MORTALITY, by Christopher Hitchens. Twelve, 104 pp., $22.99.
"I have been 'in denial' for some time," wrote Christopher Hitchens, "knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can't see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it's all so unfair."
You may have admired Hitchens -- iconoclast, journalist, orator -- or been infuriated by him -- by his atheism, his attack on Mother Teresa, his support for the Iraq War -- but you could not ignore him. Hitchens wrote "Mortality" in the 19 months before his death from esophageal cancer last year at the age of 62. It is a book driven by his desire to look death squarely in the face and provoked by detractors who were certain he would turn to religion when confronted with it. He did not.
One by one, Hitchens was stripped of the habits that had given him so much pleasure. "If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses," he wrote ruefully, "I wouldn't even notice." Smoking and drinking were out. He is surprised by the effects of pain, and the fear of future pain that renders him vulnerable to caregivers. How easily, he writes, their kindness could turn to torture! Having written an unforgettable piece for Vanity Fair on waterboarding, for which he was subjected to the torture, Hitchens can imagine the terror if euphemisms such as "pain management," or "distress" were suddenly tinged with irony.
The writer never allows himself any sentiment ("irony is my business"), but he does get eloquent on the subjects of writing ("my very life") and friendship: "For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one."
"I don't have a body, I am a body," Hitchens marvels. The life of the mind hadn't, in his view, included the body, beyond its capacity for pleasure. While he does not whine, he is betrayed, surprised, not ready, in the way that Shakespeare's kings weren't ready -- mortality was for mere mortals. This is not arrogance, but a form of faith -- in the future, in creativity, in transcendence.
Paul Auster, age 65, has a luxury that Hitchens was not granted -- to bridge the gap between mind and body, to go painstakingly over his physical wounds, ticks, sensibility, to write a "phenomenology of breathing," "an inventory of ... scars." His most vivid memories involve temperature (bare feet on a cold floor, age 6), sex, pain (an inflamed esophagus, gastritis) and fear (terror at the possibility of having killed his wife and daughter in a car accident).
Auster has written his second memoir, "Winter Journal," in the second person, which accentuates the feeling of the author regarding his own self from the outside. Entering his winter years, he feels a bit of a stranger to himself.
In looking back, Auster realizes that in moments of great stress and change, he is often racked with acute pain soon after: "This has been the story of your life. Whenever you come to a fork in the road, your body breaks down, for your body has always known what your mind doesn't know, and however it chooses to break down, whether with mononucleosis or gastritis or panic attacks, your body has always borne the brunt of your fears and inner battles, taking the blows your mind cannot or will not stand up to."
"Winter Journal" has a chastising tone. See here, Auster, he seems to say, admire this body, respect it, be grateful for the pleasures of the senses, bare feet on a cold floor, holding your wife.
These formidable men are part of an intellectual culture that largely denied the body its magnificence, its place in our lives. Vanity, to them, is the enemy of intellect. Yet both books are, in their ways, apologies to the body. Hitchens did not dwell on his regrets, nor does Auster. (Certainly neither writer stoops to wish that he had drunk or smoked less!) But both are surprised by how important our bodies are, how they are a catalog of thoughts, events, mistakes, successes, loves, losses. There are no great lessons here, but both books are full of humility, a humility worthy of kings.