WHAT HATH ROTH WROUGHT? by Kenneth Ring

Philip Roth, who wrote so fiercely about the torments of aging and the calamity of approaching death, died a few months ago.  In the end it was congestive heart failure that brought his long life to its close. His wait is over.

I can only wonder what his last days were like.  I’d like to think they weren’t what he had so long imagined them to be, and that he went easy into death with a sense of relief if not of hope.  For as he often said, he had none where death was concerned. For him, death simply was extinction. The flickering flame of the candle of life would be snuffed out for good and after that – no after, no nothing, no more Phillip Roth.

In any event, when I heard the news about Roth’s death at the age of 85 last year, it was natural for me, as it was for millions of his readers, to think about the man – about his life and work, and perhaps his legacy.  What had Roth wrought?

I was never a big fan of Roth’s, however.  (I was always more partial to his great rival, John Updike.)  Of course, I had read a number of his books, beginning with his breakout novella of 1959, Goodbye Columbus, when I was just a graduate student hoping to break out in my own way.  After Roth’s death, I heard an interview with him that had been conducted about ten years earlier in which he told a funny story about that book.  He took his parents aside to warn them that the book would almost surely be controversial, and possibly a bestseller, so they should be prepared for attacks on their beloved son.  His mother said nothing at the time, but years later Roth learned that afterward she confided to her husband:  “Oh, the poor boy. He has delusions of grandeur. He’s bound to be disappointed.”

And then about a decade later, Roth fulfilled his early promise by writing what is still his best known novel, Portnoy’s Complaint.  And over the many years of his writing career, which didn’t end until 2012, he churned out many books, mostly novels, and I read my share, I suppose.  Offhand, I can think of his semi-autobiographical Facts (of course, many of Roth’s books are autobiographical in nature), The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, and probably one or more of his Nathan Zuckerman novels – who can remember?   I also read a lot about Roth who was naturally much written about.  Especially damning was the memoir by his second wife, the actress Claire Bloom, who had her trials and grievances with Roth, a difficult and cranky man who prized his solitude.  Not a good bet as a husband, and on that, in the end, Bloom lost.

But the book of his that is particularly germane here in these essays about waiting to die is one Roth wrote in 2006, when he was in his early 70s, after he had suffered a number of painful health crises and had begun to ponder what we all do if we live long enough – the horrors of old age and the terrifying specter of death.  I use this phrase deliberately, not because I think of aging and death in these ways, but because Roth did.

The book I am referring to is his novella, Everyman, which is his meditation on disease, aging, diminishment, pain, loss, loneliness and death.  On these subjects, his view is bleak and without hope or consolation. But before we turn to the story that Roth tells in this book in such a chilling way, it will be helpful if we take a brief glance at what Roth himself suffered during the course of his long life.

Actually, since I have not read a biography of Roth, I am not conversant with all of his physical woes, but David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, and a good friend, in a brief obituary gave us a quick summary.  “He lived to be eighty-five, but he had little expectation of making it much past seventy. Over the years, there had been stretches of depression, surgeries on his back and spine, a quintuple bypass, and sixteen cardiac stents, which must be some kind of American League record.”  Claire Bloom also recounted some of Roth’s other illnesses and surgeries, including occluded arteries and an unsuccessful operation on his knee. After that, he found himself in great pain, suffered from insomnia and nightmares and ultimately had a kind of crack-up, which Bloom ascribed to his use of the drug, Halcion, which was supposed to help him sleep but clearly had the opposite and a psychologically destabilizing effect.  Of course, Roth recovered in time. But it’s clear that over the span of his life, he was no stranger to serious illnesses and many surgeries.

All this certainly colored the narrative line in Everyman, which tells the story, in the third person, of  a nameless man (he is “everyman”) retrospectively after his death.  The book actually opens in a cemetery where he is being buried and toward the end Roth has him visiting his parents’ grave in the same cemetery.   

The book simply tells the story of this man’s life from childhood to the expiration of his life.  Talented as an artist, he winds up as an art director in an advertising agency and is quite successful in his career.  He marries, has two sons, but finds himself constricted by the routines of marriage and drained by frequent quarrels with his wife, so he leaves them all behind and obtains a divorce.  Later, he meets another woman whom he woos and wins, and they marry. After a blissful month’s vacation with her, he becomes very ill and is in great pain from what turns out to be a burst appendix, which might have killed him were it not for its discovery at the last moment.  But he recovers and lives a healthy life for over twenty years until he has another serious illness. This time it’s his heart and it’s again life-threatening. He has to endure a seven-hour surgery and undergoes a quintuple bypass operation. By now, he’s on his third marriage, after having had a number of affairs, and finding himself alienated from his two boys.  His third wife, a former model, is useless and his only close relationship is with his daughter, Nancy, from his second marriage. He will have seven more operations, usually heart-related, before his life comes to an end.

In the book, this man reflects on his life and, as he ages and becomes increasingly preoccupied with his own bodily decay and that of his friends, he finds himself ruing many of the choices he has made in his life.  All the pain he has caused his wives, the loss of the affection and respect of his sons, his pointless affairs. Increasingly, wearied by disease, he becomes acutely lonely and clings, almost desperately, to the only person who has remained close to him, his daughter.  

Some passages from the book will be helpful to illustrate not just this man’s thoughts about the process of aging and the prospect of incipient death, but also Roth’s since he, too, is the everyman of whom he writes.   

