Thank Ceiling Cat that Christopher Hitchens is still among us, and still writing. His latest piece at Vanity Fair, “Trial of the will,” an obvious play on Leni Riefenstahl’s movie. His purpose is to dispel the myth that suffering is empowering and ennobling:
Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
Hitchens, whose health has declined but not his prose, graphically describes the sufferings he’s endured in hopes of a cure. It’s ineffably sad; he has so much more to say!
I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.
Hitch won’t be with us much longer, I fear—though I hope otherwise—and although he may not consider his sufferings empowering to him, I think they are to us. If nothing else, it shows us how we should meet our end: fighting, but with grace.