Monday, July 15, 2013

Double Review: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Well, kiddies, today we'll be munching on Mortality:

Christopher Hitchens
Series: N/A
Genre: Memoir, Religion, Death, Philosophy
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Word Rating: Ugh, I can't even.
On Goodreads

Yum! See the horrible irony is that the author died from esophageal cancer. I just realized this. I am terrible.

Okay, you may not be inclined to digest literature quite as literally as I am, but we've all got our methods. Though mine is probably a few galaxies (and a left turn) away from what is considered right... but my madness and fervent hunger for new books and ideas has delivered to me the works of Christopher Hitchens, (not) arguably the most influencing contrarian of the past few decades. Known as one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism, this secular badass spent a great deal of his life combating all superstitions, false images (you should see what he's about Winston Churchill and the not-so Motherly Teresa), and the like. And of course this means that he had, before his own, spoken and written on death, the domain so historically claimed by the believers and their temples because of what is debated to come after. And that's where cancer rears in its ugly head:
Suddenly aware of his impending end, Hitchens rushed to pen his regards on the matter down. Thus, Mortality, one of the most powerful pieces of work I've ever read.
Enough with the lead in, let's get down to the guts of exactly why the above statement rings any sort of truth.
I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little. (Hitchens, 1)
In these opening lines, Hitchens is wrought with pain and sincerity. Anyone familiar with his work will probably immediately catch that his usual flair for a higher level of writing is dismissed altogether. In dying, he is brutally to the point. This reveals itself again and again in the piece, and it allows a much deeper connection to the lessons and insight the book has to offer. For instance:
I had time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation,taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady. (2)
Such lines award us with a very key term in the midst of a resigned view: retrospect. Retrospection is very key in this piece, because Hitchens quickly develops a pattern of what he saw and felt and thought before and after his illness, and how dying reveals another world entirely (Or rather, a "country"). But even in doing so he keeps his humor, though it can be on the darker side of comedy . . . but I'll leave that for you to discover.

There is also a sense of foreboding in the piece because the writer knows he is to die and you know the writer is to die and that he knows he is to die, and Hitchens does very well to capitalize on that (not deliberately), which serves to vary the piece so it doesn't strictly become a philosophical discourse, and in a way, becomes somewhat of an epilogue to his memoir. This sense of foreboding, originating from bits like "I hope to write next time if . . . I am spared" (9), continues throughout the piece and acts as suspense, and shows that even in such a terrible state, the author continues to desire crafting a good story.

All of this culminates in a philosophical book about death that you can't help but keep reading, because it's so damn right. Honestly, "Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an . . . amputation of part of the personality" (48) keeps me up at night. And that's what this book, and the author, is about: keeping you up at night, questioning what you know about life and dying.

- Marlon

Noor's Mortality Review
Rating: 4.5
Word Rating: Elegantly articulated

How does one maintain dignity in death? Perhaps this question should have been asked to Christopher Hitchens, who, in Mortality, handles death with elegance and sophistication. Like Marlon said, he is straightforward and doesn’t beat around the bush when he writes about his inevitable death. He accepts his fate and this memoir sure shows it. The combination of his bluntness and acceptance create writing that is powerful and beautiful. He tackled his cancer with wit, which was displayed all throughout this piece His quips about his disease and his sarcastic remarks to the people he dealt with were clever and genuinely funny, not just remarks that people laughed at because they felt bad that he had cancer. When a person responds with “I seem to have cancer today” to the standard “How are you doing today?” question, you know they haven’t lost their metaphorical voice (even when they are sure to lose their physical one). And this voice was precisely what Hitchens’ book discussed. He wrote simply,
“What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”
Throughout the memoir, he emphasizes that the thought of losing his voice is the most upsetting part of his cancer, to him. This thought propelled the piece, and in every word he wrote, the audience can see a growing concern, a hint of desperation masked behind the sophistication. The raw truth of everything he wrote shined through in every carefully penned word. His admittance of his deterioration also added to his appearance of mental strength.
My favorite part of this book was the very end. The last chapter of the book is a few pages of fragments and blurbs, intended to be part of the book, but left unfinished and unedited due to the unfortunate circumstance of his death. These jottings and notes are so real, so raw that t adds another dimension to Hitchens. Some of the fragments, like:
“Tragedy? Wrong word: Hegel versus the Greeks.”
seem to be short notes that were intended to be something bigger, and it leaves me wondering exactly what that short sentence could have become, if expanded upon. And then there are short exclamations, come filled with dark humor, some with contempt, such as:
“I’m not fighting or battling cancer – it’s fighting me.”
“Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can’t run away from.”
There are reports of his symptoms, giving an image of physical weakness, there are some thoughtful musings. As the book nears its end, the blurbs get shorter and shorter, until they are simply phrases, like
“Not even a race for a cure…”
“Paperwork the curse of Tumortown”
“'Gradual disclosure' not yet a problem for me”
And then the final jotting is a quote from Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. Christopher Hitchens’s piece is ended with the following words.
“Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”
These words are powerful and thought-provoking and the reader realizes that this message has been scattered throughout the book. Christopher Hitchens’s book was ended with the words of someone else, just as his life was ended but his message is immortalized.

- Noor

How do you deal with death?
Let us know in the comments!

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