The publication in the current Vanity Fair of the latest instalment of Christopher Hitchens's intensely personal account of his struggle with oesophageal cancer reminds us that it was just a year ago when Hitchens first told readers, "I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my oesophagus. The advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements on such short notice."
At a time when the National Cancer Institute estimates the number of new cases of oesophageal cancer in the United States at 16,640 per year and the number of deaths at 14,500, Hitchens knew from the start that he was opening up a subject that makes everyone nervous. His terse, understated announcement of his stage-four oesophageal cancer (there is no stage five) was, however, exactly what both his admirers and critics would expect from a writer whose controversial attacks on organised religion are inseparable from his disdain for basing one's conduct on the prospect of a next world.
Responding to his own cancer by complaining that life is short and unfair would not just have seemed inconsistent. It would have seemed like cowardice.
But what has followed since Hitchens told readers of his cancer in 2010 has been the opposite of a series of stiff-upper-lip essays. Instead, over the last 12 months, Hitchens has provided an account of how to face death that is matched in contemporary literature only by French philosopher Albert Camus's 1947 masterpiece, The Plague.
Gone from Hitchens's cancer essays are the celebrity friends and self-satisfaction so central to his 2010 intellectual autobiography Hitch-22. In their place is a willingness to be open about the many tests that dying imposes.
In the US, the anticipation over when the next Hitchens cancer essay was coming has its modern parallel in the excitement JD Salinger aroused in the 1950s when his stories of the Glass family began appearing in the New Yorker after readers already knew that the central figure in the Glass family, Seymour Glass, had committed suicide.
Salinger was, however, publishing what he called a "prose home movie" about an entire family, rather than a single individual. It was only natural for his readers to want more. Hitchens, by contrast, has been a guilty pleasure. His readers can never forget that he is reporting, as he puts it, from Tumortown. Hitchens's triumph is that he has done as much as possible to relieve his readers of guilt in order to let them see that while it may not be possible to defeat stage-four cancer, it is possible – if one can avoid panic and self-pity – to live a remarkably full life while under a death sentence.
In the 24 April edition of the Observer, Hitchens's close friend, the English writer Martin Amis, produced a loving tribute to Hitchens, whom he describes as a "rebel with a silver tongue". The irony of Amis's essay, a 4,000-word paean that reads like a eulogy for the still living, is that it reflects exactly the kind of over-the-top sentimentality that Hitchens avoids in his cancer essays, which are typically under 2,000 words.
What makes Hitchens so compelling is that in an era like our own, when chemotherapy and experimental drug treatments can – all too often at self-defeating, personal cost – extend life, he has avoided allowing himself to be medicalised. Above all, he has refused the false comfort of viewing himself as a cancer combatant. "Allow me to inform you," he wrote in September 2010, "the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you."
For Hitchens, who has undergone chemotherapy, the key to living with cancer is simultaneously to acknowledge both the limits that have been imposed upon him and the joys he still finds, even when those joys can only be recalled from the embers of his past. "If Penelope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn't even notice," Hitchens has observed, with an irony that captures both his loss of sexual desire and his pleasure in thinking about sex.
It is no accident that one of the most thoughtful of Hitchens's recent essays, "Miss Manners and the Big C", is an account of the etiquette of dealing with cancer. At the heart of this essay lies Hitchens's belief that a cancer etiquette handbook "would impose duties on me as well as upon those who say too much, or too little, in an attempt to cover the inevitable awkwardness in diplomatic relations between Tumortown and its neighbours". Here, as throughout his writing, we encounter Hitchens's contention that rather than pushing us to exempt ourselves from good behaviour and clear thought, cancer reminds us how essential both are at all times.
Missing from Hitchens's latest cancer essay, "Unspoken Truths", an account of the difficulty he has come to have in speaking, are the candid pictures – often unflattering in the ravaged, hairless Hitchens they revealed – that accompanied his earlier writing. For readers who have been closely following Hitchens, the omission of pictures is worrying for the way it hints at the progress of his disease.
But the omission has another side as well. It is also a reminder that while Hitchens has asked much from friends and doctors since his cancer diagnosis, he has been equally unsparing of himself, making sure his illness never granted him powers to shock beyond those that in the past, and now, he earned through his wit and intelligence.
“The Case Against Henry Kissinger”Harpers, March 2001Hitchens’s sprawling takedown of Nixon’s secretary of state appeared in two installments in Harpers, making the definitive case that Kissinger is a war criminal.
“Assassins of the Mind”Vanity Fair, February 2009 When Iran’s Ayatollah Khameini issued a fatwa on novelist Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, it was the opening shot in a war on cultural freedom. Two decades later, the violence continues, and Muslim fundamentalists have gained a new advantage: media self-censorship.
“The Medals of His Defeats”The Atlantic, April 2002Hitchens takes the Great Man down a peg or two—and still finds that Winston Churchill was a great man.
“As American As Apple Pie”Vanity Fair, July 2006Fellatio has a long and storied history, but not until 1972—with the release of Deep Throat—did it come out, so to speak, in polite company. From the Wild West to the Wild White House, Hitchens explores the blowjob’s emergence as the nation’s signature sex act.
“Believe Me, It’s Torture”Vanity Fair, August 2008What more can be added to the debate over U.S. interrogation methods, and whether waterboarding is torture? Try firsthand experience. The author undergoes the controversial drowning technique, at the hands of men who once trained American soldiers to resist—not inflict—it.
“I Fought the Law”Vanity Fair, February 2004To protest the petty ordinances of Mayor Bloomberg’s New York, Hitchens went on a one-man crime spree: taking his feet off his bike pedals, feeding pigeons, and sitting on a milk crate, among other offenses. Why are the people of America’s most cosmopolitan city being treated like backward children?
“I’ll Be Damned”The Atlantic, March 2005Graham Greene's most fervent loyalty was to betrayal.
“On the Limits of Self-Improvement”Vanity Fair, October 2007There's an entire micro-economy based on the pursuit of betterment. Hitchens—58, full-figured, and ferocious in his consumption of cigarettes and Scotch—agreed to test its limits, starting with the Executive De-Stress Treatment at a high-end spa.
“Trial of the Will”Vanity Fair, January 2012Reviewing familiar principles and maxims in the face of mortal illness, Hitchens found one of them increasingly ridiculous: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Oh, really?
BONUS SHORT READ:
“How to Make A Decent Cup of Tea”Slate, January 2011Ignore Yoko Ono and John Lennon, and heed George Orwell's tea-making advice.