Christopher Hitchens

The Death of Christopher Hitchens

The veteran journalist's last dispatch is from his deathbed.

|

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 128 pages, $22.99

In Christopher Hitchens' final days in the hospital, one of the staff asked the journalist, "Have you met with our 'pain management' team yet?" Hitchens found the phrase startling. "Once you have heard it the wrong way," he writes, "this can seem like an echo of the torturer's practice, of showing to the victim the instruments that will be used on him."

There was a reason for Hitchens' unease. The old curmudgeon had been waterboarded before. No, it wasn't under direct orders from Dick Cheney. On his own, Hitchens had tracked down some experienced professionals, presumably fresh from the back rooms at Guantánamo, so he could experience the process directly. He wanted to report to readers of Vanity Fair just what waterboarding felt like, whether it was a legitimate tool to use against these presumed Enemies of the Republic.

"What happens, you may have been told, is a 'simulation' of the sensation of drowning," he reports in his new book, Mortality. "Wrong. What happens is that you are slowly but inexorably drowned. And if at any point you manage to evade the deadly drip of water, your torturer will know. He or she will then make a minute but effective adjustment."

In his last days, Hitchens got to experience waterboarding again, albeit of a slightly different form. This was the exquisitely deadly drip of dying over 18 months "with the banal, quotidian hospital and medical practices that remind people of state-sponsored torture." Mortality is a journal of that pain.

Hitchens had come down with cancer of the esophagus, lymph nodes, and lungs, and here we find him looking at the cancer and his pending death with a practiced, critical eye, managing all the while to win our hearts with his lack of honied sentiment, avoiding the usual soppiness that most of us call up when we or those close to us are dying.

The book takes us on the journey from June of 2010 (when Hitchens was diagnosed) to December of 2011 (when he died). What a beautiful, awful journey it was. Samuel Johnson said that "The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully." Hitchens was not being hanged, unless you mean that metaphorically, but his literate mind stayed focused and articulate. He goes into the rich detail of his body becoming a "reservoir of pain," meditates on the old wheeze that pain makes us better people, offers thoughts on whether the phrase "the war on cancer" is appropriate, and reveals that near the end he became a willing morphine junky: "How happily I measured off my day as I saw the injection being readied."

Did those 18 months turn Hitchens into some kind of a hero? "I love the imagery of struggle," he tells us. But "when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring in a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into you system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you." In less than 100 words, he not only is able to defuse the fake heroic image ("battling cancer") but manages to leave us with a delicate and elegant irony: "kindly people" delivering "a huge transparent bag of poison…a venom sack."

The volume is encapsulated by two contributions from those who may have known Hitchens best: his wife, Carol Blue, and his old editor, Graydon Carter. Blue's words are charming and wry and sad, telling of a man who was probably—I am guessing now—a pain to know intimately and to live with and to love. Despite this, her obituary is graced with a generosity, even a sense of fun, which is more than touching.

Then there is Carter. His words seem more pro forma, and they include a sentence that a good editor would have strangled in the crib. "Christopher," he tells us, "was not just brave in facing the illness that took him but brave in word and thought." I am wondering if he read Mortality before he dug up this old wheeze-bag. Right there in Hitchens' last chapter we find the elegant and direct statement: "Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can't run away from."

In college, one of my best teachers, Dr. Quinn, had us read Harry Levin's wonderful study The Question of Hamlet. Levin emphasizes the game element of Hamlet—for it is a game, although a deadly one, taking place there in the palace. But it was also, Levin insisted, wasteful. That such a person as the good prince should be forced to set a state's disorder back to rights; and that he should have to die in the process of so doing.

I thought of this waste as I was getting to the end of Mortality. Many of us fans had felt that Hitchens was sent here by the gods to try to help piece our disordered world back together again. Even when he came up with some of his weirdest theories, such as supporting the initial entry into Iraq, we excused him because he was being pure Hitchens. We never contemplated that he would leave us behind before things had come to be set to rights again.

