When the dying wish they were already dead

Christopher Hitchens died last night.

The strange thing about death — especially the death of a public figure — is that it evokes in most onlookers the desire to revisit a life rather than view its conclusion.

Hitchens’ obituaries will perpetuate this death-denying ritual, but thankfully he offered his readers an opportunity to bravely look at a future from which most of us would rather turn away.

Having in recent years watched the wretched process of my mother’s death at a ripe 87 along with that of my brother-in-law with cancer at 48, I asked my doctor whether in his experience dying is usually so grim. His response: it depends what you believe. His claim (and arguably this may have been nothing more than his own belief) was that those with faith can die peacefully. Maybe.

What seems clear nevertheless, is that the “gift” of modern medicine has been too often to make slow-motion something that mercifully would be far more swift.

In his final piece for Vanity Fair, Hitchens relates his own experience to that of another famous atheist and explains why he no longer believes that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.

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.

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8 thoughts on “When the dying wish they were already dead

  1. Steve Zerger

    I haven’t been through a grave illness myself, or even experienced it through the death of an immediate family member, so I lack full maturity here. It seems to be a metaphysical necessity that our capacity for experiencing beauty is only as great as our capacity for suffering, and when suffering overwhelms our experience of beauty, as it eventually must, then life’s purpose is complete, and it is time to die. Modern medicine all too readily encourages the violation of that boundary, and many people suffer needlessly as a result.

    Mr. Hitchens was an aggressive atheist, and he clearly had the courage of his convictions. But I wonder if he believed that the world can be explained by chance alone. Surely the experience of beauty is itself an experience of purpose, and his aesthetic sense was probably more developed than that of most of us. I suspect that most atheists are actually rebelling against a specific untenable formulation of metaphysical principles – a formulation which also tends to be very aggressive.

  2. Gene

    I think that Hitch was protesting the obscenity that is deity-based religion….it rejects the wondrous, supreme beauty of actual reality, and seeks to replace it with ridiculous and simplistic mythology. Embracing a deity-based view of the universe is to shit on art. Religion is velvet-backed paintings of dogs playing poker.

  3. Robert Consoli

    Christopher Hitchens was the anti-Christ. I take no joy in his cancer and I’m not glad that he’s dead. But I am delighted that he will finally and at long-last shut up. In addition to his many meannesses he was, according to Alexander Cockburn (http://www.counterpunch.org/2011/12/16/farewell-to-c-h/), a cowardly, stingy, and mean Colonel Blimp. He was an unashamed proponent of bombing the crap out of any brown population he happened to disapprove of and it’s astonishing to see him praised here in warincontext which stands for the exact opposite of everything he stood for. Cockburn points out that Mother Teresa may have had her faults but if you were a beggar on the streets of Calcutta you were going to get soup from Mother Teresa. Death be damned. I’m very disappointed in this particularly foggy blog entry; you can do better.

  4. esteban

    oddly enough
    this post hit sorta close to home [mine]

    i won’t speak to the hitchens death
    as i did not care much for his writing
    for a number of reasons

    on a personal note though
    i found my own self in the
    icu of the local hospital
    last weekend

    it seems i had an undiagnosed
    blood sugar situation
    i was admitted with 1,200 mg/dl level
    far above a nominal 80 – 120

    i was told i was very near death

    due to excellent immediate and intensive care
    i obviously survived and now take insulin/diet etc…
    i had no idea i was so sick i sure do now

    i will also add that a brush with death
    focuses the mind in a way like nothing else

  5. Paul Woodward

    Robert Consoli — I hate to disappoint you by telling you this, but I don’t actually care whether you approve or disapprove of anything I’ve written. If it wasn’t already evident, I don’t run this site in order to please anyone.

    Comments containing links are automatically held in moderation. Even though I update this site frequently, there are actually occasions when I have to part company with my computer, so in the event that a comment gets stuck in moderation it often means I had more pressing business to attend to — not that I can’t “take the heat.”

    As for my “eulogy” of the “antichrist,” Christopher Hitchens, in this instance I didn’t praise his life or his political views — simply the way in which he approached his death. We would each trap ourselves in a very small world if we imagined we could only learn from those with whom we agree. Indeed, in such a world we would learn nothing.

    A few years ago, while the neocons were vehemently denying that waterboarding was torture, Hitchens did what few others would — put the argument to an empirical test by finding out for himself what it was like. Without the slightest equivocation he declared it was torture: “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

    Imagine if instead of a neocon-friendly Hitchens submitting to that test, it had been Glenn Greenwald or any other outspoken critic of torture. Their account would instantly have been dismissed. Of course it would have been better if had been performed on Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. Still, Hitchens did everyone a service.

  6. Robert Consoli

    I accept the rebuke about the embedded link but what in God’s name can we learn from scum like Hitchens? Hmm? How to attack perfectly good and even heroic Catholic priests (Father George Rutler of the Church of Our Saviour) as layabouts and child molesters? How Mother Teresa was taking advantage of the poor? How Edward Said was a shite? How about learning that Sidney Blumenthal was a perjuror? Hmm? What else can we ‘learn’ from Hitchens. How about the greatness and glory of attacking Iraq? Hmm? A country that never harmed us. Or the evils of ‘Islamofascism’. Or how to be a faux ‘contrarian’? All these things we can ‘learn’ from Hitchens.

    You have an awfully low standard for your teachers.

    Bob Consoli

  7. Paul Woodward

    I was quite specific in pointing out two things on which Hitchens’ observations are instructive: what it’s like dying from a hideous disease for which the treatment is no less brutal, and what it feels like to be tortured by waterboarding.

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