Topic of Cancer

August 4, 2010 • 8:21 am

. . . is the title of Christopher Hitchens’s new Vanity Fair piece about his illness. One thing is for sure: he hasn’t lost his brutal honesty, his sense of humor, or his ability to write.

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?

h/t: John Danley

41 thoughts on “Topic of Cancer

  1. I read several blogs and (independently of this) have an idea of what is important in the intellectual world. I also realise that the USA is still fighting battles which were won (or lost, depending on one’s point of view) decades or centuries ago elsewhere). Still, why is this Hitchens guy so important that he gets so much space on your blog?

    1. Because I like him and admire him as a man and a writer. If you don’t want to read about him, go elsewhere.

    2. Perhaps, Phillip, if you would read some of Hitchens’ stuff, you would understand. Even this short article alone, “The Topic of Cancer”, should give you an idea of his importance. To be able to see things steadily, and with candour, is a gift. Few have it. One does not have to agree, but one must wrestle with it.

      1. candour? Hitchens? gimme a break, please. I mean the guy is not gone yet, but the postings here read like obituaries

        1. Well, gods see things from a god’s eye view, of course. They can afford to take cheap pot shots.

          1. cheap pot shot? I applauded CH when he denounced Kissinger’s involvement murdering fellow chileans and also aplauded him when he denounced mother Teresa satanic dealings with Haitian dictators. Both, unpopular subjects. I have commented here and elsewhere some CHs opinions. What is a cheap pot shot anyways?

            1. A cheap pot shot (at least in this case) is when you express a kind of world weary cynicism when others were simply expressing admiration and regret that someone they admire is ill. Showing it was a cheap shot in the first place, you go on to express your admiration too, and claim it as a kind of personal achievement. Gods do it all the time.

            2. GoD is a sock puppet for artikat who is also using “artkat”; we won’t have these on this website, sorry.

            3. Not beacause one is ill ones receives a waiver for lifes’ deeds. Personal achievement? to read and agree or not with someones’ ideas? By the way, the GoD surname is the name it remained in one of my pcs; artcakt or something is a mispelling in one that didnt have the nickname: no conspiracies here Dr Coyne, as it has been pointed out several times

          2. oh dear, I may say, darlings. Carnage? bore? anytime. Coming from you Ophelia: a cumpliment. quite. From mr macquack not so sure. We are all bores.

    3. I think he’s an exceptional writer (although unlike Jerry I wouldn’t compare him to Eric Blair). In this case what he writes may be pretty obvious to some, but there are many people out there who would find it a shocking revelation – why isn’t he terrified and praying to the gods? Could a person be so calm when they know they’re dying? (The answer to that is of course – his behavior is typical of many people suffering cancer and other illnesses – different folks just behave differently.) Hitchens is a very sensible writer; it’s a pity there aren’t more like him.

    4. I can only echo the comment telling you to read some of Hitchen’s other writing if the piece contemplating his own demise isn’t enough to give you an idea why so much space is given him. He will be sorely missed on the stage of reason

  2. This passage highlights what Hitchens himself has called his most important motivation – to not be boring. I heard this in a recent CSPAN BookTV interview. The reason there are so many Hitchophiles about is that he has been tremendously successful at not being boring. There are people with his writing skills, his wit, his continuous burning the candle at both ends, and his thoughtfulness. (Although most fall short of his achievements in these characteristics). But what makes Hitch Hitch is the drive to not be boring. Thank the gods that we get to not be bored by him.

  3. I confess, until recently, I was aware of Christopher Hitchens but only as somebody who makes a lot of noise via sensationalist writing. But after having read a couple of his pieces, I am beginning to be appealed to by his ‘brutal honesty’ and sense of humor. I have often found my favorite writers to be dead by the time I discovered them. In this instance, perhaps I have discovered another – this time while said writer is still alive. Here’s hoping that he will continue to cheat death a bit longer, until he can contribute his entire range, and until I have fully discovered it.

  4. I am sure something like that will happen to me one day as well. But Hitchens face illness and possibly worse knowing that he has done a lot of good in this world. That is more than many of us can claim, myself included.
    But I think it is a sad irony that this should happen just as his memoirs are coming out.

