The New York Times reviews Hitchens’s final book

August 31, 2012 • 10:11 am

In today’s New York Times Christopher Buckley appraises Hitchens’s last book, Mortality (you can buy it for $13.79 on Amazon). It’s short (104 pages), and collects the 7 pieces about his cancer Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair, plus a last chapter of unpublished jottings, some of which I’ve posted before.  Here’s another:

“My two assets my pen and my voice — and it had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends, I’d been ‘straying into the arena of the unwell’ and now ‘a vulgar little tumor’ was evident. This alien can’t want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in its purpose. No real irony here, though. Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centered.”

Many of us have read the Vanity Fair pieces, and know how good—and heartbreaking—they were, but the book has two other essays:

“Mortality” comes with a fine foreword by his longtime Vanity Fair editor and friend Graydon Carter, who writes of Christopher’s “saucy fearlessness,” “great turbine of a mind” and “his sociable but unpredictable brand of anarchy that seriously touched kids in their 20s and early 30s in much the same way that Hunter S. Thompson had a generation before. . . . He did not mind landing outside the cozy cocoon of conventional liberal wisdom.”

Christopher’s devoted tigress wife, Carol Blue, contributes a — I’ve already used up my “heart-wrenching” quota — deeply moving afterword, in which she recalls the “eight-hour dinners” they hosted at their apartment in Washington, when after consuming enough booze to render the entire population of the nation’s capital insensible, Christopher would rise and deliver flawless 20-minute recitals of poetry, polemics and jokes, capping it off saying, “How good it is to be us.” The truth of that declaration was evident to all who had the good fortune to be present at those dazzling recreations. Bliss it was in those wee hours to be alive and in his company, though the next mornings were usually a bit less blissful.

“For me,” he writes in “Mortality,” “to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.”

Indeed.

Christopher Hitchens (Oct. 7, 2011) . He died on Dec. 15. Photo  byMichael Stravato for The New York Times

27 thoughts on “The New York Times reviews Hitchens’s final book

  1. I miss him very much. I loved his public speaking (and the private speaking I’ve seen (e.g. the Four Horsemen DVD)).

    But, other than god is not great I’ve not been able to enjoy his writing. Just too hifalutin’ for me. Far too dense with literary allusion, high-culture holier than thou.

    Perhaps this marks me as a cretin; but I do like plenty of “hard” reading. I don’t read much fiction. I read, on average, a book per week (in addition to full-time+ work, part time home business, a family with two children and one elderly parent).

    I find his style to be exquisitely condescending and I cannot enjoy it. (So far — I’m going to read his book on Orwell and his book on “Mother Theresa.”)

    1. I just love Hitchens literary allusions!!! I also find him intermittently overcondescending, but sometimes in hilarious ways. The book on Mother Theresa is very good.

      His best moment- talking about how the sense of transcendence conveyed by the photos from the Hubble telescope “transcended” that conveyed by religious icons.

      My favorite nasty riposte of Hitchens- when someone accused him of character assassination, he replied “I can’t assassinate your character. Your character committed suicide a long time ago”.

      His worst moment- In a debate with Chris Hedges in Berkeley 2007, he ranted nastily against Hedges for positions that Hedges simply does not hold (and refused to allow Hedges to nuance or clarify himself). Hitchens projected much of the ideas of his old nemesis George Galloway onto Hedges. (In fairness, Hedges opening remarks seemed more like a riposte to Sam Harris than to Chris Hedges). Many thought Hitchens performed brilliantly but only because they assumed he had parsed Hedges’ views correctly. He had not.

      Other worst moment- his treatment of former friend and Clinton aide Sydney Blumenthal. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sydney_Blumenthal#Blumenthal-Hitchens_Feud

      1. His worst moment- In a debate with Chris Hedges in Berkeley 2007, he ranted nastily against Hedges for positions that Hedges simply does not hold

        I find Chris Hedges pretty loathesome, not least for his attacks on “new atheists,” and I’m inclined to doubt that Hitchens misrepresented him.

        1. I disagree with at least 75% of Hedges’ attacks on New Atheists. (I read his book “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” in its entirety.)

          However, Hitchens (who was quite drunk during the debate) construed Hedges as morally condoning/approving of the actions of suicide bombers (as Hitch’s old nemesis George Galloway has really done) when the only real issue was what exactly the !*motivations*! of suicide bombers are. Hitchens claimed that Islam provided the primary main motive, while Hedges claimed Islam was a secondary “post hoc” rationalization when there were other prior motives. At no point did Hedges express moral approval of the actions of suicide bombers!!!

          At this point in the debate, Hitchens exploded “Who makes excuses for suicide bombers, who, who??” went into a raging rant. Hedges then calmly said, “I haven’t finished”. Hitchens yelled back, “You are finished, your whole career is finished!”. (I was there is person.) I may agree with Hitchens more frequently than I do with Hedges, but here Hitchens was just awful.

          A year later, Hedges appeared at a book promo in Berkeley promoting “I Don’t Believe in Atheists” and admitted that while he had been sober for several years, the night after the debate he went out and drank two bottles of wine. I retorted that that was what Hitchens had probably drunk before arriving, so he shouldn’t feel too bad.

