I don’t know what I’m preparing for. My whole life I’ve considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they’ll be useful to me in the future. I’m beginning to doubt this proposition.
Here’s an example. For the last ten years, I’ve kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I’m looking for are potential epigraphs.
You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer’s work.
If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: “A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth’s many memorable passages on the writer’s life, like:
No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.
Or, taking a different tack:
It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed.
In some cases, I’d read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I’d be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn’t have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that’s because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I’s to we’s.) Then, on the very next page, this: “There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: “I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: “Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.” That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who’s trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn’t have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents.
This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can’t write something simply because you’ve found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can’t stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, “Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead.” The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now.
Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction.
Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don’t use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book’s intentions.
To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I’d like to discuss a few salient examples. But I’m going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like “The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time,” and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place.
A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth’s Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big”:
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf’s a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, “more brave than me:more blond than you.”
Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth’s case, it was Cummings’s moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel.
Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.
The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish.
The theme of Egan’s novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust’s monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan’s choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time.
James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads:
There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco’s specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco’s usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn’t need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he’s received, are pretty good.
Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote:
It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.
–– Thelonious Monk
First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We’re afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon’s working with high theme here, but he’s coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist.
His so-called “beach read,” Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It’s a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel:
Under the paving-stones, the beach!
–– Graffito, Paris, May 1968
A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders “how many people he knew had been caught out” in the fog or “were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep.” He continues:
Someday…there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.
The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”
For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon’s earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc’s complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a “beach read.”
Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this:
Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.
–– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors
Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens’s final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens’s friend Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.
Though I’m not sure how “ordinary” Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis.
But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon’s recent Telegraph Avenue:
Call me Ishmael.
––Ishmael Reed, probably
This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I’ve come across in recent years. “Call me Ishmael” is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon’s novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon’s most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America’s definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It’s just another day for Archy and Nat, the book’s main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon’s Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it’s certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear.
Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel’s meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness.
And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick’s famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn’t merely the creation of new work; it’s the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what’s to come in the future.
Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I’d been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I’ve become a literary critic, I’ve mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I’ve used them to characterize a writer’s style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn’t understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: “What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
Could anyone keep up with the Hitch? Was there another writer on the planet who could churn out a few essays, dispatch a book review, quell a bloated pastor, give a lecture in New York, get beat up by fascists in Beirut, and still find the time (and stamina) to empty a bottle or two — before getting down to do some serious work?
I ask because in practically every tribute printed in the days and weeks after Hitchens’s death last year, a prodigiously long lunch in the late writer’s company was dimly recalled, and the attendant week-long hangover spoken of in hushed tones of corporeal humility. To wit, Hitchens’s friend Christopher Buckley:
One of our lunches, at Café Milano, the Rick’s Café of Washington, began at 1 P.M., and ended at 11:30 P.M. At about nine o’clock (though my memory is somewhat hazy), he said, “Should we order more food?” I somehow crawled home, where I remained under medical supervision for several weeks, packed in ice with a morphine drip. Christopher probably went home that night and wrote a biography of Orwell. His stamina was as epic as his erudition and wit.
The poet Craig Raine:
I stayed with him in Washington when he was married to Eleni Meleagrou. I was reading at the Library of Congress. As Eleni and I were having tea, Christopher came in, fresh from California, reeking of fags and booze. He had been debating with Alexander Cockburn. “Drink?” I said I never drank before a reading. “Gosh,” he said and poured himself a big brandy and Campari. For the next two hours, he put it away. Then we went to the Library of Congress. Afterwards we went to several bars. By 1 a.m. I was speechless with drink and Hitch was in spate…I don’t remember going to bed. I got up at 7 and found my way to the bathroom, wary as a seal, in case my headache exploded. Hitch was in his study, at his desk, a glass of brandy and Campari to hand, a cigarette immolating itself in the ashtray. He was writing a piece.
And finally the writer Benjamin Kunkel:
“An orange juice,” I said to Hitchens in the Old Town Bar, where when I arrived he’d been amiably baiting an occasional cartoonist for The New Republic. “I’m just getting over the flu.”
“Fuck off!” he replied — he later wrote a paean to the expression for Slate — and ordered me a Johnny Walker Black […]
I emerged from the Old Town Bar in a barely ambulatory state, Hitchens and I embraced each other on a street corner like parting lovers, and we never saw each other again. I asked him once if I could use his name in a pitch I wrote as a young freelancer on the make, and he said by all means: “May you flourish!”
