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”?’ Continue reading