To coincide with the launch of his memoir, Christopher Hitchens appears to be dying. For publicity purposes, this is something of a masterstroke. All things considered, however, being diagnosed with metastasized esophageal cancer is not a good thing. And not just for Hitch, either. Truly.
Even his most indefatigable critics are torn, although why they devote such time and anger to a writer, commentator and agent provocateur they clearly hate is beyond me. (Those willing to dangle a plumb line into the unfathomable depths of pedantry involved in left-right-left dissection of Hitchens’ various positions, opinions and idiosyncrasies need only look here and despair. There are so many more important things to be worries about in the world, really.)
Whatever you may think of his opinions, Hitchens has written thoughtfully and deftly of his entry to the country of cancer for Vanity Fair. The images he evokes are arresting without ever being grisly, most obviously in the opening stanza where he writes of being shackled to his corpse, his thorax being filled with slow-drying cement and later with “the alien and its spreading dead-zone colonies”. Powerful.
Hitchens, for me, is too often about himself, his ego, his hedonism and his intellect. All of which can be described as vast. This makes him both engaging and magnetic, yet divisive and off-putting, whether in print, on television or the lecture circuit. What I have gleaned from Hitch-22 over coffee at Borders, the memoir is quite similar to the persona. Edward Luce at The Financial Times offered these thoughts before the diagnosis, which I think sets out the hitch in Hitchens fairly well. Cancer is not a reason to re-evaluate a book’s inherent merit, of course, although certainly his ordeal will ensure it has a place in history.
Yet the piece for Vanity Fair, and the short note before it, are restrained and avoid self-indulgence or sense of self-pity. Perhaps he is in denial about being in denial, though he is sanguine about the self-inflicted nature of his condition after drinking and smoking his way through a large fortune’s worth of alcohol and cigarettes. “I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”
Should Hitchens die, and he suggests it is more likely than not, the world would lose one of its more interesting, and polarizing, talents. The sort of person we need to excite and enrage us. Ideological warriors will find much to quibble about regardless, and no doubt bitch about The Hitch’s “betrayal” of the left for decades to come. The tragedy for him, personally, would be that at 61 he will be too young to see his children marry and have children of their own. For us it is that he may have had more interesting ideas to share, and provocative opinions to challenge or confirm our prejudices, and raise public debate slightly above the level of Mama Grizzlies. (Which, you see, is a sign of the apocalypse.)
While on the topic of cancer, as a year eleven student undertaking year twelve literature I read Blake Morrison’s And when did you last see your father? (Which, despite the best efforts of Colin Firth and Jim Broadbent, was a better book than film.) Written by a poet, I remember it being an unflinching and evocative personal story, in that instance a son writing about his dying father. The other reason that book sprang to mind this week, apart from Hitchens, was this piece from Mike Bowers about his father Peter on ABC’s The Drum, who died recently after suffering Alzheimer’s. Both Mike and Peter are well-regarded figures in Australian journalism.
An(other) author suggested to me recently that Western society generally deals with death badly. Do you agree? Will it take someone of Hitchens’s stature, so often larger than life now reduced to mortality, to help us deal with death in less clinical, hidden ways? Are we too quick to beatify the dead and dying, to forgive people’s faults because of illness?