On Death and Dying (with Christopher Hitchens)

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and
And in short, I was afraid.

T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I spend a lot of time thinking about death. From an early age: death beds, obsessions with film and paleontology – both vessels of what once was but is no longer – and hitching to the back of philosophy, one giant death rattle. I was introduced to Maurice Blanchot.

I REMEMBER a young man – a man still young – prevented from dying by death itself – and perhaps the error of injustice…

No doubt what then began for the young man was the torment of injustice. No more ecstasy; the feeling that he was only living because, even in the eyes of the Russians, he belonged to a noble class.

This was war: life for some, for others, the cruelty of assassination.

There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate: freed from life? the infinite opening up? Neither happiness, nor unhappiness. Nor the absence of fear and perhaps already the step beyond…As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. “I am alive. No, you are dead.”

Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death

This, his most autobiographical writing, marks an origin: he provided a way into reading and writing that led him to embrace the fragment. From here he went on to heavily deconstruct his own poetics in search of a certain truth, a certain understanding of what it was to become.

Things end. They change. We transition from one moment to another.

I’m not so naïve as to say I am not afraid of death – it’s a pillar whose absence leads the end of our accounting.

More than the absence of knowing, I’m afraid for what’s left behind: my family’s place, the mess they will inevitably have to clean up, the record keeping, collecting of work both released and unreleased, the decision to discard all that lies at the bottom of my melting pot.

The inability to control one’s end, to know when, where and how is disorienting. Much of our lives are spent laboring the illusion that we handle our days; avoiding the pure chance that allows our plans to actually take shape. Running around, afraid, and yet, and yet.

There remained, however, at the moment when the shooting was no longer but to come, the feeling of lightness that I would not know how to translate…

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

Robert Burns, To a Mouse


Recently I finished Christopher Hitchens final work Mortality. A collection of writing, from a man who made his life its path, that exhibits his attempted acceptance of the unintelligible, uncontrollable aspects of dying.

Quoting Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams,

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

Hitchens doesn’t want to live forever, but he hoped for a little more. A bit more time to set things askew, convey the insights his experiences allowed. The diagnosis of esophageal cancer is a constant point of irony. For a man who made his life with his voice, both written and spoken, it would have to be something to derail it all. His writing attempts a last conveyance. A final justification for living.

Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die.

– Horace Mann,
as quoted by Hitchens

The last few pages of Hitchens’ text become fragmentary. Bursts of thought arise from lucid moments collected for reading, but as to their order of writing, nothing is clear. The brain is set afire with the text he wished to write, no longer allowed to take the thoughts to the night cap: a sad ending to a sad chronicle. He wished to do so much and spent the unknowable attempting to put it down. The ending glimpses death, exhibits the last glimmers of a mind set free.

He did not plan to die when he did. Location as set was not in the cards. But, it’s done. In his passing we are left with final bursts of light from a man who spent his life attempting humanity.

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. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

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