April 19, 2016

Mortality

There is a small bar in the east end of Toronto that is popular among locals. The bar is unassuming in almost every way: the tables and chairs are cozy but non-descript, the drink selection is robust but simple, and the service is friendly but unadorned. This bar, Hitch, is the perfect kind of place to go for some good conversation, and possibly some spirited debate, with friends after a long day at work.

I learned quickly that the bar was named after Christopher Hitchens, acclaimed writer and avid drinker. It is fitting that a bar suited for conversation and discussion would be named after a writer who inspired spirited debate, who wasn’t afraid to take controversial stances and then stand by them despite the onslaught of negative backlash. The bar, Hitch, is a wonderful part of Mr. Hitchens’ legacy: a place for people to drink and share their thoughts and opinions.


I’ve been thinking a lot about legacy recently, and with that, thoughts of mortality. The two are intrinsically intertwined, as any talk of legacy needs to be accompanied by the realization that we are all mortal, and the acceptance that our mortality is what drives our need to leave that legacy.

My friend Sakura died eleven years ago in a car accident. She left behind a legacy of kindness and generosity, of an unparalleled joie de vivre and love for nature. When I am on Toronto Island, I often sit on the bench that bears a nameplate with her name, in memoriam. From time to time, I return to her still-existing Flickr profile to see markers of that legacy, of her character, that shone through her photos and interactions.

Now that we carry computers and cameras in our pockets—importantly, now that those two devices are the same thing, for many—we are building up an incredible amount of digital detritus that will follow us much past the time of our deaths. We are building our unconscious legacies, the ways in which we will be remembered, through comments and photos and scribbles left across the web. And yet, for most of us, those legacies, those memories will stop long before we actually die; most of us do not chronicle the act of dying the way we chronicle our acts of living, because that would mean facing and accepting our mortality.

That may be changing. Capturing the process of death, previously an artistic endeavor, is becoming easier—both in practice and in emotional capacity—in the age of the internet. A recent piece by Laurence Scott about virtual selves and death sees a future when the digital realm will include the end of life just as much as the rest of life:

There has long been evidence of an artistic impulse to capture the details of death when it occurs. Several millennia since the earliest Egyptian death masks, the Impressionist painter Claude Monet could not help analysing the changing colours of his wife Camille’s skin after she died. This intense observation resulted in his 1879 portrait Camille on Her Death Bed”. In our century, Annie Leibovitz photographed the corpse of her lover Susan Sontag, saying later that to do so seemed a natural extension of her artistic practice. The Scottish novelist John Niven wrote in a 2013 essay how his brother’s suicide immediately prompted him to shape it in words: I excused myself from my mother and sister, who were weeping in each other’s arms, and went into the bathroom. I locked the door, sat down with my little Moleskine notebook, and recorded everything that had just happened: the angle of light from the window above the bed, the coiling pale blue lines of the monitors.” 

Digital technologies encourage and democratise this artistic impulse, enabling any of us to document and disseminate moments of dying. And the various forms of social media give dying people a new sort of vitality. As I argue in my recent book on digital life, The Four-Dimensional Human, online communication allows terminally ill patients to express, to larger audiences than ever before, their experiences of the dying process. And since the internet is a disembodied medium, they can engage in social interactions that are not foregrounded by their physical frailty. Online life provides them with a robust presence in the world, deep into their decline.

Right now, however, it still takes a certain fortitude to chronicle death, to accept our own mortalities and broadcast it to the world. We have to admit to ourselves that we will die, and that there is value in sharing that sometimes-scary realization with others. To admit that we are mortal is not easy, but it is necessary; it takes the digital detritus that is our unconscious legacy and turns it intentional, conscious. To admit to ourselves, and to others, that we will die, allows us to complete our own narrative that will live long beyond our physical lives.

The last message I received from Sakura was just before she headed out on the road, all her belongings packed, ready to start on a new adventure. When I grapple with her death that came unexpectedly and too soon, it is that message that reminds me of her legacy: that she was always in search of adventure, meaning, and purpose. This is not something I thought of when she was alive, but it is starkly clear when positioned against her mortality.


Hitch, the bar in the east end of Toronto, is by no means the most obvious marker of Christopher Hitchens’ legacy. Most will know him as a prolific and powerful writer who had a distinctive voice (on the page and in person) and used that voice to tell compelling and incisive stories. His legacy is left behind in the discussions he spurred, the ideas he incubated, and in the arguments that continue on, until now, about his oft-controversial perspectives.

I always admired Mr. Hitchens’ writing, his voice; often, his arguments came across as too polemical for me, overly-caustic and acerbic for the sake of creating discord than for any other use, but I could not argue with his immense talent for shaping ideas and using his powerful prose to proselytize those ideas. I didn’t agree with many things he said, but I was in awe of his ability to say them.

I remember clearly when Mr. Hitchens began to talk about, and write about, his cancer diagnosis. While he spoke eloquently about fighting the illness, he was also articulate about his acceptance of his own mortality. That acceptance wasn’t easy, but it was important: it allowed Mr. Hitchens to shape the narrative of his life, to put a closure to his body of work and to leave a legacy of thought behind him.

Mortality is a collection of Mr. Hitchens’ writings, and other notes on death, compiled just after he passed. Reading it now, almost five years later, provides incredible perspective on how he saw the end of his life, and how that end would be instrumental in shaping the legacy that he left. The book is as you would expect from Mr. Hitchens: fierce, steadfast, somewhat polemical, and incredibly insightful. It is Christopher Hitchens’ distilled: the same strong voice, the same important themes, all enveloped in a wrapper that has an astute sense of finality. If you loved Mr. Hitchens, you will love this; if you could not stand him, even this will seem acerbic.

Mr. Hitchens has left an immense legacy behind him, one that he was conscious of throughout his words in Mortality. Whether we celebrate that legacy by reading more of his work, or by having a spirited argument at an eponymous bar in the east end of Toronto, what is evident is that by accepting his mortality, Mr. Hitchens has inspired us, challenged us to do the same.


→ Marginalia