You get the picture: a lunch with the Hitch was an unforgettable honor for which, if you couldn’t keep up (and who could?), you paid the price. This was his public image: the long-lunching orator, the scotch-swilling scrivener, the fag-smoking provocateur. After paying Hitchens a visit in Washington D.C. in 2006, the Danish journalist Martin Krasnik confessed to feeling almost physically in love with his host. I know the feeling: I met Hitchens at the 2010 PEN World Voices Festival. Filling in for Sherman Alexie, Hitchens had jetted up to New York from D.C. to deliver the Arthur Miller Lecture in Cooper Union’s Great Hall (the same venue where, two years later, I was lucky enough to attend Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for him). After a typically engaging talk, and an equally entertaining on-stage conversation with Salman Rushdie, Hitchens milled about among fans and friends off-stage. I caught him there and introduced myself. “It’s an honor to meet you,” I quivered. “If you say so,” he quipped. I went on to explain that I was from Denmark and wanted to thank him for his very vocal support of the Danish cartoonists back in 2006. He leaned in and put his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t let them fuck you around,” he said, before wandering off.
As an orator and rhetorician, the Hitch was notorious. Martin Amis recalls that when he was in Cyprus to be best man at Hitchens’s first wedding in 1980, he would spend his mornings decamped by the pool, whereas Hitchens would often show up in a suit and announce his immediate intention of going to the bar to find someone to argue with. “Ideally my day will include at least five arguments,” he told Martin Krasnik. It was a compulsion, as the proliferation of Hitchens’s appearances on political talk shows and news hours in the last decade of his life showed. There he was — debunking the inflated achievements of crooks like Jerry Falwell, picking fights with pious men of faith, or calling for the arrest and trial of war criminals like Henry Kissinger. (Once, as Kissinger was delivering a lecture in Pittsburgh, Hitchens used a fellow journalist’s press pass to enter an auditorium and heckle the audience with cries of “Toads! You’re all toads who’ve come to listen to a toad!” before getting himself thrown out by security guards.)
Despite these shenanigans, Hitchens was inspired and formed by his descent, in the early 1970s, on literary London, where he met a glittering generation of fellow English writers — novelists, essayists, poets, playwrights, journalists — with whom he formed lifelong friendships based on mutual admiration and a shared brew of private jokes and word games. It was there in the pubs and bars and editorial offices that Hitchens first got a whiff of his career as a political man of letters. As he tells it in Hitch-22:
If ever anyone was “hooked,” it was me. The network of streets and lanes and squares roughly between Blackfriars Bridge and Ludgate Circus and Theobalds Road and Covent Garden had me in thrall. So they do still, in their way. This was the district that stretched from the Marx Memorial Library on Clerkwell Green to the British Museum Reading Room where the old boy had done his best work. Extending itself a bit to the north and colonizing Charlotte Street up to Fitzroy Square, it became the area where Anthony Powell had located some of his more louche scenes of pre- and postwar literary interpretation. Looping around itself and doubling back via Shaftesbury Avenue, the neighborhood might be said to “take in” Soho, with its little grid of streets and alleys, containing the offices of Private Eye and New Left Review, and then Gerrard Street, now “Chinatown,” in which Dr. Johnson’s “Club” of Burke, Gibbon, Reynolds, and Garrick had met (and near the corner of which I was later to take my last glimpse of my mother). In these and other purlieus was manufactured the journalistic small-arms ammunition that was to be hurled against the gigantic (but inaccurate and poorly commanded) batteries of Fleet Street’s Tory newspaper establishment, located farther east as a sort of bulwark to the City of London.
Since his death, people have wondered why Hitchens never wrote a novel. After all, he was a great lover of fiction and poetry who for many years reviewed books regularly for The Atlantic; and as the passage above illustrates (though I’d like to quibble with the word “purlieus”), his command of prose was something worth envying. But the consensus among his friends — the novelists Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in particular — was that sitting alone by yourself conjuring up imaginary people and events was not something that suited Hitchens’s temperament: he wanted to be near the action, on the front lines, fighting in the streets. They might have added that a novelist, in order to just sit there all day, must be tirelessly self-conscious. The interior life (the novelist feels) is where the real action is; everything outside of that, everything beyond the fictional, is somehow not enough. As Martin Amis puts it in his memoir Experience, real life is “thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it’s always the same beginning; and the same ending…”
Christopher Hitchens was not this kind of writer; he rarely sallied forth into the realm of the personal. Even his memoir Hitch-22, with the exception of the moving and painful portraits of his parents, is less a memoir than it is a tribute to his vocation, and to the many people he met pursuing it (he was a great teller of anecdotes). Put it like this: the Hitch was not a subject of urgent interest to the Hitch. Everything else was. In the foreword to Unacknowledged Legislation, his formidable and essential collection of essays on “Writers in the Public Sphere,” he claimed for himself Orwell’s desire to “make political writing into an art.” And just to illustrate his success in this regard, let’s take a gander at the final paragraph of his book on Orwell, Why Orwell Matters (2002):
If it is true that le style, c’est l’homme (a proposition which the admirers of M. Claude Simon must devoutly hope to be false) then what we have in the person of George Orwell is by no means the ‘saint’ mentioned by V. S. Pritchett and Anthony Powell. At best it could be asserted, even by an atheist admirer, that he took some of the supposedly Christian virtues and showed how they could be ‘lived’ without piety or religious belief. It may also be hoped that, to adapt the words of Auden on the death of Yeats, Time itself deals kindly with those who live by and for language. Auden added that Time ‘with this strange excuse’ would even ‘pardon Kipling and his views’. Orwell’s ‘views’ have been largely vindicated by Time, so he need not seek any pardon on that score. But what he illustrates, by his commitment to language as the partner of truth, is that ‘views’ do not really count; that it matters not what you think, but how you think; and that politics are relatively unimportant, while principles have a way of enduring, as do the few irreducible individuals who maintain allegiance to them.
