In a wide-ranging special interview, Jeremy Paxman talks to Christopher Hitchens about his cancer diagnosis, his life, his politics and his writing.
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Christopher, can we start by talking about the cancer?
What is the prognosis?
Well, the particular form of malignancy
I have is in my oesophagus but it's metastasised, as they love to say,
to my lymph nodes.
You can actually feel one in my clavicle, on bad days anyway.
And, I'm afraid, to at least a tiny speck in my lungs.
And the prognosis for that is that if you lump it all together
and you leave out every other consideration,
5% of us live another five years. So that's not ideal.
But I have a strong constitution, for example, which has served me
quite well, though if I hadn't had such a strong one, I might have led
a more healthy life, perhaps.
But in the meantime, in the old cliche, you live day to day?
Oh, yeah. Yes, one does. But actually who doesn't?
There is however something specifically terrifying which
I'm trying to oppose in my writing and my appearances about cancer.
Are you terrified by it?
No. I think it's a superstition. One among many.
And I think I know where it comes from, actually, if you'd like me to say.
Well, when I was a child we were all frightened still by polio.
It takes an effort to remember that now,
but in many countries people still are.
Previous generations, it would have been smallpox.
The heart that never gets the right rhythm. Bronchitis. TB.
All these things. But none of them have the same, I think,
horror as cancer's been allowed to acquire.
And I think it's probably because of the idea of there being a live thing inside you.
A sort of malignant alien.
That can't outlive you but that does in a sense have a purpose
to its life which is to kill you and then die.
It's like an obscene parody of the idea of being pregnant.
In fact I always feel sorrier for women who have cancer than men.
For men, the idea of hosting another life of any kind
is sort of hard to think about,
but for a woman it must be a grotesque, nasty version
of the idea of being a host to another life.
I have a feeling this is why people propitiate it with bogus cures,
terrible rumours, scare stories and so on.
And I've set my face to trying to demonstrate that it's
a malady like any other and it will yield to reason and science
and that's what I'm trying to spend my time vindicating.
Reason and science, but yet the word most commonly
-used about cancer is battling cancer, isn't it?
And I, again, think that's a version of the pathetic fallacy.
It's giving a real existence to something
that's in a sense inanimate.
Real sense inanimate. It has a sort of life but not a lot.
I rather think it's battling me, I have to say.
It's much more what it feels like.
I have to sit passively every few weeks
and have a huge dose of kill or cure venom put straight into my veins.
And then follow that up with other poisons too.
Doesn't feel like fighting at all.
Possibly resisting, I suppose, but no,
you feel as if you're drowning in passivity
and being assaulted by something that has a horrible persistence
that's working on you while you're asleep.
Does it make you angry?
No, it makes me sober, objective. I think, well, this is a...
This is the best-known of our disease enemies.
I'm one of its many, many, many victims.
I'm probably one of the luckier ones in point of being able to
have treatment and care.
I'd like to prove to other people that it's not the end
of everything to be diagnosed with it.
In other words, yes, it can be resisted.
I think I prefer resistance to battling.
I didn't pick this fight, but now I'm in it I'd like to give
it my best shot, and as I say, what this means to me is putting
myself on the side of those men of medicine and science and reason
who are trying to reduce it to something that is understandable,
similable to reason and that will be brought under control.
But the likelihood is that it will kill you?
Oh well, the certainty is that's what I'll die from.
Yeah. Some people die with cancer.
I might die with it. It will be, unless I have a heart attack,
which I could easily have, by the way.
I'm much more likely now to have a blood clot than I was before, or a stroke, perhaps.
But, no, it's the proximate cause of my death, and I'm both lucky
and unlucky to know it in advance and be able to take its measure.
And there will be people, and they won't say it to your face, perhaps,
but, "Well, he smoked a lot, he drank a lot."
Yes, well, that's exactly what's demystifying about it.
There are also people who say it's God's curse on me that
I should have it near my throat because that was
the organ of blasphemy which I used for so many years.
I've used many other organs to blaspheme as well
if it comes to that.
Um, no, it is banal in that precise way.
If you've led a rather bohemian and rackety life, as I have,
it's precisely the cancer that you'd expect to get. That's a bit of a yawn.
