"We loved not the insolent and importunate splendours of perfect light. Cobwebs and wholesome dust—we needed some of both in the corners of our minds. They mature the wine of the spirit perhaps. We would almost always have had, as it were, a topmost and nearly inaccessible file of tomes, which we never read, but often planned to read – records peradventure of unvictorious alchymist and astrologer. Thither a sunbeam never penetrated and unmasked. The savour of paraffin and brick-dust should never cling about it. Unfortunate (we thought) is he who has no dusty and never-explored recesses in his mind!"
That is Edward Thomas, in one of the extraordinary essays, collected in homely little books of imperishable beauty that he produced before he turned to poetry. I return to those sentences often in this culture of perfect intellectual confidence, in which everything is sooner or later penetrated and unmasked—this culture of explanation, in which all the ancient problems are either solved or scorned, and every obscurity of human life, every fog and every cloud, is just a research paper away from satisfactory clarification. There is no riddle of existence that cannot be resolved, or robbed of its sting, in a David Brooks column. We are lucid now, and efficient; we are the quickest studies who ever lived. We throw no shadows. We know how things really work. We have the definite measure of everything. (Happiness, for example, is defined for us by social science; is an objective of public policy). Even as we cozily admit our fallibility, we exempt nothing from our brilliance. We dispel inwardness with our analysis of it. Hurriedly and without any suspicion that precious things are being driven away, we march smartly through all the pains and all the perplexities, and we call this dream of transparency, this aspiration to control, this denial of finitude, reason.
Reason is precisely what it is not. Reason is more provisional, more modest, more patient. Reason is not a festival of ideas or a catalogue of best practices. It is also not an omniscient narrator. But the culture of explanation, the illusion of mastery, extends also to our novels. So much contemporary American fiction also seems researched, worked up, instrumentalized, by skillful minds eager to display their skills. Writers go prowling through eras of history or fields of science in search of their next project, disguising the absence of a calling as curiosity. They become experts. (And critics call the results of their expertise “richly imagined.”) A subject is needed and one is discovered, something fascinating, something exotic, something cool, and with a plentitude of information, of natty and newly acquired knowledge, it is mastered, and settled, and the career moves on. But when Flaubert devoured volumes on agronomy in preparation for the great scene of the agricultural fair in Yonville, it was not because he was wanting in a subject or a style: the particulars—“geological strata, atmospheric phenomena, the properties of the various soils, minerals, types of water, the density of different bodies, their capillary attraction”—were welcomed into a prior poetical and spiritual conception. There is nothing vain about his facts. They are not effects. The death of Emma Bovary is not designed to provoke in the reader a swift celebration of the intellect of the writer, of his accomplishments in knowledge and knowingness. It is unforgettable for other reasons. Even if Flaubert was Madame Bovary, Madame Bovary was not Flaubert. A great writer knows when to disappear, and why. He is prepared to be bested by his children. His words are soaked in a sense of what is beyond words.
Philip Roth, as everybody knows, is brilliant. His mind reigns despotically in his novels, comprehending everything, putting everything in its right place, mastering everything. None of his people ever eclipse him. He is intellectually competitive even with them. His sentences are calm and clear, undisturbed and unsurprised. In their sovereign decorum they erase all contingency, all the spill of circumstance and affect that occasions them. They are so flat because they are so foreordained. Roth’s questions always feel rhetorical, because you know that he is waiting with the answers. In recent decades—since Sabbath’s Theater, which was a genuinely emancipating book—his wildness has given way to a solemn assumption of responsibility, a pedagogical and almost homiletical mood, and he has become a kind of official orderer of American experience. His tales, especially his “American Trilogy,” also very brilliant, are often essays by other means. This is true even of the ones that do not treat public torments, though Roth’s explorations of private torments have much less to say.
