to be confronted with the news that it has occurred. No one, least of all the author himself, had any illusions about the fate that awaited Christopher Hitchens following his diagnosis with esophageal cancer in 2010. Nevertheless, a certain measure of shocked sadness attended booting up my computer this morning to find that the author had succumbed to the disease at the age of sixty-two.

Although he engaged in the round of “bargaining” that accompanies aggressive chemotherapy treatments, Hitchens remained decisively unsentimental and clear-eyed about the experience of living with, and dying from, a terminal illness:

The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head. This certainly appears to be a reasonable trade. Unfortunately, it also involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. 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.

The comments come from one in a remarkable series of essays Hitchens penned for Vanity Fair magazine, where he served as contributing editor, and where a good number of his recent pieces (many of them collected in this year’s 788-page doorstop, Arguably) appeared over the last decade. It is hard to imagine anyone who has been touched by cancer – which, effectively, means most readers of a certain age – coming away from an encounter with these essays unmoved. They display the qualities that were best in Hitchens: his humour, his directness, and his boundless appetite for life.

Indeed, Hitchens was a man of boundless appetites, period. From Vanity Fair–editor Graydon Carter’s obituary:

He was a man of insatiable appetites – for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. He wrote often – constantly, in fact, and right up to the end – and he wrote fast; frequently without the benefit of a second draft or even corrections.

Indeed, Hitchens’ own greatest fear was the loss of the two things that meant the most to him: his voice, and his ability to write. In one of his last published pieces, he addresses Nietzsche’s notion that what does not kill one makes one stronger, in language that is sure to impress itself upon anyone who spends a significant amount of time and energy in the manipulation of words:

I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, 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.

There are those who take issue with Hitchens, and for good reason. His support of the Iraq war was distressing, and his knee-jerk retreat into arguments against “Islamofascism” (which in fact predate 9/11) is reductivist and often ham-fisted. His Vanity Fair essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” has been justifiably critiqued for its misogyny.

I have no interest in rehearsing the various complaints about Hitchens and his increasingly retrograde political attitudes here.

What I will miss most now that his voice has been silenced for good is the quality that made him such a bracing and vital writer, whether you were in agreement with him or otherwise. Love him or loathe him (to his credit, he left little room for indifference), he upheld the cardinal virtue of all good writing: he was never boring. He was an outsized, opinionated personality, who could frequently err on the side of bullying, and often appeared deliberately provocative, but those qualities were part of what made him such a compelling polemicist. (Who, after all, wants to read a polemicist who pulls his punches or couches his arguments in passive-voiced banalities?) One of my favourite reactions to Hitchens’ passing comes from the Canadian journalist Andrew Coyne, who took to Twitter to implore, “Can we all just vow to write with less indirection, less throat-clearing, less of the exquisite, and more blood, meat, wine, astringents?” The very things, that is, that Hitchens excelled at.

The other reaction that struck me also appeared on Twitter. Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote, “‘Oh, FUCK me.’ – Hitchens, being presented with a double Balvenie & water by Jesus, Voltaire & Orwell at the Pearly Gates.” I like to think that if Hitchens, that obstinate atheist, was wrong, and he is currently looking down at all of us from some afterlife somewhere, he had a good laugh at that one.