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Roth on Aging and Death

I haven’t read much Philip Roth as I tend to be a bit prudish and he is known for his graphic writing; however, I did read and enjoy The Plot Against America (it is told from a young boy’s point of view so not too much in the way of sex going on). I was interested in Everyman because of the idea of an aging author taking on the subject of death. In Plato’s Republic, there is an account of Socrates visiting an older friend, Cephalus, who urges him to come often as he, Cephalus, cannot get around much anymore and enjoys the pleasures of conversation.  Socrates replies: 

There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone on a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to enquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.

 In Everyman, Roth sets out to chronicle a man’s life, beginning at his funeral and seen mostly through his own flashbacks.  It is well done and sad and truthful, and it shows us that the way is rugged and difficult.  It is especially painful when he propositions a young woman whom he has been watching every day jogging on the boardwalk.  His humiliation and loss of his old confidence is truly poignant.  However, Cephalus quotes Sophocles on this subject, who, when asked how love suits him as an old man, answers in a way that might have been useful to Roth’s narrator:

 Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.

 Cephalus adds:  For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. 

When he speaks of the complaints that his contemporaries have with aging, he says: 

that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.

 In Roth’s book, the sadness is in the relinquishing of all that one cares about and the reader participates in the sense of unfairness that overcomes the narrator whose body is breaking down with what seems, to  him, to be premature haste.  Roth’s chronicle is at times a searing account of this process, complete with surgical and anatomical details.  When he describes old age as ”a massacre”, one can feel his savage delight in the word, in telling this bitter truth to all.  One might wish for a more philosophical protagonist but cannot wish for a more courageous author, for he faces unflinchingly that which he (and we)are approaching, which is so hard to face or fathom– oblivion.

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