128 pp., $22.99
"I don't have a body," Christopher Hitchens wrote, "I am a body." He made the point twice in this slim volume, which gives us a glimpse into what it's like to lose everything. We look on as the inimitable tongue, the convincing voice, and the fingers that wrote so much that was brilliant, funny and poisonous give way to conquering, imperial cancer. The poison brought to bear against it could not succeed.
When the first dread pain arrived, Hitchens' body was engaged in a book tour. He had recently published a memoir in which he wrote of wanting to face his end with eyes wide open—in a way, to challenge and shake his fist at it, as he had challenged presidents, despots, celebrities, Henry Kissinger, and, less understandably, Mother Teresa. In these pages he revises that theme, speaking more humbly of the sorts of things "citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile." He admits to having taunted the Reaper, trashing his body with strong drink and smoking. The writer of the foreword says that Hitchens was "a man of insatiable appetite," as if that were endearing. Hitchens himself felt regret, a "gnawing sense of waste."
With his eyes he had read stupid Internet posts by "Christians" rejoicing at the trimming of a loud, public atheist. With his cerebrum he had contemplated the cruelty of a universe in which infants contract leukemia. Such things fortified his resistance to the idea that, while we are dust, we are also spirit. But his outstretched hand had sometimes been grasped by people of grace, intelligence and excellence. "I have saved the best of the faithful until the last," Hitchens writes, changing course at the end of a generally dismissive passage. "Dr. Francis Collins"—leading geneticist, author of The Language of God—"is one of the greatest living Americans." Hitchens says that Collins never suggested prayer in the course of their conversations, but it seems that the doctor's witness suggested something Hitchens might have preferred not to confront so late in a short life given to the sharp rejection of the idea that the body may not be everything.
But here it is: your body turns from friend to foe … gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach … random sores and ulcers, on the tongue or in the mouth …. And you lose weight but the cancer isn't interested in eating your flab. A fan sent a note suggesting that Hitchens should have his brain frozen "so that its cortex could be appreciated by posterity."
There's time in these pages for mild penis jokes, but Hitchens' children are mentioned indirectly and only in brief passing. A dying Randy Pausch, whose Last Lecture encouraged us enjoy the life that's ours while we have it, is derided. Of mercy, there is none.
A "gnawing sense of waste," Hitchens wrote. "I feel my personality and identity dissolving." He notes the misery he feels as he watches old videos of himself in fierce action—debating, denouncing, making light of. The body goes and, with it, everything. The book's empty and raven-black final page conveys an unmistakable message.
The reviewer thinks back some years to an evening in an East Coast city, carrying with him Hitchens' just-bought No One Left to Lie To (1999). The reviewer despised Bill Clinton. Hitchens hated him more and had the literary skill to prove it. Moving from café to café, laughing aloud at Hitchens' devastations, I finished the text in a few hours. It seemed like a good time.
But the picture seems tawdry now. Skillful malice mistaken for the prophetic voice; conspiratorial cynicism misapprehended as insight. Refusal.
"I don't have a body, I am a body," Hitchens wrote. "Yet [I] consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if an exception would be made in my case."
I wonder why. I wish Hitchens could have told us.
Preston Jones teaches at John Brown University in Arkansas and also, from time to time, at Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala.
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