“Mortal combat”: Illness as cliché


"In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist."

Christopher Hitchens usually summers in the sunny, mild climate of our own beautiful Palo Alto — not, obviously, this year.  He writes about his chemotherapy in “Topic of Cancer,” in Vanity Fair here.

In Susan Sontag‘s 1977 Illness as Metaphor, she writes: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”

Here is Hitchens’s version of the 911 call that launched a very different kind of journey during his book tour:

“Any movement, however slight, required forethought and planning. It took strenuous effort for me to cross the room of my New York hotel and summon the emergency services. They arrived with great dispatch and behaved with immense courtesy and professionalism. I had the time to wonder why they needed so many boots and helmets and so much heavy backup equipment, but now that I view the scene in retrospect I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”

Hitchens continues Sontag’s metaphor in his piece, with an unexpected detour for Edna St. Vincent Millay (of all people).  Hitchens at his best when his observations are sharp, pungent, and iconoclastic, even when his offensive observations land like a pie in the face (and any with an IQ over 73 will meet something that offends).  Oddly, it’s only in his prejudices that he descends to conventionality.  So cancer has found him, ironically, in good hands — his bracing attempts to come to grips with sudden illness will have a familiar echo for anyone who has suffered a forced deportation to this unwished-for valley.

With his illness, he has entered the land of cliché, and for a writer that is mortal combat indeed.  As someone who survived a terminal cancer diagnosis nearly a decade ago, I appreciate the vividness of his own internal experience contrasted with the shopworn expectations and conventions of the “well people” (for example, I recall their sentimentality, as if I had crossed the final border into terminal self-pity when I was merely struggling to breathe or swallow).  I also recognize his startled confrontation with the barbaric practices that are the very best modern medicine has to offer — but that remain outrageous assaults on the body and its sense of well-being.  One views as a stranger one’s own, equally barbaric will to live:

“Myself, 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 soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

Among the clichés one confronts are the strictures of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whose constructs are often seen as ironclad, rather than commonplace patterns. Hitchens of course has a few clichés of his own:  I rather doubt his chest hair was once “the toast of two continents” — in fact, I’d rather not think about it at all.

His piece is well worth the read.

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One Response to ““Mortal combat”: Illness as cliché”

  1. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    Good that you are bringing the Vanity Fair Topic of Cancer article by Hitchens to your audience. I ran across the article yesterday because Catholics who love the Pope are also buzzing about it because of this part: ” Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? ” Damian Thompson, editor of Telegraph blogs at telegraph.co.uk.co saw a preview of what he called “Christopher Hitchens’s very unpleasant piece about his cancer – unpleasant not just because Hitchens describes in detail the invasion of his body by a monstrous tumour, but also because it contains a despicable slur against the Pope.”

    The version Thompson saw called Kissinger and the Pope both criminals. When the word criminal was replaced with villain, Thompson later wondered if Vanity Fair was afraid Kissinger would sue.

    To the accusation in the preview, Damian Thompson wrote this reply: ” This should scarcely need saying, but Pope Benedict XVI is not a criminal: neither Hitchens nor anyone else has produced evidence that he covered up the crimes of paedophile priests. On the contrary, he sought to tighten up canonical procedures against sex abusers. There were plenty of cover-ups; it’s just that the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith didn’t organise them and, indeed, fought battles with some of those prelates who did.

    “So this is a nasty piece of character assassination, sadly typical of a brilliant journalist who, once he’s made up his mind about somebody, shuts out information that might force him to tone down the savagery of his rhetoric. And it’s not rendered any less nasty by the fact that “Hitch” is – by his own account – probably dying. But it does make the whole thing desperately sad.”

    The bravado in the chest hair boast is just an attempt at humor, no?

    I find it most heartening that Catholics are fervently praying for Hitchens, and I also find it interesting that it astounds him, as he wrote at the end of the piece: “But on the side of my continued life is a group of brilliant and selfless physicians plus an astonishing number of prayer groups. On both of these I hope to write next time if—as my father invariably said—I am spared.”