By Christopher Hitchens, January 2012
Death has this much to be said for it:
You don’t have to get out of bed for it.
Wherever you happen to be
They bring it to you—free.
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying.
—Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
When it came to it, and old Kingsley suffered from a demoralizing and disorienting fall, he did take to his bed and eventually turned his face to the wall. It wasn’t all reclining and waiting for hospital room service after that—“Kill me, you fucking fool!” he once alarmingly exclaimed to his son Philip—but essentially he waited passively for the end. It duly came, without much fuss and with no charge.
Mr. Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, has had at least one very close encounter with death, more than one update and revision of his relationship with the Almighty and the Four Last Things, and looks set to go on demonstrating that there are many different ways of proving that one is alive. After all, considering the alternatives …
Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to “do” death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier. But does the rhyme suggest a reason? Perhaps it does, or can, in matters of the emotions. I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than “There but for the grace of god go I,” which in turn is to say no more than “The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.”
In the brute physical world, and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker. Nietzsche was destined to find this out in the hardest possible way, which makes it additionally perplexing that he chose to include the maxim in his 1889 anthology Twilight of the Idols. (In German this is rendered as Götzen-Dämmerung, which contains a clear echo of Wagner’s epic. Possibly his great quarrel with the composer, in which he recoiled with horror from Wagner’s repudiation of the classics in favor of German blood myths and legends, was one of the things that did lend Nietzsche moral strength and fortitude. Certainly the book’s subtitle—“How to Philosophize with a Hammer”—has plenty of bravado.)
In the remainder of his life, however, Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger. In the course of his mental decline, he became convinced that the most important possible cultural feat would be to prove that the plays of Shakespeare had been written by Bacon. This is an unfailing sign of advanced intellectual and mental prostration.
(I take a slight interest in this, because not long ago I was invited onto a Christian radio station in deepest Dixie to debate religion. My interviewer maintained a careful southern courtesy throughout, always allowing me enough time to make my points, and then surprised me by inquiring if I regarded myself as in any sense a Nietzschean. I replied in the negative, saying that I had agreed with some arguments put forward by the great man but didn’t owe any large insight to him and found his contempt for democracy to be somewhat off-putting. H. L. Mencken and others, I tried to add, had also used him to argue some crude social-Darwinist points about the pointlessness of aiding the “unfit.” And his frightful sister, Elisabeth, had exploited his decline to misuse his work as if it had been written in support of the German anti-Semitic nationalist movement. This had perhaps given Nietzsche an undeserved posthumous reputation as a fanatic. The questioner pressed on, asking if I knew that much of Nietzsche’s work had been produced while he was decaying from terminal syphilis. I again responded that I had heard this and knew of no reason to doubt it, though knew of no confirmation either. Just as it became too late, and I heard the strains of music and the words that this would be all we would have time for, my host stole a march and said he wondered how much of my own writing on god had perhaps been influenced by a similar malady! I should have seen this “gotcha” coming, but was left wordless.)
Eventually, and in miserable circumstances in the Italian city of Turin, Nietzsche was overwhelmed at the sight of a horse being cruelly beaten in the street. Rushing to throw his arms around the animal’s neck, he suffered some terrible seizure and seems for the rest of his pain-racked and haunted life to have been under the care of his mother and sister. The date of the Turin trauma is potentially interesting. It occurred in 1889, and we know that in 1887 Nietzsche had been powerfully influenced by his discovery of the works of Dostoyevsky. There appears to be an almost eerie correspondence between the episode in the street and the awful graphic dream experienced by Raskolnikov on the night before he commits the decisive murders in Crime and Punishment. The nightmare, which is quite impossible to forget once you have read it, involves the terribly prolonged beating to death of a horse. Its owner scourges it across the eyes, smashes its spine with a pole, calls on bystanders to help with the flogging … we are spared nothing. If the gruesome coincidence was enough to bring about Nietzsche’s final unhingement, then he must have been tremendously weakened, or made appallingly vulnerable, by his other, unrelated sufferings. These, then, by no means served to make him stronger. The most he could have meant, I now think, is that he made the most of his few intervals from pain and madness to set down his collections of penetrating aphorism and paradox. This may have given him the euphoric impression that he was triumphing, and making use of the Will to Power. Twilight of the Idols was actually published almost simultaneously with the horror in Turin, so the coincidence was pushed as far as it could reasonably go.
Or take an example from an altogether different and more temperate philosopher, nearer to our own time. The late Professor Sidney Hook was a famous materialist and pragmatist, who wrote sophisticated treatises that synthesized the work of John Dewey and Karl Marx. He too was an unrelenting atheist. Toward the end of his long life he became seriously ill and began to reflect on the paradox that—based as he was in the medical mecca of Stanford, California—he was able to avail himself of a historically unprecedented level of care, while at the same time being exposed to a degree of suffering that previous generations might not have been able to afford. Reasoning on this after one especially horrible experience from which he had eventually recovered, he decided that he would after all rather have died:
I lay at the point of death. A congestive heart failure was treated for diagnostic purposes by an angiogram that triggered a stroke. Violent and painful hiccups, uninterrupted for several days and nights, prevented the ingestion of food. My left side and one of my vocal cords became paralyzed. Some form of pleurisy set in, and I felt I was drowning in a sea of slime In one of my lucid intervals during those days of agony, I asked my physician to discontinue all life-supporting services or show me how to do it.