You're not an old man.
And you're living with the prospect of an abbreviated life.
What does that do to the way you think about life?
Well, it, um... to borrow slightly from Dr Johnson,
it does concentrate the mind, of course, to realise that your time
is even more rationed than you thought it was.
And though I can be stoic in point of myself about that
because everyone has to go sometime, and whatever day came
that the newspapers came out and I wasn't there to read them,
I've always thought that will be a bad day, at least for me.
I now have a more pressing idea of what that might be like.
Anyway, that's being stoic for my own sake.
But for my family it's not very nice.
I could wish, perhaps, to have led a more healthy
and upright life for their sake.
And that's a very melancholy reflection, of course.
And then there are things that I would like to live to see.
I've mentioned some of them in an article I wrote on the subject.
I would like to see the World Trade Center reopened.
I'd like to see Osama bin Laden on trial. Or dead.
There are places that I'd like to go,
people I'd like to meet, books I'd like to at least re-read if not read for the first time.
But, in a sense, that would always be true. I'd still, I hope, have these ambitions.
Has it given you a mellower view of humanity?
Something about that word I don't relish. I don't know quite why.
Well, that's because you're a polemicist. A contrary...
No, if you like, no, if anything my view was already quite stark,
which is we're born into a losing struggle.
I knew that when I was well, or thought myself to be well.
We're born into a losing struggle.
We're enjoined by the faithful to consider ourselves to be born sick
and yet commanded to be well.
The whole thing is, at best, ironic.
Something meaningless or random, I don't know if I want to go that far.
But it's a stark existence, and for many people born
in less fortunate circumstances than mine it's always stark.
It was stark every day till they died. This makes it starker.
Does it make you regret saying or doing things?
This doesn't, no. I've sometimes had cause to regret saying things
or wish I'd said them in a different way,
but that's part of the ongoing revision of being a writer.
I hope. This hasn't prompted me to that, no.
Perhaps it should.
You're famously a person with very strong convictions
and a very persuasive, forceful form of argument.
Well, no, that's what you do.
You're celebrated worldwide for it.
Do you have any sense of why you were like that?
No. I don't.
My parents were both people of principle. It's true.
Um, but they didn't expect to inflict this on others.
I mean, it was just something they were and something they did.
Um, and something they inculcated in me,
but they didn't want an audience for it. I did.
Do you regret any of the targets you chose, like...
Who needs to attack Mother Teresa?
-Oh, it's very important to attack Mother Teresa.
Well, for the same reason that people admire her.
You have to care about the millions of people who are stricken by
I mean poverty of the sort that it's almost impossible to escape from.
That was her pretended concern. Now, as it happens...
It wasn't her fault.
No. Well, you say that, but, um...
-It wasn't her fault that people were in poverty.
-Not in the first place,
but as it happens, I could go on at length about this,
but summarised in one statement
which I think is pretty hard to refute.
The best known cure for poverty we've come up with is
something called the empowerment of women.
If you give women control over their cycle of reproduction,
you don't keep them chained to an animal cycle
of annual pregnancy, and so forth.
And you give them... If you can add to that by throwing in a handful
of seeds or some credit you'll have done very well.
Nowhere where that's tried does it not work.
You'll see in an instant Mother Teresa spent her entire life campaigning against that.
She thought contraception and abortion were morally equivalent and that abortion was murder.
Now, that's not what Calcutta needs,
and I think her teachings and preachings
were actually counter to the cause she's supposed to represent.
It was very important to point that out.
Are there any of the targets of your polemic or essay in the past
that you regret choosing?
No. No. I don't.
I regret only not doing more about it.
You fell out with a lot of people over your support
for the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.
-Do you regret that at all?
100,000 people dead. Maybe more.
To say one had no regrets would be, I mean, would be abnormally unreflective, I think.
I mean, no-one can be other than horrified
at the current state of...of Iraq.
But I don't take the view, the glib view that is taken by so many,
that the casualties are all as a result of the intervention.
I mean, for one thing it's an outrage to the idea of moral responsibility.