  5. Hitchens’ condition upsets me more than I would have expected. While I don’t agree with him on all his politics, I consider him a national – nay – world treasure as a writer and social critic.

    In person, he’s also as gracious and funny as can be. I was lucky enough to hang out with him at the bar with a few volunteers for the Dawkins foundation at a conference a few years ago. He’s as easy to talk to as you could imagine, and in spite of his reputation for acidity, a genuinely kind gentleman.

    I fear it’s unlikely he’s going to survive very long, and that’s extremely depressing.

  6. “I consider him a national – nay – world treasure as a writer and social critic.”

    I have to agree — he often has the uncanny knack to compel readers to think about the issues in a new light, regardless of whether or not those readers at all agree with the point of view he adopts. This ability — coupled with his uncanny knack of appearing in the right place at the right time, and of choosing his friends and enemies so as to construct a veritable rogue’s gallery of who’s who in society and politics — makes him possibly the most important journalist in contemporary prose.

  7. I was very sad when Hitchens announced his cancer to the rest of us.

    I would like to think he will make it, but I doubt it. So we have to treasure every clear, honest and plain words he has to say.

    To Phillip Helbig – you obviously have some reading to catch up on. On with it now – while the Hitch is still alive and writing.

  8. I just read the whole article by Hitchens. Truly gorgeous writing–just immensely cool, collected, and rich with imagery, wit, and intelligence.

    The photo accompanying the article shows a thinner, balder Hitchens, but what a gaze he has, his blue eyes almost transparent with his determination to be as gracious and accepting of this shit as is possible.

    I am grateful that his literary talent is able to shine still. Bemoaning reality may be banal, but to be profoundly sad at what befalls us is not. Especially if we can find the humor, no matter how ironic, how black, in it by stepping aside and realizing that it is not personal.

    1. I agree!

      Also, when it comes to slaying religion, Hitchens is tops. I love listening to him dismantle religious blowhards. One doesn’t have to agree with all his views to feel grief at the poor prognosis associated with his type of cancer.

  9. To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?


    1. Not if you have read L’etranger, where Meursault opens himslf to “the gentle indifference of the world” while waiting execution

  10. This is not greatly different from my father’s behavior while dying from cancer. He clung to life as long as he could, made a farewell visit to Yosemite, and more or less bought one of everything at the hardware store, and was not at all happy at having to leave the party early, but he wasn’t afraid at the end.

    Godlessness gives us a certain amount of fearlessness. We get one brief life and it’s mostly up to us to do with it what we want. At the end we ought all to be able to sing “Je ne regrette rien” at least somewhat sincerely.

  11. Not having to fear going to hell makes the thought of dying considerably less frightening I’m sure. The certainty of nothing is a considerable comfort. And with the cancer already metastasized his prognosis is not good.

  12. I sure hope he survives this. He’s a great writer and speaker.

    I enjoy his writings even when I think he’s completely wrong, like on the Iraq invasion.

  13. We all know that the end result will ultimately be the same. If it is not this time, then one day something else will happen. We all have the same ending.
    I just hope that this isn’t the end for Hitch this time for purely selfish reasons, I think he has much more to contribute and I would like to see him do so. Stay around for a while yet please hitch.

  14. Great article, though the prognosis must be very bad.

    The best model I’ve ever seen for “battling cancer” is an old neighbor of mine. She too had bad esophageal cancer and was given six months. She pledged to herself that if she lived another five years to her sixtieth birthday she’d give herself a huge birthday bash. And she did.

    I attended the party, thrown at the chapel of a local school. To our great surprise, the treat of this party was an operatic performance, live on stage, with many celebrated singers. Robert Honeysucker sang the finale of Don Juan being pulled down to hell. It was all just amazing.

    I hope that Hitchens gets at least another five years before being pulled down.

  15. This is very sad news for Hitchens and his family.
    Going by the details in the article it sounds like stage IV esophageal cancer, which has a five year survival rate of less than 3% and with an average life expectancy of six months from diagnosis.
    Presumably he can look forward to the best treatment available but I still wouldn’t hold out hope that he will be in the 3% (particularly considering his family history and past lifestyle).
    His passing will be a major loss to the free-thought community. His lecture on the value of free speech is still the best I have ever heard on the topic.

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