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Christopher Hitchens’ wit prevails– even in the face of cancer

July 1, 2010

Christopher Hitchens’ tour in support of his memoir, Hitch 22, had been going splendidly, with liberal dollops of coverage on both sides of the Atlantic. So when he suddenly canceled the remaining stops on Tuesday, only two causes seemed likely: Illness or rehab.

Illness it is: Hitchens has esophogeal cancer.

And yet, even in announcing that he has come down with a mortal illness, Hitchens’ dry wit remains in evidence:

“I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus,” Hitchens writes at VF Daily, the website for Vanity Fair, where he’s been a contributing editor since 1992. “This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.”

This advice seems persuasive to me — Oh, Chris, such understatement reminds us why we love you, even those of us who have become exasperated by your unseemly lurch from lefty champion to neocon warmonger here in the latter years of your illustrious career.

Hitchens further compromised himself, at least in my eyes, with the intolerance (and, it must be said, shocking lack of intellectual rigor) of his 2007 attack on religion, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

And yet for all that, Hitchens remains that rare thing, a journalist who matters, one whose prose is worth reading even if what it says seems wrong headed in the most obvious way.  For one take on why Hitchens changed his spots to neo-con “tub-thumper,” and in the process came to “sound a little unhinged,”  see Ian Buruma’s  Hitch 22 review at The New York Review of Books.

Most of the articles and blog posts about Hitchens’ illness on the Internet today link it — in prim and Puritanical fashion — to his fondness for cigarettes and booze.

“Hitchens is a notorious smoker and drinker who has made no secret of his vices,” sniffs the Oregonian, while the Los Angeles Times notes that Hitchens “is as well-known for the trademark drink and cigarette in his hand as for his provocative views.” The Washington Post referrs to Hitchens as “the notorious chain-smoker.” Tsk, tsk.

True, smoking and drinking are very bad for you, and it seems insane that anyone would continue to smoke at this late date. But the implication that a smoker like Hitchens is getting what he deserves is uncharitable in the extreme. We all, sooner or later, come to a bad end, and none of us deserve it.

Predictably, faith-based commentators are steepling their fingers and pledging to pray for Hitchens to recover — or, as Rod Dreher puts it at his beliefnet blog: “I hope you will join me in praying for his healing, body and soul”

And just as predictably Hitchens’ godless followers respond with some variation of, “We don’t need your stinkin’ prayers!”, one sample of which you can find from “Paul” in the comments section of Dreher’s blog. In fact, an interesting exchange develops between Dreher and his readers, both religious and atheist.

No longer an atheist yet not quite a believer, I can only say I’m now sorrier than ever that I missed Hitchens’ tour stop in Miami in mid-June, when he addressed a packed house at Temple Judea in Coral Gables. I’ve heard that Hitchens was in fine form. For a first-hand account, check out a blog post by my friend Tom Swick, the outstanding travel writer.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    July 1, 2010 1:54 pm

    Chemo is by all accounts brutal but I have two relatives who are alive and free of illness today because they underwent the full barrage. I hope Hitchens responds well to treatment and writes about his close encounter with mortality and the medical-industrial complex.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 1, 2010 2:04 pm

      Same here. I have a relative who survived esophogeal cancer, but it took surgery and two rounds of chemo. I find it ominous that surgery is not mentioned in connection with Hitchens’ illness. If they’re starting chemotherapy before — or without — surgery, I think that can only be ominous. I hope I’m wrong.

      • January 10, 2011 1:24 am

        I do not necessarily agree with that. When my father underwent chemo therapy and all it seemed to do was drain him of what little energy and life he had left. He did not survive [as most with colon cancer do not]. If I even contract cancer I am heading to the woods and hiking till I either die or get tired of it, to enjoy, rather than suffer in my last days as I watched my father do. I hope this man survives as his writing has meant so much to me and to millions of others around the world. I thank him with all of my humanity for what he has done and striving to tell truths when all else have told lies or halve-truths.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    July 1, 2010 3:03 pm

    Best wishes to Hitchens. And I agree with Sean. Hitches could use the experience as some great subject material for his writing.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 1, 2010 9:51 pm

      And no doubt with that dry wit.

  3. July 1, 2010 6:08 pm

    Exasperating and snooty in his many reviews for The Atlantic, Hitch is nevertheless one of the most interesting writers and explainers of what is good and what it bad in contemporary literature. His flip to the right caught me off guard and I haven’t been able to forgive him for being so damn smart and yet so damn wrong. I just came back from giving a eulogy for a dear friend named Carolyn Hansrude who fought a 10 year battle with breast cancer. She lived life large, rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars and didn’t have a mean bone in her body. Cancer is an epidemic looking over all our shoulders. Best luck to Hitchens. May he have better luck than Carolyn did.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 1, 2010 9:55 pm

      “So damn smart and yet so damn wrong” — as usual, Duff, you have put your finger on it exactly. Cancer does not always win — I have several friends who are long-term survivors. I disagree with Hitchens not only on matters of fact, but also style — the intolerance of his attacks on religion disgusted me. But I still read him, and hope he too survives a long time.