Last month in Iraq the Al-Qaeda forces broke into a Catholic church,
as it happens, in Baghdad, and massacred about 50 people.
People say that's Tony Blair's fault or George Bush's fault. Don't be silly.
How dare you absolve the actual murderers of what they have done?
Say, "Well, they wouldn't be there if we weren't there."
Are you so sure?
Al-Qaeda is operating in innumerable countries and was certainly present
in the form of Mr Zakawi in Iraq before we got there.
I'm not going to have it put like that. No.
I also think that there was a terrible misery and implosion
coming to Iraq as long as it was left in the control of Saddam Hussein,
plus UN sanctions that affected mostly the Iraqi people.
I thought that was an impossible state of affairs.
And I finally found I couldn't support any policy
that involved the continuation of Saddam Hussein in power.
The private ownership of Iraq, in other words, by him and his crime family.
I thought that you couldn't give your support to any policy that accepted that.
So to that extent I'm not apologetic.
But it did a lot of damage to the United Kingdom.
Waterboarding, for example, which George Bush only a couple of weeks ago
defended as not being torture and as a legitimate means to...
I'm one of the few people you're likely to meet who's been waterboarded...
Everyone applauds you for your guts in that.
I read with alarm and disgust the former President's...
What did he say? Damn right, or some awful...
I mean, trying to live up, it seemed to me,
to the worst interpretation of himself as a Texan bigmouth.
I don't sacrifice any of my internationalist or
humanitarian or democratic principles in saying these
principles are incompatible with the existence of regimes like
Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor in Liberia
and others who Tony Blair deserves credit for helping to get rid of.
Whatever else may be said, that must be part of the account.
You didn't ask me... You only said did I regret that targets I did pick?
There are some I regret not picking. I was much too soft on Mugabe.
I say it in my memoir.
I claim to have had good reasons for it.
I was very keen to see the end of
white supremacist dictatorship in southern Africa,
and I was probably soft-peddling what I knew
about some of Zanu-PF, but having a good motive is not a good enough
reason for doing something that was a betrayal, really, of principle.
Anyway, hoping to see the end of these and others
is a good reason for KBO as um...
Keep Buggering On.
If the BBC will allow that to be said.
It's a bit early in the evening but we can try.
We're sitting here talking in Washington
and you have said that you felt you were born in the wrong country.
-Why did you feel that?
It's a bit like the question, it was for me a bit like the question,
why did I want to be a writer? Essentially unanswerable.
I could only say that it was more that I felt I had to,
rather than I wanted to.
And when I was not much older, I was in my mid-teens,
I began to have a very strong feeling of a sort of pull
from the American planet, is the best way I can think of phrasing it.
Didn't know why. None of my family had ever been.
Didn't know much about it, but a very strong gravitational pull,
which eventually I succumbed to.
And now, because as you know, Kierkegaard says life has to be
lived forward and then reviewed backwards.
Now, I sort of do know,
in that they were versions, the two things, of the same.
In order for me to become an independent, self-starting writer,
I had to move to the United States, had to leave England.
"Why?", you may ask.
I don't know, but it could have something to do with the relative openness of the United States.
You didn't have to keep on sort of passing
so many approval tests as you did seem to in London.
-You're a polemicist in...
And you look at our country now, with its coalition government.
As it's muddled along for many long years.
And how do you feel? I mean, could you exist there?
In Britain I have half of my life, still, to look back on.
I was about 30 when I left.
A lot of that was formative.
Um... it's where I learnt to love literature,
and a look at my bookshelves would show what I like, still.
Um, Anglo-American is what I am.
I think it's quite a nice synthesis.
What do I think about the Cameron/Clegg coalition?
It doesn't make me think all that much, I have to say.
-That speaks volumes in itself, doesn't it?
-It might, yes.
Also, I suppose for historical reasons,
I joined the Labour Party as soon as I was eligible to do so.
I watch more the future and character of the Labour Party.
I still feel involved in that.
-Do you still consider yourself a leftist?
-Yeah, I do. It's...
Because as you know, many of your critics would say,
what's happened to you is that, as your waistband expanded,
your politics moved further to the right.
Well, they should see my waistband now. I've just lost 30lbs.
Not in the nicest possible way.