NEXT: DNC's Hispanic Caucus Defend Obama On Immigration, Blame GOP

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Hitchens was a world class asshole. But, he was my kind of asshole. He will be missed.

    If there is a heaven ( Dont start John ) and I am fortunate enough to get there, it should be a smoke filled room with good scotch, comfortable chairs, and endless debate with the likes of Hitchens.

      1. All girl cabaret consisting of girls with angelic bodies and IQs over 140.

        I would respond with a smiley face, but I have a strict policy of not typing smiley faces.

        I am grinning. Broadly.

    1. Actually if an atheist gets into heaven, would that not be a sort of hell for him (I mean having to accept a God and all that). It would be funny to see what someone like Hitchens says if he got to heaven.

      1. As I am a solid atheist myself, that would no doubt be the subject of our first discussion.

      2. BTW….the way you put that makes it sound like you assume atheists find the notion of God repellent. I do not. I simply find it unsupportable. Given good evidence I would have no problem accepting the idea.

        1. There are different levels of atheism, someone like Dawkins does find the notion repellent. Then there are people like Shrike who find it repellent because of some deep Freudian issues.

          I don’t know how you got to the repellent thing, but I do find the reply to: “God is dead, Nietzsche” with: Nietzsche is dead, God”, to be funny.

          1. I find the notion of heaven repellent. I cannot imagine a place where I would like to be forever, although I suppose being forced to praise someone’s glory would be better than being doused in fire.

            Paraphrasing Mark Twain: Most people get bored with an hour of church on Sunday; I don’t know how they expect to endure something else like it for all eternity.

          2. That doesn’t have to do with “levels” of Atheism. Don’t confuse being atheistic with being antitheistic. They’re two separate things.

          3. How the hell do you reference this topic, in this thread, without mentioning Hitchen’s position on the topic?

            Hitchen’s regarded the idea of a Judeo-Christian God as a “Celestial Dictatorship” that would be abhorrent if it were true. This is not Freudian, it is a principled devotion to freedom even in the imaginary.

            1. “I am no longer a socialist, but I still am a Marxist”

              Yeah, he was a real freedom lover alright.

      3. An honest thoughtful man would say. “I was wrong” and be done with it.

        1. That’s my plan. The downside is that if I’m not wrong, I’ll never be able to say “I told you so.”

          It’s a lose-lose proposition.

          1. iow, pascal’s wager

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pascal‘s_Wager

        2. “An honest thoughtful man would say. “I was wrong” and be done with it.”

          That is exactly what I meant by; “Given good evidence I would have no problem accepting the idea.”

  2. 128 pages, $22.99

    Is there an e-reader edition?

    1. The hardcover is $13.79 on Amazon; the Kindle version is $12.99.

  3. Many of us fans had felt that Hitchens was sent here by the gods to try to help piece our disordered world back together again.

    But not Lorenzo. He just thinks Hitchens died for our sins.

    1. Well someone had to.

    2. Well I certainly wasn’t going to.

  4. Sounds like one heck of a party dude.

    http://www.Anon-IP.tk

  5. My former mother-in-law succumbed to lung (and breast, and brain, and liver) cancer this morning. We went and visited her in hospice yesterday afternoon. I never read enough of Hitchens to form an opinion of him, but even if he really was an asshole, I’m sorry he had to endure that.

    1. First, my condolences.

      Secondly, Hitchens was an asshole, but he did it with such aplomb that it became a sort of personal charm. I have “God is not Great” on audio book, and I’ve listened to it a couple times. He found the gods of pretty much all religions to be repugnant, likening Heaven to a celestial North Korea.

      1. First, my condolences.

        Thank you so much. The hardest part of all this for me will be explaining it to my 11-year-old daughter when she gets home from school this afternoon.

        Secondly, Hitchens was an asshole, but he did it with such aplomb that it became a sort of personal charm.

