The Last Word

Cover00Jeff Sharlet on Christopher Hitchens's Mortality (via Corey Robin), in Bookforum:

In the book’s best essay, a literal consideration of “freedom of speech” following the partial loss of his voice—“like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow”—Hitchens writes of the “awful fact” that friends are coerced by cancer into listening to his attempts at communication “sympathetically.” And yet Hitchens had always been a sentimentalist despite himself—a quality that is no small part of his popularity with readers who think themselves too reasonable for emotional appeals. Hitchens’s sentimentalism, in fact, allowed him at his best to detect the false sweetening of public ideas—and that is also the case here, in the more private world of Tumortown. His most sustained argument is with Nietzsche’s oft-quoted maxim on being made stronger by that which doesn’t kill you, but the sharpest rebuke of Mortality is reserved for Pausch’s enormously popular farewell video made before his own death from cancer, a catalogue of clichés “so sugary you may need an insulin shot to withstand it.” Hitchens proposes the criminalization of such saccharine: “It ought to be an offense to be excruciating and unfunny in circumstances where your audience is almost morally obliged to enthuse.”

Of course, that’s also the dilemma of Mortality. “My grandmother was diagnosed with terminal melanoma of the G-spot,” he writes, mimicking the cancer tales imposed on him by ostensible well-wishers, “but she hung in there . . . and the last postcard we had was from her at the top of Mount Everest.” Funny, sort of, but more like stand-up shtick than the wit that made Hitchens famous. His arguments with the pious, too, have been whittled down, but not sharpened, by suffering. Prayer is silly, he proposes, because if god (no capitalization here) is in fact almighty, he is “enjoined or thanked to do what he was going to do anyway.” Noting the Jewish woman’s prayer thanking god “for creating her ‘as she is,’” he observes that for a true divine “the achievement would seem rather a slight one.”

One needn’t be religious to grasp that Hitchens is bickering with a straw man’s notion of prayer (or, as the case may be, a straw woman’s), a crudely utilitarian conception of the appeal to divine power that seems pointedly deaf to the nuances of meaning contained within even the most rote devotions. Almost all prayer contains at least the bones of a story about how the prayerful supplicant understands suffering—“or misunderstands,” one can imagine one of Hitchens’s own devotees quipping. Perhaps; but the distinction misses a larger truth to which Hitchens himself returns again and again throughout Mortality: To understand suffering is not to master it, or to defeat it. Whether one understands chemotherapy or not makes it no more or less painful.