When toward the end of his life, he talks with several of his work colleagues who have become ill with serious diseases like those he has suffered, he thinks:

“Yet what he’d learned was nothing when measured against the inevitable onslaught that is the end of life.  Had he been aware of the mortal suffering of every man and woman he happened to have known during all his years of professional life, of each one’s painful story of regret and loss and stoicism, of fear and panic and isolation and dread, had he learned of every last thing they had parted with that had once been vitally theirs, and of how, systematically, they were being destroyed, he would have [realized that]….Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.”

And he comes to see that he is in exactly the same condition as his colleagues:

“Now it appeared that like any number of the elderly, he was in the process of becoming less and less and would have to see his aimless  days through to the end as no more than he was – the aimless days and uncertain nights and the impotently putting up with the physical deterioration and terminal sadness and the waiting and waiting for nothing.”

The man now finds that his life has become pointless, without meaning, and comments, “All I’ve been doing is doodling away the time.”

Roth has often spoken of his disdain for religion and its empty consolations, which he dismisses as superstitious fantasies unworthy of any intelligent and rational adult, and his character in this book feels the same way:

“Religion was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.  No hocus-pocus about death and God or obsolete fantasies of heaven for him. There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us. If he could be said to have located a philosophical niche for himself, that was it.”  

He sums it all up in a tone of savage bitterness as one “who put no stock in an afterlife and knew without doubt that God was a fiction and this was the only life he’d have.”

And this is how he goes to his death.  This is the death of everyman.

It may surprise you to learn that when I read this book, there was much that I could identify with.  I, too, had left wives – I had four – and had to leave two of my children behind after my second marriage collapsed.  I have also spent a great deal of time (and wrote one entire confessional book on the subject) reflecting with considerable anguish on my wayward love life and the pain that it had brought to others.  And like Roth’s character, there have certainly been times in my life recently, during my “waiting to die” period, so to speak, that I have found myself aimless, seemingly just marking time. Particularly when suffering from chronic and painful conditions, I have also become ruefully aware that I was in the midst of mourning the person I used to be who had already died.   

Nevertheless, there are many and important differences between me and Roth’s character.  For one thing, I’ve been lucky, very lucky, that so far – knock on silicon – I have not had to endure any serious illnesses or undergo any of the kinds of surgeries that Roth or his character did.   For another, I have always remained close to my children, even after two them no longer lived with me, and am to this day. But the most important difference of course is my spiritual outlook on life, which was permanently affected by my first psychedelic experience when I was in my mid-thirties and was further deepened by my many years of working with near-death experiencers.

As a result, my view of death is exactly the opposite of Roth’s.  He is one of those Jewish intellectuals influenced by Freud and the tradition of psychoanalysis that was such a pervasive element in the intellectual lives of East Coast writers and artists who came to maturity during the middle part of the last century.  I encountered many of them during my years of working in Connecticut and spending a lot of time in New York. For them, it’s the familiar symbol of the grim reaper that represents death, a frightening image indeed. “Life is grim, and then you die.” And after that, you disappear for good.  

But I, a California Jew, who like Roth has no use for Judaism or any other religion, nevertheless find the teachings of the Buddha far more persuasive than those of Freud concerning how to view illness, decay and mortality.   And of course, what has influenced me even more is my many conversations with near-death experiencers who have actually crossed the barrier between life and death, at least for a time, and who almost universally aver with the greatest certitude that there is indeed more to follow once death occurs.  For them and for me, the real symbol of death in our own time should be “the Being of Light.” For Roth death is indeed a dead end. For those who have actually glimpsed beyond the veil, it is just the beginning of true life. For them, when death is encountered, it is not terrifying; instead it has the face of the Beloved.   

Roth, an atheist, died in character, and for that we can admire him.  But how many of us would really want to live as he did toward the end of his life – often shut up in his cabin chained to his writing desk and striving to hold the enemy, remorseless death, at bay as long as possible?   Even after his “retirement” in 2012, he was seemingly unmoored and lost for a time when faced with the end of his career as an author: “I had reached the end. There was nothing more for me to write about. I was fearful I’d have nothing to do.  I was terrified, in fact….” He did apparently manage to enjoy himself afterward for a while, but I still wonder, as I remarked at the outset, about the state of his mind when his waiting was finally over and he found himself face to face with death.  

I like to think that maybe he was surprised at what he saw.

A necessary postscript:  Just because Roth was an almost vehement atheist, I wouldn’t want you to suppose that I am implying this is the way that most atheists live and approach death.  Far from it. You can be an atheist and go gladly into death or at least without the crippling terror that death had for Roth. Think of David Hume, for example, who seemed to greet death joyfully and with humor.  No, there is nothing about atheism per se that should make death difficult.  But having some kind of spiritual perspective on life does help, and this is precisely what Roth and his everyman lacked.  Fortunately, not all of us are that everyman. Roth will leave his legacy for those who are drawn to his view of life – and death.  For my part, I choose to leave it, period.

In any case, as I’ve said, Roth’s wait is over.  I, on the other hand, am still waiting to die. But I am very far from being eager to approach my terminus.  I hope there’s still plenty of time before I shout, “Can’t wait!”

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Dr. Ring is Professor Emeritus of psychology at the University of Connecticut where he researched near-death experiences. He designed scientifically structured studies of 102 near-death survivors that further developed Dr. Raymond Moody’s early NDE findings. He is well-known for his ground-breaking research of investigating NDEs among blind persons in his book MindsightKen Ring is the co-founder and past president of  the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) and is the founding editor of the Journal of Near-Death StudiesHe has published several near-death experience related books, including Life at Death (1980)Heading Toward Omega (1984)The Omega Project: Near-Death Experiences, UFO Encounters, and Mind at Large (1992), and his most well-known and celebrated NDE book, Lessons from the Light (2000).

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