Twenty-odd years ago, when he was in my town for a reading, I asked Allen Ginsberg that most unbearable of questions for a working writer: “What are you working on?” His answer? “Deathwork.”
He meant by that, I think, the Buddhist practice of paving the way for one’s own passing by getting soul and karma in shape for it. By way of Western practicality, too, he meant disposing of papers—he would soon sell his 300,000-object archives to Stanford University, igniting a minor controversy by doing so—and otherwise scheduling in what some wise soul once summed up as “lawyers in the morning, priests in the afternoon.”
Read more books by Christopher Hitchens.
There would be no priests in the afternoon for Christopher Hitchens, that famously militant atheist. And just where his own archive, which must be plentiful, is bound for has yet to be determined, so far as I know.
But Hitchens did his own deathwork, at least of a sort, by charting the progress of his illness to very nearly the moment of his death last December. That trajectory now finds its way into the pages of Mortality, chronicling Hitchens’ passage into the country of the ill and dying, a place without rancor, racism and certainly sex: “A generally egalitarian spirit prevails,” he writes of it, “and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work.” In this new country, whose capital is an unhappy but very clean place called Tumortown, the newcomer learns to speak the foreign language of medical and pharmaceutical terminology, as well as to accept and anticipate some strange gestures on the part of the inhabitants—as when a doctor sank his fingers deep into Hitchens’s neck to feel about to see whether the cancer had spread into his lymph nodes, as in fact it had.
Confronted with death, many an atheist has had second thoughts about his or her position with respect to the whole God thing. Thomas Browne wrote in his Urn Burial of 1658 (helpfully, given all the death around us these days, New Directions reprinted it last year), getting that bad news forces at least some reconsideration: “It is the heaviest stone that melancholy can throw at a man, to tell him he is at the end of his nature; or that there is no further state to come, unto which this seems progressional, and otherwise made in vain.”
But not so with Hitchens, who had surely imbibed of Browne, just as he had read nearly every author worth reading and could summon up whole paragraphs of quotation without pause. He didn’t seem to mind the lights-out-forever part of the equation, the prospect of which troubled Browne greatly, so much as regret the fact that he wouldn’t be around to read his own obituaries, and, for that matter, the obituaries of “elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger.”
Neither—emphatically—did he want anyone praying for his soul, though it would seem from his narrative that more good Christians wrote to him in his illness to revel in his impending demise than to offer their sympathies, hypocrisy being one of the few growth industries this country has to offer. Not that he forbade raising prayers entirely: “Please do not trouble heaven with your bootless cries,” he quietly urged. “Unless, of course, it makes you feel better.”
Mortality quickly moves from those hesitant, tentative explorations of the fringes of Tumortown into full citizenship in that new land. Hitchens is regretful, but not petulant, about the transition: Sure, he who had already read everything, was peeved that there were yet books left to read and, more important, books left to write, but he seems to have taken at least some small comfort in knowing that the cancer that was within him, unlike his reputation and fame, was not a thing that could outlast his last breath.
Hitchens gets in some nice last digs at the likes of the pope and Kissinger and Mother Teresa, among others whom he made a career of savaging. Along the way, he even takes down Randy Pausch, the viral-video-generating cheerleader for a shiny, happy Tumortown, whose famed farewell lecture, he growled, “should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it.”
But Hitchens’s fierceness quiets as he moves deeper into the territory, his narrative finally yielding its Nietzschean scourges to become reflective, at times melancholic, at times even a touch puzzled. But never safe as milk and never without humor. In his closing pages, which have devolved from essays into brief notes as his energy fades, he declares, that crooked half-smile of his no doubt fully engaged, “I’m glad nobody wants to slaughter any endangered species on my behalf.”
“Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.” So Browne also wrote. Christopher Hitchens’ sun burned more visibly than most, illuminating any number of dark paths—for truth-telling is an endangered species, much as it pains me to say so. Given that Hitchens was the bravest and best of its champions, we can hope that Mortality will not be the last of his books. Honoring his passing, whose first anniversary will be upon us before we know it, we cannot use that hopeful Catholic phrase “rest in peace.” Instead, the religiously neutral “He will be missed” will have to do—and, as Mortality affirms, he will be missed indeed.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor to and longtime reviewer for Kirkus.