“Godless In Tumorville”: The Telegraph Sits Down With Christopher Hitchens To Talk About Cancer, His Children, And The Mortal Sin Of Despair

by • March 27, 2011 • Books, Christopher Hitchens, Health, Philosophy, SpiritualityComments (0)2323

Christopher Hitchens, arguably the world’s most important living public intellectual, is in the midst of a painful uphill battle against espophageal cancer.  He was diagnosed in June 2010 while he was in the thick of a press tour to promote his memoir, Hitch 22. Since that diagnosis, Hitchens has undergone a wretched series of chemotherapy treatments (which almost killed him in January) all the while maintaining his powerful impetus for writing. He readily admits how much his will to live is directly proportional to his writing prowess, and in a recent 60 Minutes interview he confessed how terrified he is of what would happen if that impetus was compromised.  Having this in the back of my mind made it all the more unsettling last week when the editors of Hitchens’ weekly column at Slate announced for the very first time in Chris’s long relationship with the magazine: “Christopher Hitchens is unwell. Chris is undergoing radiation treatment and wasn’t able to write this week’s column on his usual schedule. He hopes to file soon.”

There is a 5% survival rate for esophageal cancer, but I’m hoping Chris is admitted into this elite percentile.  If anything could improve his chances it most certainly would be his passion for life and the exchange of ideas, thought, and his incomparable skills of reason. The Telegraph was fortunate enough to sit down with Hitchens at his home in Washington D.C. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

His cancer, as he puts it starkly, is stage four. “And the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.” His doctors have been understandably wary of making any firm prognosis, although he has been told that of 1,000 men of his age and in his condition, half could expect to be dead within a year. But there is a very real ray of hope. A few weeks after his diagnosis he was asked if he would like to be a guinea pig in the new science of genome sequencing as a possible cure for cancer. Samples were taken from healthy tissue and from his tumour and on each of them six billion DNA matches were run, in order to catalogue any mutations found in the cancerous cells. He was warned to have no expectations. But in the New Year came the good news that there is a genetic mutation expressed by the tumour for which there already exists a drug. Having been on varying types and doses of chemotherapy, he is now on a regime of one chemo pill a day.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 provided the defining moment. In an interview in 2003 he talked of how 9/11 had filled him with “exhilaration”. “Here we are then,” he later recalled thinking, “in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.” Hitchens’s disgust was aimed equally at the terrorists and those on the Left whom he regarded as apologists for them. At a public meeting in New York a few weeks after the attacks, the filmmaker Oliver Stone referred to “the revolt of September 11”. “Excuse me,” Hitchens shot back. “Revolt? It was state-supported mass murder, using civilians as missiles.” He resigned from The Nation and threw his support behind the war in Iraq. This has since been construed as his ‘move to the Right’. Hitchens prefers the term “post-ideological”. He still sees Islamic fundamentalism as the embodiment of the two things he most loathes – a kind of nadir of the worst iniquities of religious belief and an ideology that is essentially fascist. We are engaged in ‘a fight to the death’, he says. But the good news is that “It’s impossible for them to win. An ideology of that sort has shown itself incapable of running even as low-level a society as Afghan­istan. They deny themselves the talents of half the population. They believe that things like diseases and earthquakes are punishments. They have no self-criticism, so when things go wrong they have to look for the source in a Jewish-Crusader conspiracy, which is why they export their surplus young people to take their violence elsewhere. That’s why they’re an immediate menace to us. Their state won’t just fail on its own; they have to share their failure. Once you’ve established that, they can’t possibly win, our victory is a sure thing.”

☛ Hitchens says little of fatherhood in his book, although he does provide one meltingly brilliant aside about what it is to be the father of daughters. Nothing, he writes, can make one so “happily exhilarated or so frightened: it’s a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realise that your heart is running around in somebody else’s body.”

☛ “My greatest enemy is boredom. It’s really physical. There are times when you really do realise that you are a body, and there’s a point of depletion to which you can sink where it doesn’t seem worth it. And I’ve been close to that. But then I can cheer myself up. I’m not a great blessings counter, but I can quite instantly summons lots of reasons why it’s worth making the effort.” What one must avoid, he says, is despair. He gives a slight smile. “It’s a mortal sin, of course.”

There’s much more to the interview than I’ve posted here (including his relationship with his father and his incredible history with his mother) and you can read it in its entirety at The Telegraph.

Source: The Telegraph

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