About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Everyman, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth's latest novel, Everyman, should not be read by anyone well into the autumn of his years. At least, not without the warning that this is a frank look at aging and the inevitability of bodily decay and eventually death. Roth writes from a secular point of view, and his (unnamed) main character does not have the easy comfort of an afterlife where he can hope to see again his parents and other beloved ones. Moreover, our hero is a rather ordinary man, full of flaws and yet decent, making mistakes (three marriages, losing touch with his beloved brother during the last part of his life) but having the courage to examine his life all the way to the very end.

Roth follows his character's odyssey through his (rather awful) medical record, from the first signs of a weak constitution when he is young, to seven consecutive years of hospitalizations and operations at the end of his life. Throughout we are made participants of the man's inner thoughts and of how he tries to live a decent existence, often failing but picking up the pieces and trying again. Some of the people in his life are useless and amorphous, but most of them – from his father to his brother, from his third wife to his daughter – are decent human beings doing their best and, largely, succeeding.

The protagonist of Roth's novel exposes clearly to the reader what it means to be trapped in an aging body, to feel sexually attracted to a young woman and yet incapable of doing anything about it; to feel like one's body ought to still be able to do what it did decades earlier, and yet painfully realize that the good times are gone and the best one can hope for is the temporary relief afforded by the pursuit of activities (like painting, in the case in question) that one did not have time to cultivate during the more active part of life.

Most of all, Everyman is about the loneliness that befalls most people after they retire, especially when they join a community of aging (and often sick and eventually dying) fellow humans, with scarce contact with the rest of the world and those they loved throughout their lives. Not a cheerful read, to be sure, but – surprisingly – not a depressing one either. I don't know what Roth meant by this short novel, but the reader is certainly invited to ponder on the meaning of existence, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such meaning comes largely from how we conduct ourselves throughout life, especially when it comes to the choices we make on prioritizing our efforts, and how we relate to the people who are important to us.


  1. “and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such meaning comes largely from how we conduct ourselves throughout life, especially when it comes to the choices we make on prioritizing our efforts, and how we relate to the people who are important to us.”

    Absolutely true.

    I’ve observed the lives of two men, in decline, so to speak, this year. My father, for one, has always invested his life, without reservation, in others. Older ones when he was younger, younger ones when he was older. Nice people, mean people, whatever. It was all thoroughly interesting to him. He was a truly broad minded sort of individual, if I’ve ever seen one.

    Tho he invented his way into engineering he kept his farm anyway, and worked long days and sometimes nights and days, except for the last ten years of his life. And because of farming, he had quite a number of young fellas work for him and with him. The report was consistent at his funeral late in March. He loved God, put his family first, and made a great impact on many a young person’s life. I do not think this is an idealized account, I just noticed someone who was very seldom ever lonely, even into his nineties -- board sometimes, but rarely lonely.

    It seemed that all sorts of people, grand-kids, and other family were popping in all through his week to visit. And if you popped in, you HAD to play SKIP BO with him, and he most likely WOULD beat you without apology. We always found it terribly funny how he could be such an intensely competitive person, but such an awfully nice one all at the same time. Never mean, never sarcastic. And as anyone knows, those two personality traits don’t usually come in the same package.

    There was something really unique about that man.

    As an honor to my dad, to whom there is no comparison on the earth,
    all my love..

  2. Ok, agree Massimo, but, let me to paraphrase a little. "Suppose" that all is a matter of time. When us prioritizing about something, may be only way to do it and this is to devote a lot of time. It is easy to understand for us that devote a lot of time is important to give the better; but, not always this is understood for the people that is important for us. Not all people think equal and the sucessfull of "how we relate" people that is importantant for us lapse in the use of an apropiate "idiom".



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