Sunday, 23 December 2012

In praise of the final works of two men

Despite some of my previous utterances, I really am looking forward to the holiday season and I'll be ho-ho-hoing with the best of them (possibly!). In total contrast to the impending jollifications, I've found myself reflecting this week on the final works of two now-deceased men, probably prompted by my completing an autobiography by one and then coming across a YouTube clip by the other. Hardly festive fare, I know, but I can't control where my thoughts take me: my mind has a mind of its own.

One morning the author of the book I mentioned woke up in his hotel room “feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. So begins the account of Christopher Hitchens’ final days, the nineteen months between the diagnosis of oesophageal cancer in June 2010 and his death in December 2011 at age sixty-two. In Mortality he describes the torments of his illness, discusses its conventions and taboos, and explores how disease transforms experience and changes our relationship to the world around us. It's partly personal and partly philosophical as he goes through the full panoply of human emotions as the cancer invades his body and compels him to grapple with the enigma of death. I was impressed by his will to endure intellectually and his approach to taking death unapologetically on the chin. Throughout his book, your sense of him and all that makes him what he is is heightened precisely because it’s in the writing; he bares his soul in his written words. He was, above all else, a writer.

You get a sense for how important writing is to him in one of his more poignant passages. “I often grandly say,” he writes, “that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true.” The poignancy comes from the context: he has just been injected with something to alleviate the pain in his extremities, the chief side effect of which is a numbness which brings a fear of losing the ability to write. He remarks, “Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my ‘will to live’ would be hugely attenuated. I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”

Mortality could very easily be depressing but I didn't find it so (I read it twice in short succession). Despite his sobering examples of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, it is lifted by the quality of his writing, his eloquence and unsuppressible wit and humour. One of the best books I've read this year.

Continuing the downward spiral of seasonal lightheartedness, I turn now to the YouTube I mentioned in my first paragraph. It captures a wonderful performance by Johnny Cash, maybe the last before he died in 2003. The video is generally recognized as "his epitaph". A clearly fragile Cash (it was filmed shortly after the death of his wife, June Carter, and a few months before his own) gives a haunting interpretation of the lyrics of 'Hurt'. Gulp! 

And the link between Hitchens and Cash? Simply both knowing they were dying and both expressing themselves in their own artistic medium - words and song.

And a merry Christmas to one and all!

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