EVERYMAN BUT NOT QUITE EVERYONE
EVERYMAN BUT NOT QUITE EVERYONE
Luigi Pirandello, celebrated Italian Nobel laureate in literature in the mid last century—Six Characters, in Search of an Author being his most famous play—became somewhat eccentric in later life and is supposed to have tested out various coffins for the ultimate comfort of the final earthly eventuality of his death. Or perhaps he was only seeking added publicity for his many other plays. Something, of course, that Philip Roth does not have to do for his many novels and other pseudo fictional works. His twenty five or so books have made him very affluent, and have won him almost every prestigious literary award in the Western world except for the Nobel Prize for literature. Which may still elude him unless world opinion changes its current anti Jewish, anti American stance. But in his current book, Everyman, Roth does something eerily similar to Pirandello’s coffin seeking; he interviews a grave digger in great detail as to his grave digging procedure to achieve the neatest end result with the coffin and its inhabitant lying peaceably level at the prescribed depth and no adjoining gravesites impacted. Somehow coming to practical if not emotional terms with the overwhelming, almost cataclysmic confrontation of the death of life on earth.
Roth’s story of Everyman begins and ends in the somewhat broken down Jewish cemetery in New Jersey, with the mourners of our Everyman, who in his lifetime has acquired many friends and family, but here is not given a specific name.
Some of the immediate family reminisce about little episodes shared with him, mainly his older brother Howie, who talks mainly about the dead man’s very close relationship with his father, and both brother’s working in the tiny retail jewelry store in downtown Elizabeth, New Jersey, a small enclave of purposeful and successful endeavor under the watchful, loving paternal direction of their father. … ".Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like this, routine, ordinary, and aside from Howie’s resurrecting with such painstaking precision the world as it innocently existed before the invention of death, life perpetual in their father created Eden, a paradise just fifteen feet wide by forty deep and disguised as an old-style jewelry store---no more or less interesting than any of the others"….. And mother, too, at home, as both parents shepherded our protagonist through various childhood afflictions that entailed hospital stays at times. And where he experiences the real or perhaps imagined death of the other patient in his room, who mysteriously disappears one night and is not mentioned again.
Present at the gravesite also were his two sons by his first very stormy marriage, who never forgave his forsaking them after the divorce . Also there was his still loyal daughter, Nancy, from his second marriage who always hoped for a reconciliation between her father and his embittered second wife, Phoebe, who is also at the funeral but is almost speechless from a recent stroke. After the burial service and the customary small shovelfuls of dirt the mourners put on the grave, the demise of our Everyman is told retrospectively. Not only is he nameless to us but he is also an avowed atheist. "Religion was a lie that he had recognised early in life and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness—the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep". Also, as he tells his daughter Nancy "There’s no remaking reality…just take it as it comes and hold your ground. There is no other way."
But late in life, when many of his retired ex business associates have started to pass away and he is living alone after his third divorce, his feelings are not the same, and among other things he wishes for some reconciliation with his two sons and his divorced second wife, for he realizes that ‘’old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre." His great anger for which he now wants at least some familial absolution is against his two sons, "you wicked bastards!…you silly fuckers! Would everything be different , if he’d been different and done things differently? Would is be less lonely now? Of course it would! But this is what I did! I am 71. This is the man I’ve made." There is no family forgiveness, not even from his loving, devoted second wife Phoebe who has put up with is surreptitious womanizing for many years. But not his elaborate lying with his last Danish model and the lustful long week end tryst in Europe on a supposedly important advertising project. This time, when she finds out this latest escapade, she throws him out…."you probably don’t even think you’re lying----you think of it as an act of kindness to spare the feeling of your poor sexless mate. You probably think your lying is in the nature of a virtue, an act of generosity toward the dumb cluck who loves you……Well you’re going to live without me now, mister……I can’t bear now the role you’ve reduced me to. The pitiful middle aged wife , embittered by rejection, consumed by rotten jealousy! Raging! Repugnant! Oh, I hate you for that more than anything. Go away, leave this house…."
Besides these appalling episodes of family life there were many productive times in his life. His successful career as head of the art department of a major advertising firm, his happy times as full time painter on retirement, his strong relationship with his daughter Nancy, and his bond to his older brother Howie who always stood in the breech, helping him unfailingly through his many critical health episodes. And the very popular painting classes he held in his retirement community which became quickly over subscribed. And also the many relatively good, stable years he had had with his second wife Phoebe before a type of boredom set in and they ceased having sensual love, and he discovered how easily one night extra marital affairs could be indulged in. This led unfortunately to the fiasco with the Danish model, Marete, which led to his second wife Phoebe’s final eviction notice. And to his concluding marital plunge with this same sexual avatar, whose obvious fervor for his much more mature personna was very gratifying initially. But this was a very quick route to his third divorce, for behind her well developed sexual desires only an infantile adult individual was present.