  4. Karma IsABitch permalink
    July 8, 2010 1:26 am

    Hopefully he suffers as painfully as the hundredss of thousands of Iraqi children he helped condemn to their deaths.

    What an arrogant, drunken, smoking, fudge packing, ahole!!!!!!!! Suffer you piece of crap!!

    • Bubba permalink
      July 8, 2010 6:26 pm


      It is good – for at least my own understanding – to see how the tolerant Left thinks of someone who intellectually came to the conclusion that Iraq was needed and moral. I don’t even think Hitchens is an intellectual giant, but you reduce yourself to a screaming tick with your screed. [Plus the fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who would have died at the hands of Sadam are alive due to Allied forces doesn’t even make it into your puerile calculus.]

      ‘Tis also good to see how you invoke an “ought” even though you cannot possibly believe in any binding moral law. (A. Right/Wrong exist (e.g., your “Iraq War is wrong”). B. This entails a moral law. C. Moral laws don’t self create. D. Thus, a moral law entails a Moral Law Giver. Wrap your head around that for 30 seconds if you dare. )

      The Left, and you prove with your words that you are not an exception, always claims relativism/subjectivism as tolerant and enlightened until, that is, someone does something “wrong” to them, and then the “ought not” raises its self-defeating, small minded head. Scratch a relativist and you find a Moralist.

  5. robin lindsay permalink
    September 7, 2010 10:53 am

    hey there,

    i am a hitchens fan myself, and took the time to write a piece on him for my blog. perhaps you might find it of more than common interest.

  6. danny permalink
    December 17, 2011 12:18 am

    SICK MAN WHO WROTE THIOS….Hopefully he suffers as painfully as the hundredss of thousands of Iraqi children he helped condemn to their deaths.

    What an arrogant, drunken, smoking, fudge packing, ahole!!!!!!!! Suffer you piece of crap!!

  7. danny permalink
    December 17, 2011 12:19 am

    Christopher Hitches is dead at 62. Or is he?

    by Dan Bloom

    When world hero artist Christopher Hitchens died recently, the global
    television screens and newspaper headlines proclaimed “Christopher
    Hitchens, dead at 62.”

    But the way we report deaths on TV and in print papers seems
    out-dated, in some way. Why give in to the commercial death business
    (as well as the religious death business) and even
    use words like death and dies? Why don’t we begin to use a better word
    as a marker to mark a man or a woman’s three score and ten here on

    This blogger made a list of some words that might fit better and he
    wonders what you, dear reader, think of them. Perhaps you could add
    some words or suggestions in
    the comments section here (below) — and not ”six feet under” but
    just a few centimeters below.

    So instead of the TV announcers and newspaper headline writers saying
    or writing “Christopher Hitchens, dead at 62,” how about saying
    something in the future as an alternative such as: “Christopher
    Hitchens, transformed at 62″ – ‘Christopher Hitchens, morphed at 62″ –
    ‘Christopher Hitchens, matrixed at 62″ – ‘Christopher Hitchens,
    returned at 62″ – ‘Christopher Hitchens, retrieved at 62″ –
    ‘Christopher Hitchens, reunioned at 62″– ‘Christopher Hitchens,
    realigned at 62″ — ‘Christopher Hitchens, hitched at 62″
    –‘Christopher Hitchens, sent off at 62″ — ‘Christopher Hitchens,
    reintegrated at 62″ — ‘Christopher Hitchens, sayonara’d at 62″ —
    ‘Christopher Hitchens, atomized at 62″ — ‘Christopher Hitchens,
    starlit at 62″ — ‘Christopher Hitchens, energized at 62″ —
    ‘Christopher Hitchens, archived at 62″ — ‘Christopher Hitchens,
    completed at 62″ — ‘Christopher Hitchens, finalized at 62″ —
    ‘Christopher Hitchens, regurgitated at 62.”

    A friend in Canada suggests “Christopher Hitchens, composted at 62.”
    And she also suggests “Christopher Hitchens, angelized at 62″ (adding
    that Hitch probably would not have liked that one so much, but that he
    might have seen the sense of humor involved in such a term).

    What other words might fit in the future? Suggestions welcome, pro and con.

    And remember this, or at least, this blogger does: ”Death be not
    proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for thou art
    not so!”


  1. Farewell essay: On the love of paper and ink and glue, and words on a printed page. « Open Page

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