Most of us have heard anecdotes about public figures who had read their own premature obituaries. It happened to Mark Twain, Alfred Nobel, Ernest Hemingway, and others. But for Christopher Hitchens, a magazine notice that referred to him as “the late Christopher Hitchens” was sadly prescient and gave him cause to reflect. His quotes on life and death are thoughtful and poignant.
In the prologue to his memoirs, Hitch 22, entitled ‘Prologue with Premonitions’, Hitchens recalls reading a magazine notice about an upcoming exhibition at London’s National Portrait Gallery to honour the work of photographer Angela Gorgas. One photograph caught his attention. It was entitled ‘Martin Amis and friends’ and qualified by the following sentence:
“Martin was literary editor of the New Statesman, working with the late Christopher Hitchens and Julian Barnes, who was married to Pat Kavanagh, Martin’s then literary agent.”
Hitchens remarked as follows:
“So there it is in cold print, the plain unadorned phrase that will one day become unarguably true. It is not given to everyone to read of his own death, let alone when announced in passing in such a matter-of-fact way.”
“The clear awareness of having been born into a losing struggle need not lead one into despair. I do not especially like the idea that one day I shall be tapped on the shoulder and informed, not that the party is over but that it is most assuredly going on—only henceforth in my absence.”
While promoting his memoirs in 2010, Hitchens was diagnosed with a cancer that would kill him.
Selected quotes from Hitch 22 (2010)
The prologue and early chapters of Hitch 22 are shaped by Hitchens’ reflections on mortality. His efforts to explain and codify types of suicides reflect his torment about his mother, Yvonne’s death and, true to form, Hitchens’ never misses an opportunity to take a swipe at religion.
Initial reports of his mother’s death in Athens indicated she had been slain by a lover who had then taken his own life. However, when Hitchens’ arrived in Athens to take care of the formalities, he was confronted by irrefutable proof that his mother had taken her own life in a suicide pact. Even worse, he learned from hotel records that she had tried to call him five times on the night of her death. Hitchens’ felt that if he had been home to take his mothers call, he would have been able to change her mind. He carried this guilt to his grave.
“She may not have needed or wanted to die, but she needed and wanted someone who did need and did want to die.”
“I was myself rather astounded, when dealing with the Anglican chaplain at the Protestant cemetery in Athens (which was the only resting place consistent with her wishes), to find that this epoch had not quite ended. The sheep-faced Reverend didn’t really want to perform his office at all. He muttered a bit about the difficulty of suicides being interred in consecrated ground, and he may have had something to say about my mother having been taken in adultery . . . At any rate I shoved some money in his direction and he became sulkily compliant as the priesthood generally does.”
“There are fourteen suicides in eight works of Shakespeare, according to Giles Romilly Fedden’s study of the question, and these include the deliberate and ostensibly noble ones of Romeo and Juliet and of Othello. It’s of interest that only Hamlet’s darling Ophelia, whose death at her own hands is not strictly intentional, is the object of condemnation by the clergy.”
“The same monotheistic religions that condemn suicide by individuals have a tendency to exalt and overpraise self-destruction by those who kill themselves (and others) with a hymn or a prayer on their lips.”
I once spoke at a memorial meeting for an altruistic suicide: the Czech student Jan Palach, who set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square in Prague to defy the Russian invaders of his country. But since then I have had every chance to become sickened by the very idea of “martyrdom.”
A stoic death
Hitchens makes clear his respect for his father, a British Naval Commander, and the other men and women who survived the deprivations of World War I and The Great Depression and then opposed totalitarian aggression in World War II.
His father’s war was dangerous and arduous. Commander Eric Hitchens, serving aboard HMS Jamaica, had escorted convoys to Russia through Nazi controlled waters.
Hitchens describes his father as a dour and stoic man of Calvinist origins who was a poor match for his mother who longed for gaiety and social engagement.
The Commander, as Hitchens referred to his father, was diagnosed with Oesophageal cancer in 1987. It was the same cancer that would claim Christopher Hitchens’ life in 2011.
“Commander Hitchens had once assured me, after a visit to my long-bedridden grandfather, that he would not make a protracted business of dying, and he was as good as his word. He died in 1987, aged 78. Having never spent a day in bed in his life, he went very speedily from diagnosis of an inoperable cancer in his oesophagus to a hammer-blow heart attack that gave his hostess, his sister Ena, barely time to rush to his side.”
“I was able to see my father in his last repose before the screwing-on of the lid, and later to do for him what he had once done for me, and carry him on my shoulders. We laid the coffin in the chancel of the D-Day chapel: my brother had made all the liturgical and musical arrangements with a clear eye to tradition and dignity.”
