Defending Philip Larkin from his critics, Christopher Hitchens said that readers loved him because he understood everyday suffering. He mapped ‘decaying communities, old people’s homes, housing estates and clinics’ better than most social democrats. While dying is often referred to as‘going down hill’, Hitchens saw that Larkin realised that debilitation is not an easy glide to oblivion but an exhausting climb of ‘extinction’s alp’.
Hitchens’s account of his climb to extinction is Larkinesque, and not only because his sentences stay in the mind as firmly as good poetry. Hitchens maps the world of intensive care. Not without regret, he dismisses those who pretend they can soften its horrors, including perhaps his younger self. A heart-breaking final chapter contains quotations from great writers that he scrawled as material for an essay he would never live to write. As the pneumonia brought on by oesophageal cancer overwhelmed him, Hitchens recalled Larkin’s reprimand, in ‘Aubade’, of atheists who believe that stoicism will see them through:
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
‘Fair enough in one way,’ Hitchens writes. ‘Atheists ought not to be offering consolation.’ Notice that he did not write ‘false consolation’, as most of us would. Mortality is an argument against comforting cliché, among which the notion that cancer sufferers are ‘fighting’ their tumours outdoes even ‘going down hill’. Hitchens does not feel like a warrior. If only he were like a soldier in battle or a revolutionary on the barricades, he thinks. If only he were suffering for a purpose. But you cannot fight when you are ‘swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water’. Nor is one surprised to learn that Nietzsche had not experienced chronic illness when he offered his ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ for healthy men and women to quote until they learned better. As for purpose: in the best and bleakest line in the book, Hitchens reflects, ‘To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: “Why not”?’
His brio is hard to credit when you imagine Hitch struggling from his bed, his body battered by radiation treatments and chemotherapy, his voice vanishing, his hair going, and his weight collapsing, so that he can write one last time. But write he must, not least because he is now in a position to put Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s theory about five stages of grief to the test. You must know the drill. From ‘denial’ we go to ‘anger’ at our illness, to ‘bargaining’ for a few more years, to a ‘depression’ that continues until – at last – we reach the rapture of ‘acceptance’ and repeat Kübler-Ross’s formulation: ‘It’s going to be okay. I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.’ Even when he was in his prime, Hitchens would have bristled at the quasi-religious notion of “acceptance”. When he is dying, he notices that Kübler-Ross’s tripping across the stages omits the ‘gnawing sense of waste’, the powerlessness, the boredom and the pain.
Hitchens cannot avoid the most popular producer of deathly clichés – nor, given the disputes of his life, does he wish to. Hardline believers in Larkin’s ‘vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’ took to the Internet to celebrate Hitchens’s cancer as divine punishment for his impiety. More compassionate theologians offered Hitchens sincere sympathy and prayers for his redemption. They cannot have been surprised that they merely provided him with a reason to expand upon the old freethinkers’ point that a believer is an atheist about every god but his own. If Hitchens had accepted the entreaties of Catholic correspondents and announced his allegiance to Rome, his Protestant well-wishers would not have thanked him. On the other hand, if he had joined a Protestant evangelical group, ‘the followers of Rome would not think my soul was much safer than it is now, while a late-in-life decision to adhere to Judaism or Islam would inevitably lose me many prayers from both factions’.
A book on death that rejects not only false consolation but all consolation – ‘must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centred,’ he reminds himself – appears to have nothing to offer beyond the sombre pleasure of reading the last words of a great essayist who argued our age. But Hitchens wanted to live. Carol Blue, his wife, says in an affecting afterword that ‘without ever deceiving himself about his medical condition, and without ever allowing me to entertain illusions about his prospects for survival, he responded to every bit of clinical and statistical good news with a radical, childlike hope’.
The best doctors in America offered their services. Hitchens volunteered to test experimental treatments. He died far too young and with too much left to write. But if he will forgive the martial image, he also died on the front line of science. As medicine continues to find new ways to prolong life without prolonging health, many of us will endure an old age of ‘care’ that may not kill us but most assuredly will not make us stronger. Hitchens’s final worries about the overlap between medical treatment and torture, about whether it is worth keeping patients lying for years on what a grim Sidney Hook called ‘mattress graves’, are likely to be our final worries too. When his readers face them, we will be grateful that Hitchens asked questions with elegant precision that we, in all likelihood, will lackthe ability to phrase half as cogently. Even though he gives us no answers, at least he ensures that we will begin our last journey prepared. The consolations of preparedness, of knowing what we are likely to meet, will not be great in the circumstances, but as Christopher Hitchens spent his life maintaining, the consequences of ignorance are worse.