I should add that the thinness of these latter, and later, works is certainly not owed to the narrow confines of their settings. When the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy denounced American writing as “too isolated, too insular,” as no longer a part of “the big dialogue of literature,” he no doubt had Roth in mind. It was a stupid slander. The big dialogue of literature is always an exchange between localities. For the purpose of inquiring into the human heart, Istanbul is not more elemental than Newark. Achebe’s villages are not more universal than Faulkner’s. The universal is born of the particular: there is no other way. We are all provincial. In this sense, Roth is not a researcher novelist. He has his true subject in his life, and he seems solipsistic only when he fails. In his recent books, he has returned again and again to the theme of mortality. Surely there is no larger or more cosmopolitan theme.
The Humbling is the story of a despairing man’s self-destruction. Simon Axler is an ageing actor who has humiliated himself in Macbeth at the Kennedy Center and appears to have been deserted by all his powers. We meet him in the middle of a grave mental crisis.
The worst of it was that he saw through his breakdown the same way he could see through his acting. The suffering was excruciating and yet he doubted that it was genuine, which made it even worse. He did not know how he was going to get from one minute to the next, his mind felt as though it were melting, he was terrified to be alone, he could not sleep more than two or three hours a night, he scarcely ate, he thought every day of killing himself with the gun in the attic—a Remington 870 pump-action shotgun that he kept in the isolated farmhouse for self-defense—and still the whole thing seemed to be an act, a bad act.
In the end it is the gun in the attic that delivers Axler from his misery. But first he checks himself in to a hospital for a while, and then he attempts to save himself in the unexpected arms of Pegeen, the lesbian daughter of some friends who was recently betrayed by a lover and is in search of straight sex.
Roth’s account of this man afraid of living and afraid of dying is given coldly, in an almost clinical spirit. It is hard to be moved by a story that seems not to move its teller. We are given the externalities and the inevitabilities, but Axler’s inner states are more told than shown. A lot of the book is talk, smart talk; but the articulateness is out of whack with the despondency. And Roth’s noisy details, like that Remington 870 pump-action shotgun, do not help. Who cares what model the weapon is? The fact evokes nothing but facticity. Roth prides himself on his specificity, which he sometimes mistakes for authenticity, in a confusion of outer and inner. Often he simply resorts to lists. About the patients at the hospital, for example, he writes that "Everybody else would be sitting there gloomily silent, inwardly intense and rehearsing to themselves—in the lexicon of pop psychology or gutter obscenity or Christian suffering or paranoid pathology—the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealousy, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, and grief." And two hard-boiled eggs.
Sometimes Roth comes perilously close to the research novel, as when a fertility doctor tells Simon and Pegeen—but it is Roth, of course, who is the explainer—that “the testicular cells that give rise to sperm divide every sixteen days. … This means that the cells have split about eight hundred times by age fifty. And with each cell division, the chance increases for errors in the sperm’s DNA.” This is mere information, it adds nothing, it is the pseudo-polymathy of a Googling age. But the most egregious example of Roth’s imperious and self-regarding notion of narrative authority comes as Axler considers an opportunity to play the part of James Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey into Night:
Sitting there amid his books, he tried to remember plays in which there is a character who commits suicide. Hedda in Hedda Gabler, Julie in Miss Julie, Phaedra in Hippolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus the King, almost everyone in Antigone, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Joe Keller in All My Sons, Don Parritt in The Iceman Cometh, Simon Stimson in Our Town, Ophelia in Hamlet, Othello in Othello, Cassius and Brutus in Julius Caesar, Goneril in King Lear, Antony, Cleopatra, Enobarbus, and Charmian in Antony and Cleopatra, the grandfather in Awake and Sing!, Ivanov in Ivanov, Konstantin in The Seagull. And this astonishing list was only of plays in which he had at one time performed. There were more, many more.
And you don’t have to take Axler’s, or Roth’s, word for it. The list goes on.
Deirdre in Deirdre of the Sorrows, Hedvig in The Wild Duck, Rebecca West in Romersholm, Christine and Orin in Mourning Becomes Electra, both Romeo and Juliet, Sophocles’ Ajax.