The physician denied this plea, rather loftily assuring Hook that “someday I would appreciate the unwisdom of my request.” But the stoic philosopher, from the vantage point of continued life, still insisted that he wished he had been permitted to expire. He gave three reasons. Another agonizing stroke could hit him, forcing him to suffer it all over again. His family was being put through a hellish experience. Medical resources were being pointlessly expended. In the course of his essay, he used a potent phrase to describe the position of others who suffer like this, referring to them as lying on “mattress graves.”
If being restored to life doesn’t count as something that doesn’t kill you, then what does? And yet there seems no meaningful sense in which it made Sidney Hook “stronger.” Indeed, if anything, it seems to have concentrated his attention on the way in which each debilitation builds on its predecessor and becomes one cumulative misery with only one possible outcome. After all, if it were otherwise, then each attack, each stroke, each vile hiccup, each slime assault, would collectively build one up and strengthen resistance. And this is plainly absurd. So we are left with something quite unusual in the annals of unsentimental approaches to extinction: not the wish to die with dignity but the desire to have died.
Professor Hook eventually left us in 1989, and I am a generation younger than him. I haven’t sailed as close to the bitter end as he had to do. Nor have I yet had to think of having such an arduous conversation with a physician. But I do remember lying there and looking down at my naked torso, which was covered almost from throat to navel by a vivid red radiation rash. This was the product of a month-long bombardment with protons which had burned away all of the cancer in my clavicular and paratracheal nodes, as well as the original tumor in the esophagus. This put me in a rare class of patients who could claim to have received the highly advanced expertise uniquely available at the stellar Zip Code of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.
It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. It’s also impossible to warn against. If my proton doctors had tried to tell me up front, they might perhaps have spoken of “grave discomfort” or perhaps of a burning sensation. I only know that nothing at all could have readied or steadied me for this thing that seemed to scorn painkillers and to attack me in my core. I now seem to have run out of radiation options in those spots (35 straight days being considered as much as anyone can take), and while this isn’t in any way good news, it spares me from having to wonder if I would willingly endure the same course of treatment again.
But mercifully, too, I now can’t summon the memory of how I felt during those lacerating days and nights. And I’ve since had some intervals of relative robustness. So as a rational actor, taking the radiation together with the reaction and the recovery, I have to agree that if I had declined the first stage, thus avoiding the second and the third, I would already be dead. And this has no appeal.
However, there is no escaping the fact that I am otherwise enormously weaker than I was then. How long ago it seems that I presented the proton team with champagne and then hopped almost nimbly into a taxi. During my next hospital stay, in Washington D.C., the institution gifted me with a vicious staph pneumonia (and sent me home twice with it) that almost snuffed me out. The annihilating fatigue that came over me in consequence also contained the deadly threat of surrender to the inescapable: I would often find fatalism and resignation washing drearily over me as I failed to battle my general inanition. Only two things rescued me from betraying myself and letting go: a wife who would not hear of me talking in this boring and useless way, and various friends who also spoke freely. Oh, and the regular painkiller. How happily I measured off my day as I saw the injection being readied. It counted as a real event. With some analgesics, if you are lucky, you can actually “feel” the hit as it goes in: a sort of warming tingle with an idiotic bliss to it. To have come to this—like the sad goons who raid pharmacies for OxyContin. But it was an alleviation of boredom, and a guilty pleasure (not many of those in Tumortown), and not least a relief from pain.
In my English family, the role of national poet was taken not by Philip Larkin but by John Betjeman, bard of suburbia and the middle class and a much more mordant presence than the rather teddy-bearish figure he sometimes presented to the world. His poem “Five O’Clock Shadow” shows him at his least furry:
This is the time of day when we in the Men’s Ward
Think “One more surge of the pain and I give up the fight,”
When he who struggles for breath can struggle less strongly:
This is the time of day that is worse than night.
I have come to know that feeling all right: the sensation and conviction that the pain will never go away and that the wait for the next fix is unjustly long. Then a sudden fit of breathlessness, followed by some pointless coughing and then—if it’s a lousy day—by more expectoration than I can handle. Pints of old saliva, occasional mucus, and what the hell do I need heartburn for at this exact moment? It’s not as if I have eaten anything: a tube delivers all my nourishment. All of this, and the childish resentment that goes with it, constitutes a weakening. So does the amazing weight loss that the tube seems unable to combat. I have now lost almost a third of my body mass since the cancer was diagnosed: it may not kill me, but the atrophy of muscle makes it harder to take even the simple exercises without which I’ll become more enfeebled still.
I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hands, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my “will to live” would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, 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.
These are progressive weaknesses that in a more “normal” life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise? Just as I was beginning to reflect along these lines, I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.
I am attracted to the German etymology of the word “stark,” and its relative used by Nietzsche, stärker, which means “stronger.” In Yiddish, to call someone a shtarker is to credit him with being a militant, a tough guy, a hard worker. So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate. In either case, though, one can dispense with facile maxims that don’t live up to their apparent billing.
Photograph of the author in Houston, where he was receiving treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Christopher Hitchens died on Thursday, December 15, 2011.