Page 4 – Alex Dye on Hitchens’s Mortality
“Unlike in our society, where we hide it, death surrounded medieval people. They had few hospitals, and so churches, poorhouses, and homes handled the dying and the dead. Death was not a distant prospect at the end of a long, healthy life. It was integrated into ordinary experience. Medieval life was transitory, a journey through this world that often ended too soon and too abruptly. Death was often violent and unexpected. Extended death, through illness and in one’s own bed, was actually a blessing. Death was part of everyday life; medieval people considered their deaths regularly.” (Butler Bass, 118)
With this context in mind, the medieval church was more readily equipped to dialogue with death and the dying, rather than attempting to “make everything okay” through empathy and casseroles.
Hitchens, in making his point, though, criticizes another recent author who attempted to discover meaning of life and death through positive reflection upon dying of cancer: Randy Pausch. Of Randy Pausch, a college professor and author of The Last Lecture, Hitchens writes: “It should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it…It ought to be an offense to be excruciating and unfunny in circumstances where your audience is almost morally obliged to enthuse” (43).
In the same way that the uninitiated “healthy” should not try to impose their own feelings upon the sick, the sick should not capitalize on their experience through the sympathies of others. Of course in establishing this segregated society, the sick are alienated and the healthy are not given the opportunity to learn of the dying experience, whether or not one views it while wearing “sugary” lenses.
In the fifth chapter, Hitchens talks about the painful experience of losing his voice. For a man who made a great deal of his living through public speaking, this was a particularly nasty side effect of cancer. To Hitchens, writing was only one component of his work, one that did not yield nearly the same impact without his ability to speak as well. In talking about all of the painful medical procedures that he had to go through to address his cancer, Hitchens writes that “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” (55).
Some of his final thoughts, Hitchens addresses one of the most common aphorisms that both the sick and the healthy subscribe to when considering any kind of illness, malady, or stress: whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. To this, Hitchens responds: “In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker” (60). He discusses Nietzsche, the author of this quote, and notes the irony in his own life that when he contracted syphilis, the disease only proved to rot his mind rather than strengthen his resolve, and so his experience negated his own philosophy.
As I sit here, editing this article and re-watching the Liam Neeson thriller, The Grey, I cannot help but reflect upon the similar approaches to death between Christopher Hitchens and John Ottway, Liam Neeson’s character. In the movie, a plane taking workers from an oil rig in remote Alaska to Anchorage crashes in the vast, desolate wilderness, and the survivors are forced to defend themselves against the elements and a pack of wolves as they attempt to travel to safety. Ottway, an atheist, makes a plea with God to show him some sort of sign that He is watching. When no response is given, Ottway gives up and resolves to finish on his own. At the movie’s denouement, Neeson squares off against the leader of the murderous wolf pack who had killed the rest of his companions with only a knife and several shards of broken glass taped to his hands as weapons. As the two stare into one another’s eyes, readying themselves to lunge, Neeson recites the poem at the top, “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know, live and die on this day, live and die on this day.” He faced his death with a cold hard stare and a steel resolve, refusing to allow himself the comforts that religion might have offered.
In that same way, Hitchens gritted his teeth, stared death in the eyes, and lunged fists forward. Nowhere in the book does he turn to religion as a sedative, as he feared may happen, though at certain points he allows a bit of fear and humanity to gleam through his hardened exterior. And he left the world his legacy, a bleak, unflinching look at mortality. Yet I wonder in all of this, what did Hitchens really accomplish? What can one learn from his encounter with death? Certainly we can treat cancer patients with greater kindness and dignity and attempt to love others as ourselves, even if the “other” happens to be a militant anti-theist. But there is no happy ending, no hope; there is nothing but earth and darkness, cold and nothingness.
For me, as much as I appreciate understanding his mind and experience, I cannot accept that the beauty of this life flares out into ashes. Nor would I suggest this to others suffering from fatal illnesses. Because I cling to hope found in religion, that humanity was created with the purpose of loving God and this world and restoring it back to some semblance of peace, that we can see evidences of the truthfulness of this faith in creation, history, reason, and Scripture. And that death does not have to be greeted with a cold hard stare, but rather, it can be welcomed as the conclusion to our journeys here on earth and the entrance into our promised life with God in eternity.
Diana Butler Bass. A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
William T. Cavanaugh. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Christopher Hitchens. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007.
Christopher Hitchens. Mortality. New York: Twelve, 2012.