Page 2 – Alex Dye on Hitchens’s Mortality
The chapters in the book represent the chronological advancement of his cancer and the various issues that arise with continued medication, loss of function, and grappling with Mortality, all a part of living in what he called “Tumortown.”
Mortality begins with Hitchens recounting the experience of discovering that he may have some kind of cancer. “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.” (1) From there he describes traveling to the hospital and the various tests that showed he had esophageal cancer, which would spread to the lymph nodes and eventually invade his entire body. This was eighteen months before he would eventually succumb to the ravaging effects of cancer.
Throughout the book Hitchens takes the reader on a journey, in his own fashion, of dealing with the self-consciousness of losing faculties and abilities once precious to you, like growing hair on your upper lip and being able to speak. He addresses the Christian reaction to his cancer, which ranges from a vengeful “God is smiting you” response to prayer groups, whom he largely rejects because he, as an atheist, does not believe in the efficacy of prayer. He also talks about the etiquette of correspondence between those who reside in Tumorville, sickness, and the shadow of death, and those of us who cannot empathize with this experience, and how both sides have a lot to learn about passing off the burden of responsibility to one another. And in the final chapter we are treated to unfinished sentences and paragraphs that he never got to craft into a cohesive whole.
To understand Hitchens’ approach to death then, one must understand his approach to life. Among many other things, he spent a great deal of time combating proponents of faith and religion, especially the Christian religion. Hitchens, as described in God is Not Great, was a lifelong atheist from an early age. At one point, he goes so far as to say that he is not an atheist, but an anti-theist. His work was not centered on co-existence with or tolerance of religion, but rather in reputing, disproving, and ridiculing it. As a progenitor of the modern atheistic movement, Hitchens provides in God is Not Great a pseudo-manifesto for himself and his fellow free thinkers to their objections to religious faith: It propitiates the creation myth which makes man servant to some higher power, that it is the cause and result of sexual repression, and that it is just “wish-thinking” (7). He also asserts that ethical living is certainly possible without religion while in the same token religion has spurred the faithful towards immoral lifestyles, “in ways that would make a brother-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eyebrow” (9-10). According to Hitchens, religion is a man-made phenomenon, (18) and man, not God, is the creator. “God did not create man in his own image. Evidently it was the other way about” (13). This creation, then, has “so retarded the development of civilization. In subsequent chapters, then, he uses historical violence as proofs that religion is a catalytic force for crimes against humanity.
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