Death and the Art of Talking

The storytellers are my people: the fiction-spinners, science-tellers, comedians, satirists and poets. I love anyone who can use the art of words to help me truly KNOW something about life, love and death. So I was bound to love Mortality by Christopher Hitchens — one of the most brilliant, honest and hypnotizing “talkers” I know of, writing about all those things.

And I did love it.  I started the book in the early hours because I had a little insomnia, and finished it at sunrise the next morning. It was typical Hitch: beautiful, defiant and witty right up until the end:

“Like so many of life’s varieties of experience, the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. And I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down.”

I love how, like all the masters, he consciously practiced his art, honed it, and took pleasure in delivering great performances, even if only at a dinner party or from his hospital bed. The delivery was important to him, not just the content: “Timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that.”

When he feared he would lose his ability to speak and write, and he began to reflect on what our voices and the art of talking really mean in terms of the human experience.

 We may not be, as we used to boast, the only animals capable of speech. But we are the only ones who can deploy vocal communication for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining it with our two other boasts of reason and humor to produce higher syntheses. To lose this ability is to be deprived of an entire range of faculty: it is assuredly to die more than a little.

My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends. I can’t eat or drink for pleasure anymore, so when they offer to come it’s only for the blessed chance to talk.

At the end of the book, Hitch’s last fragmented sentences are printed, and then his widow Carol Blue remembers him through his voice and words:

I miss his perfect voice. I heard it day and night, night and day. I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of “his morning voice” as he read me snippets from the newspaper that outraged or amused him; the delighted and irritated (mostly irritated) registers as I interrupted him while he read; the jazz-tone riffs of him “talking down the line” to a radio station from the kitchen phone as he cooked lunch; his chirping, high-note greeting when our daughter came home from school; and his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night.

I miss, as his readers must, his writer’s voice, his voice on the page. I miss the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send while we sat in different rooms in our apartment or in our place in California and the emails he sent when he was on the road. And I miss his handwritten communiqués: his innumerable letters and postcards (we date back to the time of the epistle) and his faxes, the thrill of receiving Christopher’s instant dispatches as he checked-in from a dicey spot on some other continent.

Hitch knew how deeply the art of talking connects humans, and knew it was worth doing well, and that’s why so many of us felt connected to him. He says in Mortality that the most beloved friendships are recollected by their “unscripted moments of interplay and reason and speculation.”

So true. Conversation is how adults play and wrestle and test each other out. We can fall in love through talking without ever having seen, smelled or touched another person. We can completely agree with someone but intensely dislike them because their words bite or are just plain artless. Messages from loved ones feel like parts of them and are hard to throw away, and we miss not just the presence of our favorite people but their little remarks and commentary on daily things.

Like Hitch said, “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.”

Amen.

 

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