-But the accusation against you is...
Well, it's such a well-known script that it is deserving of the name cliche,
and I pin that accusation on my accusers. That's what they're resorting to.
So do any of these labels apply to you - leftist or whatever?
I mean, you're more of an iconoclast, aren't you?
There isn't a global, international working class movement anymore.
There used to be.
Um, some of us miss it, but it's gone.
Is it likely to be replaced? I don't think so.
Is there a socialist theory of an alternative world economy
that, just in theory, could stand up against the idea
of a market system, however defined? Not conspicuously, no.
The anti-globalising movement seems to me to be nostalgic
for a pre-industrial society, in many ways.
Thus to be rather conservative.
From this, you could probably tell that I still think like a Marxist, which I do.
Yes. You believe in the dialectic?
Yes. And then the materialist conception of history.
The end of the Cold War really buggered everything up, didn't it?
Um, yes, it did, but it was a huge release of human energy.
Huge release of human energy, and emancipation.
It was a great day, er, November 9th 1989.
I have on my... Just behind me, you can see it,
a chunk of the Berlin Wall on my mantelpiece.
And I was in Romania to see the end of the Ceausescu regime, the worst of them all.
And it materialises my view that human nature
is incompatible with dictatorship and slavery.
-Conflict is intrinsic to human history.
And there will be some further conflict.
Many people say it has already begun,
and it's the conflict between the West and sort of Islamo-fascism.
Do you think that is a conflict which can be lost by the West?
Well, first on conflict, you're completely right.
It's unavoidable and I'm glad because I think it's desirable - especially in the United States.
There's a huge privilege given to the word "unity" or "unification".
Partly because it's a various and multifarious society.
There's a big need for good manners, but if you say, "I'm a unifier,
"not a divider", you expect, and you usually get, applause. I'm a divider.
I think only division can cause progress.
People say the politics of division. Politics is division by definition.
If there was no disagreement, there'd be no politics.
So the illusion of unity isn't worth having.
And anyway, it's unattainable.
What I do think of as the greatest conflict
at present is a version of the old conflict, which is between
totalitarianism and free thought,
which is, in other words,
between theocracy and the enlightenment,
and the form in which this is currently being played out,
you could define as the West versus Islam.
But it's not quite so.
Within many Islamic countries, there are people who have a greater
respect for pluralism, and there are people in Britain
who would like to censor me for criticising Islam, for example.
But roughly, you describe the outlines correctly.
Yes, I refuse to be told what to think or how,
let alone what to say or write, by anybody, but most certainly,
not by people who claim the authority of fabricated works of primeval myth and fiction,
and want me to believe that these are divine.
That I won't have. That's the original repudiation.
The first rebellion against mental slavery comes from saying,
"This is man-made, it's not divine."
And to be clear about what you're talking about here -
the Bible and the Koran?
Yeah, well, and the Torah, yes, yeah.
-All of these are works of fiction?
-All of these are depraved works of man-made fiction, yeah.
And in what way does saying that you find the Koran laughable,
laughable in places, in what way does that help the spread of reason?
Oh, well, I think mockery of religion is one of the most essential things.
Because to demystify
supposedly holy texts that are dictated by God and show
that they are man-made, and the internal inconsistencies
and the absurdities, and one of the beginnings of human emancipation
is the ability to laugh at authority.
It's an indispensable thing.
People can call it blasphemy if they like, but if they call it that,
they have to assume there's something to be blasphemed, some divine word.
I don't accept the premise.
A lot of people in your position might take Pascal's Wager.
They might say, "I don't know whether I'm right or wrong."
"But if I accept the possibility of there being a purpose and a god,
"I can't lose either way cos if there isn't,
-"I've lost nothing, and if there is, I gain."
Why haven't you done that?
Well, I've thought about Pascal's Wager and wrote
about it in my book, long before I became possibly mortally sick.
And what I said was this. Shall we state what it says?
-Pascal was a great mathematician
and one of the founders of probability theory.
I think it's his lowest point, called his wager or his gambit,
where he says, rather like a huckster,
"What have you got to lose?
"You win everything if you bet on God and you've everything to lose if you're wrong".