But soon his loneliness overcame his efforts at communal socializing; his most promising student, who was wracked with pain frequently died of an over dose of sleeping pills, most probably a deliberate suicide. And he began to lose interest in his now daily preoccupation with painting, becoming aware of his artistic limitations, despite his daughter’s encouraging, sincere, constant praise. He started to become jealous of brother’s continued good health, and increasing wealth. Gradually their phone calls became less frequent at his behest. And then ceased completely. Toward the very end, though, when he realized that another carotid artery operation was needed, and his resolve of independent fortitude was vanishing he tried to reestablish his link with Howie, but he was not immediately available. Howie, besides good health, was now a multi millionaire, and on a six week trip to the Far east, including Tibet, with his wife. He did not leave any messages for his son, who was care taking the family mansion in California. Resolutely summoning up enough courage for the intervening days before the surgery, not even bothering daughter Nancy with his pre operation fears, he found some solace in the graveyard visit described earlier, in which he even stays to talk while the gravedigger eats his lunch just delivered by his wife, Thelma; two meat loaf and one baloney sandwich. And the grave digger, coincidentally dug the grave sites of both his father and mother, just a few paces away. Our Everyman is profusely grateful for the gravedigger’s time in sharing the engrossing burdens of his profession, and who, with some added dignity, also tells him that he has already received his fee for his parents burials, but still does not refuse the two fifty dollar bills that are proffered. And our Everyman is comforted, perhaps not so much as Pirandello, in his search for a comfortable eternal resting place, but by the "genial, creased face and the pitted skin of the mustached black man who might someday soon be digging a hole for him that was flat enough at the bottom to lay a bed on."
And so, somehow oddly comforted, he waited alone the next few days for another hospitalization, probably the seventh in the last seven years for the multiple cardiac stents and carotid artery procedures already accomplished. They had all been been successful, routine, and there would be no emotional tension this time for he asked for a general anesthetic, instead of the local anesthesia, where he could hear if not feel the scraping and tugging. ……. "but nonetheless he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing it. Just as he’d feared from the start."
Our protagonist hero enters into ‘nowhere’ right from the start of his apparently dark oblivion and ceaseless void. Not at all like the namesake Everyman of the medieval morality play, whose almost universal appeal is evident in the differing versions of his last journey, available in several languages in our western culture. Here God summons the devil to alert wayward humanity to their sinful, errant ways, deviating widely from the path of scripture and general morality. And Everyman responds quickly, fearful of eternal damnation and hell. He mobilizes all the positive attributes he is aware of—friends, family wealth, strength, beauty, knowledge, etc. on his journey toward absolution and redemption. And on this ultimate way all these supposed "friends" desert him, as this path they are on is too difficult. Only good deeds remains to the end and will count in his favor for his eternal reward.
Most of us are still comfortable with that message of morality---and redemption--- - for all humanity, and the feeling that the universe still resonates with some feeling of consonance with the still wide spread human aspirations that go beyond the oblivion before birth and to the total oblivion after mortal death. That somehow we still ---in Wordsworth’s setting "come trailing clouds of glory from God, who is our home". Indeed, "Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. The Soul that rises with us, our life’s star, hath had elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar, not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness….". In the ten or so of Philip Roth’s books that I have read, and mostly admired greatly, the concept of the human soul is not mentioned. It is not his element, relying more on a dynamic that is more matter of fact and mechanistic psychologically to explain human behavior as an innate survival approach. That seems very appropriate within the framework of his current overall dim view of the human psyche. But Roth is still at the height of his powers, as this book proves, and is still reinventing himself. After his magnificent "The Counterlife," where his utterly secular Jewish hero, who reviles all the fanatic Jewish settlers in the West Bank in Israel, in the climax is now marrying this upscale gentile intelligent English woman, and he insists that his new born child, if a boy, must be circumcised, the barbaric, primitive ritual that she and her modern, and anti semitic, family might object to! Many of us then thought that a new Philip Roth was born, at least showing more respect for the more orthodox, tribal roots of his Jewish heritage. Subsequent works, of great worth nonetheless, belied that hope. But now perhaps he can admit the human soul and its creative hopes and fantasies into his more stern no nonsense ultimate void. If he could summon up so brilliantly the intrusion of a Lindbergh anti Semitic regime in the midst of the Roosevelt Presidencies in the Plot Against America, how about a False Messiah and its implications for eternity and/or the destiny of the human soul?
One could be disdainful, cynical, or even guardedly dubious in the telling but there is a large readership of hopeful people who still who want settle even for a "sci-fi" approach to this possibility. After all, astrophysics today is postulating so many weird things in our rapidly expanding universe that outer space "science" reads more like mystic poetry than hardnosed science. And remember, Columbus thought he was sailing to China when he stumbled on North America and changed all of civilized Western Europe’s thinking about almost everything. And as our top theoretical scientist pundit of the last century stated "God does not play dice with the universe."
Einstein was a totally secular Jew, but there was certainly a lot of soul in his remark and enduring faith. And now, at last, Roth might even win that Nobel Prize!!