The critic James Wood read this passage aloud at Vanity Fair’s Memorial Service for Hitchens, and justified his selection by claiming that, like all good criticism, this bit was really about the critic himself.
Detractors of Christopher Hitchens might want to keep that passage in mind as they go about their business of reproaching him for his “views” on, for instance, the war in Iraq. You could disagree with those views, like his close friends Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie did, but the principle of anti-totalitarianism on which those views were founded seem to me worth a good deal of respect, and even admiration. In any case, a man who wrote so well and so thoughtfully, and with such Hazlittean “gusto” — his words, in writing and in speech, had that “double relish” — cannot easily be reduced to the summation of his political views, which often contradicted themselves anyway. James Wood wrote of Orwell not long ago that “contradictions are what make writers interesting. Consistency is for cooking.” The same applies to the Hitch: as Martin Amis pointed out in his eulogy at the Memorial Service, Hitchens was so argumentative, was such an auto-contrarian, that it often seemed as though the only person he thought it worthwhile to argue with was himself.
The diagnosis of esophageal cancer in June 2010 forced self-consciousness on Hitchens. The product, Mortality, a slim but courageous volume of dispatches from “the land of malady” originally published in Vanity Fair, came about reluctantly. In a moving afterword, Carol Blue, Hitchens’s widow, tells us that “the first time Christopher went public and wrote about his illness for Vanity Fair, he was ambivalent about it. He was intent on protecting our family’s privacy. He was living the topic and he didn’t want it to become all-encompassing, he didn’t want to be defined by it. He wanted to think and write in a sphere apart from sickness.”
The delightfully Hitch-like solution is to treat his illness as he would any other subject: with verbal flourish and twanging wit. “I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation,” he writes of his diagnosis, “taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady.” And though this new land is “quite welcoming in its way,” it has its predictable lacunae of comfort: “the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited.”
True to character, and as though his superb mental acuity were impervious to incorrigible bodily decline (made throat-cloggingly visible by the book’s author photo), Hitchens artfully cleaves his way through thickets of illness-related delusion. He dispenses with self-deceptions and “facile maxims” shortly after his diagnosis (one of his last articles was a tear-up of Nietzsche’s claim that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”) and, like J.P. Jacobsen’s Niels Lyhne — a novel Hitchens admired — refuses the false comfort of religious belief to the very end: “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
Best of all are the jibes and swings that illuminate the many ironies of the illness business. While at a hospital in Texas, for instance, Hitchens persuades the chaplain’s department that it is “slightly idiotic not to boast of a thirteenth floor but instead to skip from twelve to fourteen.” He even proposes a “cancer-etiquette” book after a tiresome encounter at a book-signing (a female reader, mistakenly assuming that Hitchens is interested in her cousin’s diagnosis with cancer, frustrates the author and the many other people in line to get their books signed). “I have hardly been reticent about my own malady,” Hitchens allows. “But nor do I walk around sporting a huge lapel button that reads, ASK ME ABOUT STAGE FOUR METASTISIZED ESOPHAGEAL CANCER, AND ONLY THAT.”
There is so much to admire in this short volume that, paradoxically, you occasionally forget it was composed en route to death — so coolly does Hitchens face the approach of his own end. I for one find such acceptance of death incomprehensible (when I have a cold, I lay sniveling and whining in the fetal position for a week, calling piteously for refills of Nyquil and whisky), and stubbornly share Nabokov’s urge to “take my rebellion outside and picket nature.” But to think seriously or at length about one’s death — well, as Philip Larkin put it: “it rages out / in furnace-fear when we are caught without / People or drink.”
Larkin also said that courage is no good, yet the moral import of Mortality is precisely the courage displayed by Christopher Hitchens as he fought, not against the cancer (he knew he was dying: “the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five”), but to keep writing for as long as it was mentally and physically possible. Being brave lets no one off the grave — but Mortality, as an act of writing, is an act of defiance.
Defiant unto death: how suitably Hitch.
Image Credit: Wikipedia