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The Death of Tragedy

I have read, I suppose, millions of Philip Roth’s words, many of them more than once.  So it does not surprise me that, when I woke Wednesday to the news of his death, the words that I heard were his, explaining my momentary sense of vertigo:

The Times must have meant to say something else about Philip Roth, because if I had been asked, “Who among your elders will be the last to die? Who among them is least likely to die? Who among them will not only elude death but write with wit, precision, and modesty of his amused bafflement at successfully pulling off eternal life?,” the only answer possible would have been “Philip Roth.”

In that instant, I could no more believe in Roth’s death than Nathan Zuckerman could George Plimpton’s when, in the final fictional days of Roth’s alter-ego’s life, he came down from his Berkshires cabin, a Jewish Rip van Winkle returning, incontinent and baffled, to Manhattan in the days before George W. Bush’s re-election.

Then, of course, I remembered that Roth had spent the final decade of his writing life focused unflinchingly on the fact that, as he put it in Everyman, “Old age is not a battle; old age is a massacre”—one from which he, too, could not possibly emerge among the living.  As I read Roth’s encomium for Plimpton aloud to my wife after dinner that night, the words, like so many in those taut late novels about dying animals, felt un-Rothian, the sentences filled short of bursting.  Roth eulogizes Plimpton as everything he was not and could not have been, the WASP brahmin at ease with the world rather than arguing, always arguing, with it.  And yet: “Like Orwell, Plimpton tried to look straight at the thing and describe plainly what he saw and how it worked and so grasp hold of it for the reader.”  Roth’s later sentences made more sense to me.  To write about mortality rather than full energy of life required, perhaps, a different sentence.

*          *          *

There is no sorrow in the fact that Roth did not live to write the novel that would capture 2018.  The very statement itself is wrong: he did write it, twenty years ago.  I’m referring to The Human Stain, of course, the novel of our own moment.  Go back and read those first three pages again: the campus politics, POTUS with his pants unzipped, breathless anticipation of investigations—into the retired Classics Professor, into the Oval Office—the strange brew of race, sex, fear of old age, and the inability of academics to grasp, well, humanity’s humanness.

The summer of 1998, he wrote,

was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn’t stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered, “Why are we so crazy?,” when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton.  I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped Dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.  It was the summer when—for the billionth time—the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality.  It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.

There is a difference, though.  I don’t know that even Roth could have written that paragraph, that novel, about the summer of 2018 (whatever comes of it).  I mean this as a comment on ourselves, not the differences between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.   Whatever one thinks of the standards of purity, impurity, shame and its expiation that roared all summer and even into the autumn, when reporters noted the presence, in the locker of that home run god who was white, a bottle of androstenedione—we’ve bid farewell to all that.  I almost certainly have more patience for the belief in shame (in being ashamed) and all its inevitable hypocrisy and double-standards than Roth did.  But Roth, like Hawthorne, needed them in order to expose them, to write the American tragedies of his late-middle age on which his reputation will ultimately stand.  Roth saw the summer of ’98 in conversation with Sophocles, with the summers of Oedipus’ discontent.  Who would—who could—say the same of 2018?  Stormy Daniels placed beside Monica Lewinsky feels somehow tawdry, somehow small.

When the world sets aside the possibility of feeling shame, when it no longer feels necessary, no one can write tragedy.  In its absence, only farce, which teaches far less, remains possible.

*          *          *

“I dig a hole,” he said of his writing, “and shine my flashlight into it.” He wrote what he found: Alexander Portnoy, Mickey Sabbath, Zuckerman, Kepesh, Swede Levov, Coleman Silk, all the others, his supposed alter egos and their nemeses alike.  The ability to dig holes, stare into them, and write what you see, again and again, digging and shining and writing and digging and shining and writing over and over for six decades (because there is no other option, save staring all day at the whale in some museum)—I can think of two others who did it, neither sustaining the attack quite so long as Roth: Hawthorne and Faulkner.  I’ll put him in their company, that rare, precarious artist who discovers and re-creates, every day, in every word and line, all the messy, hypocritical, shameful, exuberant, living, and ultimately fragile humanity of America.

Photo by Wolf Gang The Death of Tragedy

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J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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One thought on “The Death of Tragedy

  1. Thank you, J.L., for writing this.

    I read one Roth book, hated it, and never went back, and yet I too felt that sense of “how can this be?” that Roth captures so well in the words you quote, when I heard he died.

    Perhaps I will try again. Even if not, he certainly mattered, and I appreciated hearing from someone who knows his work well.

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