        Sounds like the Denis Leary of political pundits.

        1. I remember when my mother told me her dad had died. I was around nine years old. She was very upset, understandably. I felt strange about it. I barely knew the man, having only been around him for a few days one year when my family had visited them. I felt an obligation to be sad about it, but I really wasn’t, and it confused me. I was sad for my mom, but not for my own loss.

          I have no idea how your little one is going to receive the news, but she might surprise you.

          1. I have no idea how your little one is going to receive the news, but she might surprise you.

            This literally just dawned on me: I was my daughter’s age when my maternal grandmother died, and she died of cancer too.

            We were pretty close, and I definitely loved her, but I recall at the time that her passing didn’t affect me as much as I’d thought it would, and I remember, even at that age, being somewhat taken aback at my reaction, or lack thereof. Now I attribute it to my being a soulless libertarian sociopath.

            No, there won’t be any surprises with my daughter, I’m afraid. Her grandma had been a fixture in her life from the very beginning. We drove down to hospice yesterday so that the two of them could visit. We knew she didn’t have much time, but we were expecting her be around another week or two, that we’d be able to get in one more visit. She was pretty upset leaving the hospice yesterday, so I know this isn’t going to be easy for her at all.

      2. He found the gods of pretty much all religions to be repugnant, likening Heaven to a celestial North Korea.

        But he worshiped the political ideologies that made a corporeal North Korea reality. Hitchens was a clever shit-slinger, but nothing more. His debate method was a laundry list of logical fallacy and invective. The few, extraordinarily rare, times he happened to put together a reasonable and intellectually-consistent argument were almost by happenstance.

        And I agreed with him vis-a-vis religion.

  6. Right there in Hitchen’s last chapter we find the elegant and direct statement:

    “Hitchen’s”?

    1. Grammar Nazi

  7. I’m sorry for his death. I saw a few of his speaches on tv and thought this man is obviously well read and brilliant and even after catching him in a lie I still wanted to learn more for why would such a smart man need to lie.

  8. Here are More characteristics, novel style,varieties,and good quality low price
    http://avoo.net/ajgjk

    http://avoo.net/ajgjk

  9. His support of invading Iraq was not “weird”. Show him some respect for Christ’s sake.

  10. The volume is encapsulated by two contributions from those who may have known Hitchens best: his wife, Carol Blue, and his old editor, Graydon Carter. Blue’s words are charming and wry and sad, telling of a man who was probably?I am guessing now?a pain to know intimately and to live with and to love. Despite this, her obituary is graced with a generosity, even a sense of fun, which is more than touching.Then there is Carter. His words seem more pro forma, and they include a sentence that a good editor would have http://www.chaussuresfree.com/ strangled in the crib. “Christopher,” he tells us, “was not just brave in facing the illness that took him but brave in word and thought.” I am wondering if he read Mortality before he dug up this old wheeze-bag. Right there in Hitchens’ last chapter we find the elegant and direct statement: “Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can’t run away from.”

  11. hitchens was awesome. i loved the way he thought for himself. he got completely blackballed by the nation staff and tons of his fellow leftists for DARING to support the iraq invasion and/or not get all mealy mouthed when describing what some refer to as “islamofascists”

    he didn’t care

    he didn’t care about being on a team. he cared about what he perceived as truth

    good for him

    plus, his arguments were awesome

    i think his religion arguments were his weakest (that says nothing about whether he was right or wrong).

    hitchens and galloway together is too much awesome to handle

  12. totally what i wanted to find just what i was searching for excited with your article

  13. informative article thank you nice articles

  14. so much excellent really great your have good competence

  15. thanks a lot for the blog great articles i actually love this website

  16. following this cool website continue the good work keep writing

  17. very interesting details a round of applause for your blog post its very nice to read

  18. Actually if an atheist gets into heaven, would that not be a sort of hell for him (I mean having to accept a God and all that). It would be funny to see what someone like Hitchens says if he got to heaven.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.