*By Ben Edward Akerley
On 6/8/10, while on a book tour for his best-selling memoir Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens was stricken in his New York City hotel room with excruciating upper body pain that resulted in a lethal diagnosis---stage 4 esophageal cancer (Hitch reminds us there is no stage 5). Ironically, in the autobiography he was promoting, he had declared unequivocally that he would want to face death with both eyes open, never suspecting that he would get to carry out that resolve just 18 months later. On 12/15/11, one of the most important intellectuals of the last forty years bid us farewell at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, where he joked that he had been living dyingly.
His valedictory opus, Mortality, consists of seven completed chapters sent successively to his editor at Vanity Fair which the scribe with his undiminished mordant sense of humor satirized as dispatches from Tumorland. The editor later decided to include a fragmentary eighth chapter which was still a work in progress.
Near the end, the horrific loss of his voice was vastly superseded by the terror of no longer being able to write since he had stated: "Writing is not just my living and my livelihood, but my very life." He proved that affirmation by continuing to write on an astonishing array of subjects in addition to penning this final volume despite the death sentence he had been handed. Never one to wallow in self-pity, he confessed to habitually indulging in hard drinking and smoking and that burning the candle at both ends often gives a lovely light.
The religious who have commented extensively on his cruel fate fall into two camps: (1) those who sincerely believe he deserves this tragic end as God's revenge and (2) those who earnestly pray for the salvation of his soul. Hitch was flattered to a point that at least the latter petitioners thought he was worth saving. He also quipped with tongue-in-cheek about the unlikely event of a deathbed conversion: "If I convert, it is better that a believer dies than that an atheist does."
The writer previously subscribed wholeheartedly to Nietzsche's famous adage: "Whatever doesn't kill me makes me stronger." However, after enduring the severely debilitating side-effects of his medical battle with the big C, he equates the rigors of oncological treatment with torture in both the physical and psychological sense.
This slim tome reveals a devout non-believer who refuses to cower in the face of the unknown as he describes how disease transforms our experiences and radically changes our relationship to the world around us. Would that we all might emulate his noble example and confront the Grim Reaper with the same dignity, grace, wit and fearlessness of this staggering literary giant whose untimely passing at age 62 leaves a void impossible to fill.
|MORTALITY by Christopher Hitchens|
Paleolibrarian Guest Blogger, Mr. Ben Edward Akerley, is the author of "The X-Rated Bible: An Irreverent Survey of Sex in the Scriptures." He is a also a retired teacher, well known speaker on free-thinker and gay rights issues and remains an advocate for international humanist causes. He can be reached via email at, firstname.lastname@example.org.