Life and death in journalism
Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, invited Hitchens to become a regular columnist in 1992. Hitchens was impressively remunerated but expected to “write about, or to undergo, anything”.
In the service of journalism, Hitchens underwent waterboarding and bikini waxing. But he also found himself in life-threatening situations in war zones. He wrote:
“On the most recent occasions when I have faced either torture or death, the circumstances were either dubious or avoidable.”
On one occasion in Beirut, Hitchens came across a fascist propaganda poster and felt the need to add some corrections. In so doing, he fell foul of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (SSNP). He paid dearly:
“I got a kicking and a smacking when the gang found its courage, and suffered torn and bloody clothes and broken sunglasses (and was just very slightly mortified when Jonathan [Foreman] wrote later how awful it had been to see this happening to a sixty-year-old man), but in the end there were enough bystanders around to make further horror difficult for the SSNP to bring off.”
When Hitchens found out he had the same dentist as Vice President Dick Cheney he reflected as follows:
“Finally weaned from analgesics and helpless puking, I was able to imagine—actually I obviously mean was quite unable to imagine—what my death would have been like if I had remained stranded in western Afghanistan and, like most people in the history of our primate species, been killed by my own teeth.”
Hitchens’ comments about the journalistic approach to human tragedies are cringeworthy:
“The bereaved generally liked to offer a cup of tea, he [a veteran journalist] said, out of immemorial working-class courtesy. Thus, when extracting the maximum of tragedy from the relatives of a recent victim—be it of crime or fire or plane crash—it was always important to take along a colleague. ‘He offers to help them out in the kitchen while they put the kettle on, and that gives you a nice time to slip into the front room and collar the family photos from off the mantelpiece.’ Lest I seem to pretend to have been shocked by this, I freely admit that the unofficial motto of our foreign correspondent’s desk was, when setting off to some scene of mass graves and riven societies, ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?”’
On the impending death of Edward Said, Palestinian-American academic and activist:
“It was almost as if the intimation of mortality had emancipated him from the everyday requirements of party-mindedness and tribal loyalty. (I have sometimes noticed in other people that a clear-eyed sense of impending extinction can have a paradoxically liberating effect, as in: at least I don’t have to do that anymore.)”
On friendship and the meaning of life:
“What do you most value in your friends? Their continued existence.”
“It could be that all existence is a pointless joke, but it is not in fact possible to live one’s everyday life as if this were so.”
“A life that partakes even a little of friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music, and the chance to take part in battles for the liberation of others cannot be called ‘meaningless’…”
“Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called ‘entheos’, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.“
Quotes from Mortality (2012)
Mortality comprises a series of essays Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair concerning his struggle with cancer. The final chapter consists of previously unpublished, unfinished jottings on the matter. Mortality was published posthumously in 2012.
“I don’t have a body, I am a body.”
“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”
“It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory”
“I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent solider is the very last one that will occur to you.”
“Until you have done something for humanity,” wrote the great American educator Horace Mann, “you should be ashamed to die.”
“I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
Christopher Hitchens with Salman Rushdie at 92Y (2010)
Salmon Rushdie was a close friend of Christopher Hitchens’. When they sat down to discuss Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch 22, on 8th June 2010, Rushdie had no idea that Hitchens had been told he had cancer that very day.
Circumstances concerning the suicide of Hitchens’ mother were discussed. Hitchens said he would never find closure in the matter, nor did he wish too:
“Some wounds should stay fresh. I don’t want them to be healed. I’ll take them to my own grave.”
Quotes from ‘Unspoken Truths’ – Vanity Fair (2011)
Unspoken Truths was published in the June 2011 edition of Vanity Fair, a year after Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer and six months before his death.
“My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends. I can’t eat or drink for pleasure anymore, so when they offer to come it’s only for the blessed chance to talk.”
“On the less good days, I feel like that wooden-legged piglet belonging to a sadistically sentimental family that could bear to eat him only a chunk at a time. Except that cancer isn’t so… considerate.”
“Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I “was” my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me.”
“Like so many of life’s varieties of experience, the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word.”
Quotes from ‘Topic of Cancer’ – Vanity Fair (2010)
‘Topic of Cancer’ is an introspective essay by Hitchens published in the August 2011, edition of Vanity Fair following his cancer diagnosis. In it, he describes his journey “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”
The new land is welcoming but has shortcomings: the cuisine is poor, there is not talk of sex, the humour is feeble and repetitive, and the lingua franca is dull and confusing.
“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.”
“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.”
Quotes from Charlie Rose interview (2010)
“I think all the time I’ve felt life is a wager and that I was probably getting more out of leading a Bohemian existence as a writer than I would have if I didn’t. So, writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that – or prolongs, enhances and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation – is worth it to me, sure. So, I was knowingly taking the risk.”