Well, what does this involve if it's correct?
It involves a very cynical god, and a rather stupid one, who will say,
"I noticed you make a profession of faith and also, because I'm God,
"I know why you did, cos it was in the hope of winning favour with me."
Well, that's fine, you will therefore get it.
That seems to me a rather contemptible thing
and necessarily, therefore, to entail a rather contemptible
human being who says, "I don't really believe this.
"I have no faith, but what can I lose by pretending to God that I do? I might get a break."
I mean, this is pretty low, isn't it?
If I'm surprised to find, when I pass on from this veil of tears,
that I'm facing a tribunal,
which, you notice, by the way, you're not allowed to bring
a lawyer, there's no jury or appeal.
I mean, this is all altogether unattractive.
Why people want it to be believed their God is this way, I don't know.
But suppose that I'm there, and there may be one person
in the tribunal, depending on your view of the Trinity, I would say,
"I hope you noticed that I didn't try and curry favour, that I was
"honestly unable to believe in the claims made by your human spokespersons.
"Now do I get any understanding?"
And if that doesn't work, well, then, I don't know what will.
But I'm not going to try anything servile.
I'm resolved on that point.
-It would be more comforting, wouldn't it, and more comfortable?
-Which, the servile? No.
To make an accommodation to have some belief
in a possibility of this not being the end?
Well, as long as I don't have to take the word of other humans
on what are the necessary propitiations and gestures
and subjections I have to submit myself to in order to qualify.
In other words, there are many, many discrepant religions,
all of whom say, only if I support them, or endorse them, will I qualify.
Well, now, I don't know that there is no such thing as consciousness without the brain, for example.
There's no such survival. I very much doubt it.
But let's say, we don't know enough to say it's impossible.
I would say what is impossible is that other humans can know
what the conditions are whereby you qualify for survival.
That I do know is false.
Do you fear death?
No. I'm not afraid of being dead, that's to say.
Er, there's nothing to be afraid of. I won't know I'm dead.
In my strong conviction, I won't.
And if I find that I'm alive in any way at all,
well, that'll be a pleasant surprise. I quite like surprises!
But I strongly take leave to doubt it.
I can't be... I mean, one can't live without fear,
it's a question of what is your attitude towards fear?
I'm afraid of a sordid death.
I'm afraid that, that I would die in an ugly or squalid way,
and cancer can be very pitiless in that respect.
-That's a fear of dying.
-It's not a fear of death, though.
I forget which you asked.
It's a good distinction. Of death, no. Of dying, yes.
I feel a sense of waste about it because I'm not ready.
Um, I feel a sense of betrayal to my family
and even to some of my friends who would miss me.
Undone things, unattained objectives.
But as I said before, I hope I'd always have that
if I was 100 when I was checking out.
But no, I think my main fear is of being incapacitated
or imbecilic at the end.
That, that, of course, is not something to be afraid of,
it's something to be terrified of.
Bertrand Russell said, "I believe that when I die, my body will rot." Full stop.
-Well, who doesn't? I mean, the...
Well, he does go on to say a bit more than that, but that's uncontroversial.
I mean, nobody expects to get their old body back.
I certainly don't want the body back that I'll die with.
Nobody would. It'd be no doing nobody any favours.
So some reassembly of atoms would have to occur.
But that'd have to occur anyway.
If only for us to be reunified with those who died
er, so that we could live, and got blown to pieces for doing so.
Do you think it's been a life well lived?
Oh, I really have to leave that to others, Jeremy, I have to.
I'm encouraged, I'll say this much, I've been encouraged in the last few months by some
extraordinarily generous letters, including, these are the ones I take most to heart,
from people I've never met or don't know.
If they say that what I've written or done or said means anything
to them, then I'm happy to take it at face value, for once.
I'll say, "I'll take that." Um, and yes, it cheers me up.
And I hope it isn't written with the intention of doing so.
Though I must allow for it possibly being for that reason.
But in case you are watching this, um, anybody,
and you ever wonder whether to write to anyone, always do,
because you'd be surprised by how much a difference it can make.
I regret, here's a regret,
I regret not doing it more often myself.
-Thank you very much.
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