And not even this silly inventory will satisfy the preening writer. He is compelled to add also that “Suicide is a subject dramatists have been contemplating with awe since the fifth century B.C., beguiled by the human beings who are capable of generating emotions that can inspire this most extraordinary act.” By this point Roth has obliterated Axler. The latter’s suffering has vanished before the former’s reading. But nobody’s heart was ever broken by the core curriculum. (Suicide is a subject dramatists have been contemplating with awe since the fifth century B.C., beguiled by the human beings who are capable of generating emotions that can inspire this most extraordinary act. Discuss. Do not write on both sides of the paper at once.)
The humbling leads inexorably to the humping. Roth’s tiresome infatuation with virility, with a coarse and nasty masculinity, is once again on offer. The sex in this novel is joyless, witless, loveless. It is conceived as an old man’s retort to death, except that it is already dead. His sex has pre-deceased him. In one scene, Pegeen wears a strap-on to bed with Axler.
‘I’d prefer you to suck me off,’ he said. ‘While I wear my cock,’ she said. ‘Yes.’ ‘While I wear my big thick green cock.’ ‘That’s what I want.’ ‘While I wear my green cock and you play with my tits.’ ‘That sounds right.’ ‘And after I suck you off,’ she said, ‘you’ll suck me off. You’ll go down on my big green cock.’ ‘I could do that,’ he said.
This stuff is supposed to sound ferocious and advanced, but really it sounds as bored as the voice at the other end of a 900 number. Surely there comes a time in a man’s life when talking dirty is no longer an ideal of erotic abandon. But there is no erotic abandon in Roth, not anymore; there is only conquest, and programmatic sex, and a sad prurience, and the bathos of a man who is most afraid of not getting laid.
There is also a threesome in The Humbling, in which Simon and Pegeen bring a poor creature named Tracy to bed. The man gets to watch, of course. The writing here is hilariously awful: “The green cock plunged in and out of the abundant naked body sprawled beneath it, slow at first, then faster and harder, then harder still, and all of Tracy’s curves and hollows moved in unison with it.” And then Roth explains: “This was not soft porn.” No, soft porn is precisely what it was. Roth wishes to claim that for a man watching two women nothing less than civilization has been left behind, “there was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence.” Transgression! And Pegeen was transfigured into “a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal.” She was no longer, in other words, a lover. Is there anybody who does not see the male self-pity in all this? (Actually, there is. In The New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago, Katie Roiphe admired its vitality, its power to arouse. She was rightly lamenting the emphatic sexlessness of the younger generation of American male novelists, the men who dream of being boys. Rather implausibly, she blamed this evasion of a complete manhood entirely on feminism, but she was unwittingly accurate in her implication that Roth writes post-feminist porn. Must the American reader, and the American woman, choose either Michael Chabon’s Lego or Philip Roth’s cock?)
The women in Roth’s novel are not imaginatively or attractively portrayed. They are disappointments and dangers, all of them; a man’s false gods. Axler’s wife of many years abandons him in the aftermath of his collapse. At the hospital he befriends a woman who believes that her husband molested their daughter and eventually she murders him. Pegeen capriciously announces, “two weeks to the day after the tryst with Tracy,” that she is leaving. “It’s not what I want. I made a mistake.” This reversal consigns Axler to his fate. “She left in her car, and the process of collapse took less than five minutes, a collapse from a fall brought on himself and from which there was now no recovery.” He marches right up to the attic. How can a writer who needs women so much regard them so perfunctorily? Perhaps the answer is in the question. Perhaps he cannot forgive them for how much he needs them.
This is a lonely book. Before the horrors of mortality, and the excruciations of a failing soul, Roth has chosen not to extend himself, or to examine his confidence. Wisdom does not interest him. He is interested mainly in his own powers, his own compulsions. The Humbling is a smug and therefore insolent recitation of surfaces and appearances. It certainly gives no evidence of any humbling: this is exactly how Ivan Ilyich did not die, and was not written. All mastery, no mystery—that is Philip Roth, and a lesser greatness.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.