“Anger, I can’t muster . . . really, because it’s necessary people die. It would be terrible if people did not. People have to die in large numbers every day, so as to make room.”
Quotes from Jeremy Paxman interview (2010)
“Do I fear death? No. I’m not afraid of being dead, that’s to say there’s nothing to be afraid of. I won’t know I’m dead, would be my strong conviction. And if I find that I’m alive in any way at all, well, that’ll be a pleasant surprise. I quite like surprises. But I strongly take leave to doubt it. I mean, one can’t live without fear, it’s a question of what is your attitude towards fear? I’m afraid of a sordid death. I’m afraid that, that I will die in an ugly or squalid way, and cancer can be very vigorous in that respect.”
Remembering Christopher Hitchens – Charlie Rose (2012)
On 13th April 2012, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis – close friends of Christopher Hitchens – sat down with Charlie Rose to reminisce about Hitchens’ life.
At the end of the discussion, Rose asked James Fenton to write the first line of Hitchens’ obituary. Fenton said: “He was the spirit of 68 . . . the revolutionary spirit.”
Christopher Hitchens: Mini-Bio
Christopher Eric Hitchens, born on 13th April 1949 in Portsmouth, England, was an English-American intellectual, social and political critic, polemic writer and public speaker.
Hitchens’ father, Eric Hitchens, was a British naval commander who lived with his family in Malta, during Christopher’s formative years. Christopher’s mother, Yvonne, was Jewish, a fact she kept from him. After uncovering this family secret in his later life, Hitchens began to identify himself as both a secular Jew and anti-theist. He publicly denounced all religions, including his own, as false and damaging.
Hitchens attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and gained notoriety as a leading figure of the political left. He belonged to a post-Trotskyist groupuscule that was influenced by the philosophies of Rosa Luxemburg.
Hitchens joined the Labour Party in 1965 but was expelled in 1967 for decrying Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s support for the Vietnam war.
His career in journalism commenced when he became a correspondent for International Socialism, a magazine published by the International Socialists which later evolved into the British Socialist Workers Party.
Hitchens was employed by the New Statesman in 1973. As part of a work transfer deal with The Nation, he moved to New York in 1981 where he wrote damning criticisms of U.S. foreign policy in Central and South America and developed a hatred for Henry Kissinger that increased with the passing time. By 1992, Hitchens was also a regular contributor to Vanity Fair.
In the U.S., Hitchens is defined as much by debate as he is by his writing. Following the publication of two of his most controversial works, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (1995) and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) Hitchens undertook national tours inviting high-profile critics to debate him about the substance of his books.
He also engaged in debates about the claims he’d made in No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (1999) and The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001).
The writings of George Orwell had a profound influence on Hitchens and prompted him to write his cautionary book, Why Orwell Matters (2002).
Hitchens fell out of favour with many on the political left over his support for the Iraq War (2003 – 2017). As a consequence, he renounced all political affiliations but remained a lifelong liberal.
Christopher Hitchens died of oesophagal cancer on 15th December 2011 in Houston, Texas. Although taken early, he had written or collaborated on more than thirty books.
Hitchens C. Hitch-22. New York: Twelve; 2010.
Christopher Hitchens with Salman Rushdie: Hitch 22. 92Y (June 8, 2010). 92Y, New York (June 8, 2010) [online] Available at: https://www.92y.org/archives/christopher-hitchens-with-salman-rushdie-hitch-22.aspx. Published 2010. Accessed May 9, 2021.
Christopher Hitchens Interview. Charlie Rose (August 13, 2010). Charlie Rose LLC. [online] Available at: https://charlierose.com/videos/15257. Published 2010. Accessed May 8, 2021.
Hitchens C. TOPIC OF CANCER | Vanity Fair | August 2010. Vanity Fair | The Complete Archive. https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2010/09/hitchens-201009. Published 2010. Accessed May 8, 2021.
BBC TV. Paxman interviews Christopher Hitchens. Newsnight, 26/11/2010. Bbc.co.uk. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIVEsa2g4ag. Published 2010. Accessed May 10, 2021.
Hitchens C. UNSPOKEN TRUTHS | Vanity Fair | June 2011. Vanity Fair | The Complete Archive. https://archive.vanityfair.com/article/2011/6/unspoken-truths. Published 2011. Accessed May 8, 2021.
Remembering Christopher Hitchens. Charlie Rose (April 13, 2012). Charlie Rose LLC. [online] Available at: https://charlierose.com/videos/14685. Published 2012. Accessed May 9, 2021.