Friday, September 14, 2012

MORTALITY by Christopher Hitchens

Before yesterday, I had read no books by Christopher Hitchens. I had read about him, to be sure. His name kept popping up everywhere.

 "I wouldn't walk around the block to hear Christopher Hitchens take cheap shots at Christians," writes Stephen Prothero in God Is Not One. Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, calls Hitchens one of the "'Four Horsemen' of the angry atheist apocalypse" (along with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett)--fundamentalists all, but by another name.

And yet Hitchens's books are extremely popular, as are books by the other Horsemen. "If you want to know why the 'new atheists' ... sell so many books," says theologian and former bishop N.T. Wright in Simply Jesus, "the answer is that they're offering the modernist version of the good old-fashioned theological term 'assurance.' They are assuring anxious ex-believers that the nightmare of small-minded and stultifying 'religion' is gone forever." In other words, they offer to save us from fundamentalism.

Writing Hitchens's obituary in Christianity Today, an evangelical (though not fundamentalist) magazine, Douglas Wilson takes no offense:
This [propensity to attack sacred cows] was all part of Christopher's very public rhetorical strategy, not a function of an inability to domesticate a surly temperament. He was actually an affable and pleasant dinner companion, and fully capable of being the perfect gentleman.
Angry fundamentalist, savior from fundamentalism, nice guy... who was Christopher Hitchens really? In a New York Times review of Mortality, Hitchens's just-published posthumous book about his slow death from cancer, Christopher Buckley muses: "What discrepant parts were in him: the fierce tongue, the tender heart."

It was Buckley's review that prompted me to put Mortality on hold (now there's a great idea...). I won't sum up the book here; you'll do better to click this link and read Buckley's heartfelt appreciation. I'll just say that Mortality, like life, is short. It consists of a Foreword by Graydon Carter,who worked with Hitchens at Vanity Fair; seven essays that Hitchens wrote for that magazine; an eighth chapter of "fragmentary jottings" in the manner of Pascal's Pensées; and an Afterword by Hitchens's wife, Carol Blue. You can read the whole thing in an evening; if you're a fast reader, you can read it twice.

But why read a book about dying at all? Maybe because you're a Hitchens fan (I'm not), or because you love the way he writes (I do), or because you hope to gain wisdom (you may).  I guess I read it because mortality has been much on my mind of late. Stage four cancers, fatal strokes, hospital infections, dementia have attacked family members and friends, some in their 90s, some--like Hitchens, like me--in their 60s. I looked at mortality myself last year (and blogged about it here). I wanted to hear what Hitchens, the gentlemanly curmudgeon, had to say. I wanted to know how he felt, knowing his time was nearly up.

In chapter one, Hitchens reacts to learning he has stage four cancer (as he later notes, "the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five"):
I can't see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it's all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.
Hitchens never allows his dying, however predictable and banal, to bore his readers.

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