Christopher Hitchens On Suffering, Beliefs And Dying The outspoken atheist, gleeful provocateur and writer who has skewered everyone from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in June. He tells NPR's Melissa Block he wishes he was suffering for a "good cause" or something "larger than just mere survival."
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Christopher Hitchens On Suffering, Beliefs And Dying

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Christopher Hitchens On Suffering, Beliefs And Dying

Christopher Hitchens On Suffering, Beliefs And Dying

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

He is an outspoken atheist, a gleeful provocateur, a writer who has skewered everyone from Bill Clinton to Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa. Christopher Hitchens, one-time lion of the intellectual left, a war correspondent known for his sharp wit and legendary for a well-traveled life of boozing and carousing. In June, Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus as he was on book tour for his memoir, "Hitch 22."

The cancer has metastasized, spread to his lymph nodes. He's been undergoing chemotherapy, which has left him bald, thin and nauseated. All of this, he's been chronicling in Vanity Fair magazine. His journey into what he calls Tumortown.

I went to visit Christopher Hitchens at his big, airy apartment here in Washington. It's filled with books, as you'd expect. A copy of Dr. Sherwin Nuland's book, "How We Die," was open on a coffee table.

Hitchens talks about his illness with a sharp sense of limited time, also with candor and humor.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Writer): When I meet people who say - which they do all the time - I must just tell you, my great aunt had cancer of the elbow, and the doctors gave her 10 seconds to live, but last I heard, she was climbing Mount Everest and so forth, I switch off quite early because I said if this story isn't about someone with metastasized esophageal cancer, I'm not that interested. If you can tell me something about that, I'm passionately interested. But all of the cheer-up stories you get have, I'm afraid, made me an esophageal cancer snob.

BLOCK: On the afternoon I visited, Hitchens told me he was not having a terribly good day.

Mr. HITCHENS: Today isn't a particularly good day. No. Chemotherapy isn't good for you. I mean, so when you feel bad, as I am feeling now, you think, well, that's a good thing because it is supposed to be poison. And if it's making the tumor feel this queasy, then I'm okay with it.

BLOCK: What is a good day as compared with a bad day?

(Soundbite of coughing)

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, a good day is one where I can not just read a book but write a review of it. And maybe later today, I'll be able to do that. I get, for some reason, stronger when the sun starts to go down. Dusk is a good time for me. I'm crepuscular.

BLOCK: And what are doctors telling you right now?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, that there's a good chance of buying some time, getting a stay, a remission. No doctor will say they think they can totally destroy the tumor. But I don't blame them. I'm sure if I was a physician, I wouldn't do that even if I thought I could. And I prefer to lowball it myself, because then the only surprise I can get is a reasonably pleasant one.

BLOCK: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HITCHENS: But I can just tell you that if you take the absolute aggregate of people who've got what I've got, only 5 percent of us live for five years.

BLOCK: You have written that you have real problems with the whole cancer as battle...


BLOCK: ...and your body as a battleground sort of metaphor. It is very common in talking about people, specifically with cancer. I wonder if you've come up with a different metaphor, one that you think is true.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I feel a certain solidarity with other people who've got it now - of a kind I didn't before. And solidarity is an attitude of resistance, I suppose, or it should be. So to that extent, yes. But what I feel is that this is making war on me. I'm the one being battled, and it has the advantage. It's taken the initiative.

When I go to the clinic next and sit with a tube in my arm and watch the poison actually go in, I'm in an attitude of abject passivity, and there's nothing - it doesn't feel like fighting at all. It just feels like submitting.

BLOCK: What's better, do you think, what's a better metaphor?

Mr. HITCHENS: In fact, one of my sort of occasional silly thoughts is: I wish I was suffering in a good cause - I mean, a cause larger than myself or larger than just the mere issue of survival. I mean, if you're in pain and being tortured and you felt it was helping the liberation of humanity, then you could bear it better, I think. I just feel this is partly random, and partly the sort of cancer that gets people like me at about this age.

BLOCK: So if it's not a battle or a war - it's waging war on you, you'd say.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, it's part of life is what it is. I mean, it's - and it's a dress rehearsal for an important episode of life, which is how you wind it up and how you agree to face that, which is something you're aware of even when you're in apparently good health.

BLOCK: You wrote something and it really struck me. It was this. You said: To the dumb question, why me? The cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Have you really never stopped to think, though, why me? It seems a very human reaction.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, the dumb question was bound to occur. You can't not have it occur to you. But not for very long. It isn't a pointful question. I mean, I was decided on that for a long time before, and I would be very unlikely to change my mind.

I mean, I'm here as a product of process of evolution, which doesn't make very many exceptions. And which rates life relatively cheaply. I mean, most human beings who've ever been born would have been dead long before they reached my age. And I would think in most of the rest of the world that - well, I know it -is still true.

So to be relatively healthy till 62 is to have been dealt a pretty good hand by the cosmos, which doesn't know I'm here and won't notice when I'm gone. So that seemed the only properly stoic attitude to take.

BLOCK: There has been a whole movement of prayer around you, around Christopher Hitchens, the atheist.


BLOCK: There was an Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day. What do you make of that?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, the three reasons why people would do it - apart from affection for me, which, of course, I shouldn't be churlish about - of which there's been quite a lot from readers I've never met, which has meant a great deal to me, made me feel I haven't wasted the years I have had.

So it's either that or it's related to it, or it is a simple wish that I get better - well, again, I don't want to quarrel with it - or a wish that I reconcile myself with the supernatural or the divine, which is a large part of it.

I mean, I wrote back to some of the people - some of them in holy orders or running religious organizations. I said, when you say you'll pray for me, do you mind if I ask, what for? And a number of them said, quite honestly, not really for your recovery, but that you see the error of your ways.

BLOCK: That you find God.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yeah. Now, I find that not as easy to be graceful about, because though it's put in a nice way, it's part of a phenomenon that I've always thought of as very disgusting, which is the belief of the religious - which they keep expressing and have done for centuries - that surely now you're dying, your fears will overcome your reason.

I hope I don't have to underline what's horrible about that. There's an element of blackmail to it. And an element also of tremendous insecurity, I think, on their part. I mean, they don't seem to feel they'd win the argument so easily with someone who is mentally and physically strong. By the way, I think they're right.

BLOCK: Christopher Hitchens told me as he thinks about the rest of his life, he thinks about the books he'd still like to write, time with his three children and how he should spend it. And, typically, Hitchens thinks of the obituaries he'd like to write.

Mr. HITCHENS: Robert Mugabe. Joseph Ratzinger. Henry Kissinger. It does gash me to think that people like that would outlive me, I have to say - really does.

BLOCK: And he mentions other things he'd like to live to see: The end of the Kim Jong-il regime in North Korea, Osama bin Laden on trial, the World Trade Center rebuilt.

Christopher Hitchens measuring his own time against the world.

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