Sunday, 20 March 2011

On Death Part II: The Hitch


A funny thing happened after I wrote about death. I forgot and was then reminded again yesterday that one of my heroes is dying. I have written at length about why Christopher Hitchens is one of my favourite authors. He is concise, yet deadly with his words. His prose is a weapon that vanquishes his enemies. The only enemy he cannot beat is cancer. On his book tour for Hitch 22 late last year it was discovered that he had stage 4 esophageal cancer, which is inoperable.

In true Hitchens form he decided to announce this through one of his Vanity Fair columns. I defy anyone to read it and not be emotionally touched by his words. Hitchens documents going through the ‘five stages of grief' with remarkable candor:

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring 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 your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water….

These are my first raw reactions to being stricken. I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice. My heart and blood pressure and many other registers are now strong again: indeed, it occurs to me that if I didn’t have such a stout constitution I might have led a much healthier life thus far. Against me is the blind, emotionless alien, cheered on by some who have long wished me ill. But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if—as my father invariably said—I am spared.
That article was published in September and if that announcement were not made the casual observer would not notice he was sick. He has continued to write for Vanity Fair and for Slate to a high standard. In fact, just two months ago he wrote what I regard as one of his best pieces deriding the historical inaccuracies of The King's Speech. Hitchens has remained in his acidic top form as the cancer eats away at him.

So it was quite a shock to see Hitchens on the American version of 60 Minutes last week looking gaunt, and well... physically beaten. It only struck me then, that by the end of this year Hitchens words could be no more. That would be the greatest tragedy in modern literature. We need more people like Hitchens, whose arrogance is only matched by his intellect and the ability to meld these characteristics into the written word.

No one close to me has died, nor has death touched me on any profound level. The sadness I feel in contemplating the demise of the greatest author of his generation is perhaps the closest I have come so far. I guess you could say in that respect I’m extremely lucky.

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