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
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.