Postal Reading group
August 2019
Notes on the book Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer during the tour to promote his memoirs. This present book, Mortality is his account of the ravages of the disease. As such, I find it a difficult book to review: no matter how well written it is, no-one would ever say they had enjoyed it. Similarly, as I haven’t had even third-hand experience of cancer and its ‘treatment’, it makes it particularly difficult for me to comment.

My initial reaction was that, given the subject matter, I would struggle to read this. However, I was surprised that it is remarkably readable, and clearly well written. I have no previous experience of Hitchens’ writing, but it must be a reflection of his ability that he can write so well about what must be one of the most horrible diseases known to man. Similarly, I do not normally enjoy memoirs (just because someone’s a celebrity it doesn’t mean that I should find them interesting), but this would almost be sufficient to make me seek out Hitch-22.

Despite being well written, of course, the subject matter remains challenging, so I was relieved that the book was short. Whether through the author’s intention, or by force of his circumstances, keeping this account succinct was clearly a good strategy. Any longer and I suspect that it would have been a more demanding read. On the other hand, despite the book being well conceived, I was disapointed to be reading such a personal account when I had been expecting a more philosophical take on mortality. Similarly, I find it difficult to agree with the reviewer who found it to be a ‘riveting’ account. Although it didn’t drag, I was still happy to put it down, and wouldn’t have wanted to read too much of it. This is clearly not Hitchens’ fault, but with hindsight, ‘riveting’ was a poorly chosen adjective on behalf of the reviewer.

Hitchens was well known for his views on religion, and I was half expecting him to have received messages suggesting that his illness was the result of divine retribution. I can’t say that I was pleased to be proven right, but I’m certainly not surprised. A more normal response when faced with news of a cancer diagnosis would be “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy”, but apparently there are many Christians who believe that their God does just that. They clearly believe that there are quite severe limits on God’s mercy and love! While some kinder souls were, apparently, praying for Hitchens, and I hope they were genuine, you can’t help wondering if they were hoping to solicit a deathbed conversion, or to bolster their own faith in God’s power. It is also an astute observation on the contradiction at the heart of prayer when some petition for his recovery, while others apparently hope that God will make him suffer.

We often speak of people dying “after a battle with cancer”, and this, along with the Nixon administration’s “war on cancer”, has not escaped the author’s attention. The words are, perhaps, well intentioned but the fact remains that it is a rather unequal battle. When faced with recommendations of various unorthodox ‘cures’ from well-wishers, and the debilitating side effects of the conventional treatments, cancer becomes a minefield which would challenge even the healthiest person.

I felt that Hitchens’ writing was at its best in the chapter discussing death, or rather how we should like to die. Here was the kind of philosophical discussion which I would have hoped for in a book like this. It demonstrates very clearly what Hitchens must have been capable of if he could produce this while suffering with terminal “stage four metastasized esophageal cancer”. As an aside, perhaps it also demonstrates why he made so many enemies among the American Christians; they were probably frightened that he might be right. One highlight of this chapter was being able to learn so much about Nietzsche, almost as an aside. He has a reputation as being a rather difficult philosopher to comprehend (and that’s putting it mildly), so it was interesting to understand some of the background to this.

To sum up, this is a well written book, and well worth reading, even if the subject matter means that it is the best book you won’t enjoy reading! He tells of how even the simplest of questions becomes loaded, highlights the indignities involved in dying from cancer, and some of the euphemisms behind modern cancer treatment. Without wishing to be too depressing, there are two things which are always 50 years in the future: power from nuclear fusion and a cure for cancer. Ultimately though, it is a real shame that the world has lost such a capable author.

Comments by Nicholas Cutler