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Throughout the course of his ordeal battling esophageal cancer, Hitchens adamantly and bravely refused the solace of religion, preferring to confront death with both eyes open. In this riveting account of his affliction, Hitchens poignantly describes the torments of illness, discusses its taboos, and explores how disease transforms experience and changes our relationship to the world around us. By turns personal and philosophical, Hitchens embraces the full panoply of human emotions as cancer invades his body and compels him to grapple with the enigma of death.
MORTALITY is the exemplary story of one man's refusal to cower in the face of the unknown, as well as a searching look at the human predicament. Crisp and vivid, veined throughout with penetrating intelligence, Hitchens's testament is a courageous and lucid work of literature, an affirmation of the dignity and worth of man.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-07-30
- Reviewer: Staff
Diagnosed with the esophageal cancer to which he eventually succumbed in December 2011, cultural critic Hitchens found himself a finalist in the race of life, and in his typically unflinching and bold manner, he candidly shares his thoughts about his suffering, the etiquette of illness and wellness, and religion in this stark and powerful memoir. Commenting on the persistent metaphor of battle that doctors and friends use to describe his life with cancer (most of this book was published in Vanity Fair), Hitchens mightily challenges this image, for “when you sit in a room... 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 is the very last one that will occur to you.” As a result of his various treatments, Hitchens begins to lose his voice, which, given his life as public gadfly through writing and speeches, devastates him. “What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.” Hitchens’s powerful voice compels us to consider carefully the small measures by which we live every day and to cherish them. (Sept.)
A superior writer's final words
In his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens wrote of wanting “to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive”: to confront mortality with the same gimlet-eyed vision he’d brought to his musings on culture, politics and religion. A diagnosis of esophageal cancer while on a book tour for the memoir forced his hand, and in a series of essays for his longtime journalistic home at Vanity Fair, he documented his crossing into the “new land” of the unwell, now assembled into his final essay collection Mortality.
With characteristic brio, intelligence and dry wit, Hitchens engages with his illness and its inevitable outcome head-on, without the consolations of religion or a belief in an afterlife. Given his reputation as an outspoken atheist, Hitchens finds himself the focus of a national prayer campaign: “what if I pulled through, and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.” This tone of comic paradox, quintessentially Hitchens, becomes starkly brave in this context.
These essays explore the lessons and fears of mortal illness, and how this experience radically shifts a person’s identity: “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” Ultimately, the cancer begins to deprive Hitchens of his ability to speak, prompting some of the book’s most moving passages. “To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice,” he acknowledges, and when he thinks of what he wants most to wrest from the hands of death, it is his voice—“the freedom of speech”—that he longs to hold on to.
The literature of illness is marked by the struggle to translate pain into language; in Virginia Woolf’s words, the ill writer must take “his pain in one hand” and a “lump of pure sound in the other” and “crush” them together to create the new idiom of his or her experience. In Mortality, Hitchens has achieved just that, applying all his life’s talents to the challenge of giving voice to the approach of death. These essays are brave and fitting final words from a writer at the end of his journey.