Christopher Hitchens: On The Suicide of His Mother

The below is transcribed from Hitch’s book “Hitch-22”

Hitch 22 cigs


…because most of what I know about manic depression I first learned from Hamlet.

“I have of late,” the Prince of Denmark tells us, “but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth.” Everyone living has occasionally experienced that feeling, but the lines that accompany it are the best definition of the blues that was ever set down. (“Tired of living, scared of dying” is the next-best encapsulation, offered in “Old Man River.”) Who would carry on with the unending tedium and potential misery if they did not think that extinction would even be less desirable or—as it is phrased in another of Hamlet’s mood-swing soliloquies—if “the ever-lasting” had “not set his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”?

There are fourteen suicides in eight works of Shakespeare, according to Giles Romilly Feddnen’s study of the question, and these include the deliberate and ostensibly noble ones of Romeo and Juliet and of Othello. It’s of interest that only Hamlet’s darling Ophelia, whose death at her own hands is not strictly intentional, it is the object of condemnation by the clergy. My own indifference to religion and refusal to credit any babble about an afterlife has, alas, denied me the hearty satisfaction experienced by Ophelia’s brother Laertes, who whirls on the moralizing cleric to say:

“I tell thee, churlish priest,

A ministering angel shall my sister be,

When thou liest howling.”

Memorable to be sure, but too dependent on the evil and stupidity of the heaven/hell dualism, and of scant use to me in deciding how it was that a thoughtful, loving, cheerful, person like Yvonne, who was in reasonable health, would want to simply give up.

I thought it might have something to do with what the specialists call “anhedonia,” or the sudden inability to derive pleasure from anything, most especially from the pleasurable. Al Alverez, in his very testing and demanding study of the subject, “The Savage God,” returns often to the suicide of Cesare Pavese, who took his own life at the apparent height of his powers.  

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“In the year before he died he turned out two of his best novels… One month before the end he received the Strega Prize, the supreme accolade for an Italian writer. ‘I have never been so much alive as now,’ he wrote, ‘never so young.’ A few days later he was dead. Perhaps the sweetness itself of his creative powers made his innate depression all the harder to bear.”


Thank you for reading.


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12 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens: On The Suicide of His Mother

  1. I loved Mel in Hamlet and in Gallipoli: He is a fine actor who has wasted much of his talent doing stupid shit though. Don’t give a fuck if he is anti-semitic or whatever. I am not gonna dine with him anytime soon. Most likely. Great comments, My Good Friend. Thank you for your visits.

  2. Let’s. No. I’m fucking around. Yes. Zeffirelli’s was great. Like to see Gibson do more Shakespeare, that is if he ever gets forgiven for his, shall we say, poor use of racial epithets.

  3. I completely agree with you that the time settings are meaningless. I loved the R&J with Claire Danes et al. I just did not think Branagh did a good job with his Hamlet. In my opinion Zeffirelli did much better and though I love Branagh as an actor (Henry V) and director, I think he failed with his Hamlet. Loved the Richard III by the way.
    We could debate this all day My Friend.

  4. I disagree, but it’s differences that make things great, though Jack Lemon really did SUCK in his little role. Time setting for Shakespeare’s plays is meaningless. They are timeless. Hamlet could be made the Prince of Poland and it would change nothing. It’s a play about humanity, not Denmark. His plays are full of anachronisms as well. Julius Caesar comes to mind when I think of this as well as Merchant of Venice, which, btw, was set in Venice but evoked English customary laws not used in Italian courts. Ian McKellen did a wonderful version of Richard 3 set in the WW2 era, excellent version. Shakespeare wrote juicy, meaty plays for actors to enjoy acting in and for audiences to enjoy watching. Henry 4 is filled with errors as well. Hotspur was 30 years older than Hal in real life and the 2 never fought, but Shakespeare changed that for dramatic effect, and boy did it ever work. He was the Tarantino of his day, a brilliant entertainer who was a master of his craft. Too many treat him as a god now days; something which I feel would make him and his mates laugh at over pints at the pub.

  5. To me (and probably only to me and my ex-wife, the Marlowe PhD) Branagh’s Hamlet was laughable. We saw it in the theater when it first came out. I do enjoy it. But come on. Robin Williams? Jack Lemmon? Billy Crystal? Honestly. No disrespect, but…. And the time setting? Made no sense to me whatsoever.

  6. I could not agree more. My favorite is Zeffirelli’s (Mel Gibson) I love K. Branagh, but in my opinion, he screwed the pooch with his version. Have not seen many others, but I am still young…

  7. I agree totally on Hamlet. I’ve been in the play numerous times, read it numerous times, seen it numerous times, and own ten different film versions of it, and every time I see it or read it again, something new and fresh about it always strikes me. It is the best piece of literature any human being has ever written.

  8. First of all: Thank you so much for your visit.
    Second: ‘Hamlet’ is the best literature / character in the world.
    Third: I wanna be ‘that guy’.
    (Actually, I am ya know….)
    Thanks My Good Friend.
    Peace and Happiness to you.
    And Fourth….uh…lost my train.

  9. Great post. Great man was Hitchens. A great writer was Shakespeare to have written a play that so accurately captures the feelings of deep depression and energized mania in it’s central character, no mere words can do it justice.

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