05 Aug 2010

Hitchens and Cancer

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Christopher Hitchens shares his current near-death experience.

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Hitch writes wittily and one admires his courage, but I must say I do find myself a bit puzzled by the eagerness of professional literati like Hitchens not merely to share, but to avidly harvest, process, package, and market such close-to-the-bone experiences as a personal fatal illness.

My own natural inclination is to regard broad areas of personal life and experience, particularly this kind, as completely private. I would no more desire to tell an audience of strangers what I thought when I learned I had a fatal condition than I would care to disrobe in public.

It seems certain to me that my attitude must be a residual feature of my primitive, ordinary American, working class origins. Nothing could be more characteristic of membership in the Ivy League, elite world of high achievement, celebrity, and success than rushing, as quickly as possible following any notable experience, to the keyboard and hurrying one’s account of myself and whatever into print.

All experience was once considered useful for the forging of the human character. Today, all experience is simply more fodder for publication.

True members of the community of fashion are always marketing themselves. One can picture Hitchens arguing with Charon about not being permitted to retain his Blackberry and the lack of Wifi access from the River Styx. There would be such a huge opportunity for a major feature on exactly what a chap sees, and everything he experiences, as he is drawn irresistibly in the direction of that bright white light. How frustrating it would be!

Let’s hope Hitchens beats the odds and can go on writing and self-revelating for a long time yet.

3 Feedbacks on "Hitchens and Cancer"

Victor N. Lea

Given Mr. Hitchens’ public stance on smoking and drinking, it seems to me that his critics upon hearing of his affliction would have made much of his quotes on the issues. With his piece, Hitchens has made it difficult, except for the coldest of his foes, to pile on during this difficult time.

I admire the courage he has shown. And he reminds all of us, no matter our station or the privilege we think we occupy, no person is above the human condition.


I admire his courage, but I wonder how much of it is bravado. Most of us, believers or atheists, cherish unconscious fantasies of the cavalry coming to the rescue of the beleaguered hero at the last minute. Just as virtue consists in what you do when no one is looking, real bravery consists in facing that terrible fear when we realize that nobody is going to rescue us. I am praying for Christopher that he will feel God reaching out to him, as He has always been, that he will reach back, and find strength to face this awful illness.

Both my parents died horribly (NHS) of cancer, with one difference. My sister and I had succeeded at last (after years of being laughed at) in bringing our mother to faith. She prayed, read her Bible, took communion from the parish priest and was greatly strengthened through her afflictions and comforted thru her last months. She would pray for hours for other people when she was suffering. She died after my father, but calmly, sure of a place with God and reunion with my father.

By contrast, my father was convinced that everything ended upon death. As his death approached, he was not only wracked by physical pain (which he was stoic about) but by agony at the thought of being forever parted from my mother after 52 years together.


As to privacy, Hitchens is a preacher, whether he would welcome the label or not. One uses one’s experience in preaching.

I sympathize with him as I am similarly prone to write about things personal. But I hadn’t thought of it as a hallmark of privilege. Rather, I think that those of us with fancy educations and many privileges whose families are royally screwed up turn to writing to set the record straight. To say that the Emperor has no clothes. In a sense one writes for one’s life. A few, like Hitchens, are brilliant enough to spark debate and make others think in the process.

Having said all that, I have still taken great offense over the years at much that he has written about Christianity. I suspect that my irritation stems from knowing myself too stupid to win an argument with him. How I wish some brilliant Jesuit would minister to him and lead him home to God


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