          Style counts for just as much as substance, and regardless of my overall disagreements with Hedges, I would have to regard him as an unjust victim of Hitchens’ temper in this case.

          1. Perhaps, in in this particular incident. But I’m with Gary W here. I find Hedges often falls on the loathsome side of the equation and when picking which of the two (Hitchens or Hedges) I’d rather have writing today the choice is a no-brainer.

          2. ” . . .Hedges claimed Islam was a secondary “post hoc” rationalization when there were other prior motives.

            One hears in the news recently that Pakistan (mostly if not all male?) Muslims are enraged by a young (cognitively-impaired?) Christian girl (inadvertently?) burning one or a few pages of the Koran. We know that there are scads of other such examples. Surely Hedges does not consider these to be “ad hoc.”

            1. Agreed!!! They were specifically discussing suicide bombers. Hedges would here just wave general statements about the dark side of human nature, without acknowledging the specific genius of some religions for drawing it out and exploiting it.

              Hedges main problem is that he is a secular apocalyptist with a secular version of the notion of original sin (perhaps enhanced by his many years as a war correspondent for the New York Times), and although he does not believe in (as he puts it) an anthropomorphic deity, he still claims that religion is the “domain” of discussions about ethics.

              Hedges seems to know more about specific details and the internal diversity of Islam than Sam Harris (sic), but one wonders about his “big picture” analysis.

              One of the things that came up in the debate over the frame of mind of suicide bombers was that Hedges claimed they were in a state of (economically-motivated) deep despair, while Hitchens stated they were working in a state of (religion-motivated) exalted ecstacy. I’m no expert, but it seems like if you’re an extreme manic-depressive (as some religious people are) then both of these gentlemen could be correct up to a point.

    2. Addendum.

      Ironically, Hedges position on suicide bombers is much closer to the classical Marxism Hitchens used to espouse that Hitchen’s own position.

      Hitchens once described himself as a “very conservative Marxist”. I would describe Hedges in some ways as a very liberal Puritan. Perhaps these are two people just destined to never understand each other.

    3. “But, other than god is not great I’ve not been able to enjoy his writing. ”

      I agree with that. I bought a book of his essays and I’ve found them rather boring. I prefer clear, direct, forceful writing over artistic flourishes, which almost seem a form of masturbation.

        1. What’s wrong with masturbation? Simply this: it’s a solitary activity, and sexual pleasure is impoverished when not shared with a partner. Let us view masturbation not as a necessary evil, but as a make-do when an able and willing partner is not handy.

          1. I’ve heard and read many accounts of sexual pleasure with a partner being impoverished. I doubt your characterization is anywhere near 100% correct or even a good generalization. The most impoverished aspects of masturbation is likely caused by the guilt that is bestowed by many societies. Including yours I guess.

            There may even be some good reasoning buried deep under the taboo but, when the reasoning lines up closely with a christian position you might want to look real hard to make sure it isn’t heavily skewed.

    4. If you’re not reading fiction, you’re not doing all the right “hard” reading. Fiction is a vehicle for truths hard to express any other way. Just consider the effect Dickens’ novels had on the Victorian view of the underclass. Direct polemics against poverty wouldn’t have worked.

      Or consider some of the great twentieth-century dystopian fictions which were unhappily prescient: “Animal Farm”, “1984”, “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

      Not all fiction is light fluffy entertainment. Indeed, even Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” can be viewed as an extended meditation on the nature of evil. Of course, LotR is also entertainment, but that’s where fiction surpasses more direct forms of writing: it can communicate on multiple levels.

      1. How about science fiction, a la Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, Bova, Dick; essays a la Montaigne, Locke, Hume, Vidal, Lewis Lapham, Russell, Thoreau, Twain (versus his fiction) and others?

  2. read it in an afternoon, mostly while sitting at the bar of a brewpub i frequent. seem appropriate enough. it’s a nice capstone, a sort of final wave goodbye, even if i’d read much of the essays as they were published. the hardest thing is to close the book and have him looking deeply right at you, into you.

      1. I believe I read that alcoholic levels of drinking contribute to greater cancer and morbidity overall. Plus, smoking addiction and booze addiction are often co-morbid as are mood disorders. Mood disorders are also prevalent in creative folks.

        Shame he never got treatment. Might still be alive.

  3. I picked up Mortality in a bookshop, and laughed out loud (really) at this, and had to share it with a bookseller (I do that, they probably think I’m crazy):

    “If I convert, it will be because it is better for a believer to die than an atheist.”

    1. Yes! This is probably my favorite quote in that book.

      And for those who say that Hitchens’ literary flourishes and allusions in his writing (and speaking) were too much, that just conveys simplemindedness. Hitchens availed himself of all these because he could. I know of no other speaker today who has half the knowledge Hitchens had right at his fingertips, a knowledge he would promptly retrieve at the right moment. Hitchens could speak ad lib in 5 minutes what most of us can’t put together in writing in an hour.

  4. And as its also on the Kindle app for Australians as well, his last book resides on my iPad with his others; as well as the audio-books I have of him to sustain me.

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