In his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens wrote of wanting “to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive”: to confront mortality with the same gimlet-eyed vision he’d brought to his musings on culture, politics and religion. A diagnosis of esophageal cancer while on a book tour for the memoir forced his hand, and in a series of essays for his longtime journalistic home at Vanity Fair, he documented his crossing into the “new land” of the unwell, now assembled into his final essay collection Mortality.
With characteristic brio, intelligence and dry wit, Hitchens engages with his illness and its inevitable outcome head-on, without the consolations of religion or a belief in an afterlife. Given his reputation as an outspoken atheist, Hitchens finds himself the focus of a national prayer campaign: “what if I pulled through, and the pious faction contentedly claimed that their prayers had been answered? That would somehow be irritating.” This tone of comic paradox, quintessentially Hitchens, becomes starkly brave in this context.
These essays explore the lessons and fears of mortal illness, and how this experience radically shifts a person’s identity: “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” Ultimately, the cancer begins to deprive Hitchens of his ability to speak, prompting some of the book’s most moving passages. “To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice,” he acknowledges, and when he thinks of what he wants most to wrest from the hands of death, it is his voice—“the freedom of speech”—that he longs to hold on to.
The literature of illness is marked by the struggle to translate pain into language; in Virginia Woolf’s words, the ill writer must take “his pain in one hand” and a “lump of pure sound in the other” and “crush” them together to create the new idiom of his or her experience. In Mortality, Hitchens has achieved just that, applying all his life’s talents to the challenge of giving voice to the approach of death. These essays are brave and fitting final words from a writer at the end of his journey.