Saturday, June 16, 2018

Book Report: The Violet Hour

10. Katie Roiphe, The Violet Hour (2016) (6/15/18)

In this elegant exploration of death and dying—and, inevitably, about lives fully lived—Katie Roiphe focuses on five writers/artists, about whom there is copious documentation about the end of their lives: Susan Sontag, who lived in denial of death and continued to work fiercely until the end; Sigmund Freud, who declared himself “sensibly resigned” to death; John Updike, who, through his writing (and affairs), sought to cheat death; the wildly self-destructive Dylan Thomas; Maurice Sendak, who wrote and drew his hyper-imaginative children’s books to keep the darkness from pressing in and annihilating him. And, in an epilogue (fully alive, he and Roiphe had a conversation on the subject), James Salter, who didn’t really find death to be a problem at all: just don’t think about it, he counseled.

Roiphe suffered a near-death experience when she was a girl, and has always had a fearful fascination with the end of life as a result. To investigate that feeling, she delved into the writings—journals, letters, essays, fiction, poetry—of these people to find out what they thought, believed, hoped, and feared about death. She talked with their children, their caretakers, their friends, those who clustered around as life seeped away. She explored their biographies for clues. "I've picked people who are madly articulate, who have abundant and extraordinary imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into words—and in one case images—in a way that most of us can't or won't."

And she interrogates what she finds. With Freud, for example, she quotes him as writing to a friend, shortly before turning 68, that "though apparently on the way to recovery, there is deep inside me a pessimistic conviction of the closeness of the end of my life, nourished by the never-ceasing petty torments of the scar, a kind of senile depression centered around the conflict between irrational pleasure in life and sensible resignation."
Why is resignation sensible? [she asks.] Why is pleasure in life irrational? Freud is so eager to rise above, to conspicuously see and take in the facts of mortality, that he can only classify an ebullient attachment to life as "irrational." Rationality seems to be an expansive, overarching code word here for something altogether stranger and more rare: moderation in one's attachment to life. As if one is supposed to be only a little bit attached to life.
Contrast Freud's sensibility with Thomas's lack thereof.
The true mystery of Thomas's last days . . . is not the precise medical cause of his coma; it is how the unnatural fear and apprehension of death melts into a craving for it. His long preoccupation with the end, with all the celebrating and singing one can do on the way to that end, his overdeveloped, painful consciousness, always, of that end, is transformed into something almost beautiful. It seems if you are afraid or preoccupied with something for long enough, you begin to develop a feeling toward it not dissimilar to love. This is not a trick of the mind that most healthy people can understand. David Foster Wallace once wrote, in a Harper's piece about a cruise ship, a decade before his own suicide: "The word 'despair' is overused and banalized now, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. It's close to what people call dread or angst, but it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I'm small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It's wanting to jump overboard." 
In her conclusion Roiphe writes,
I am coming to see that the real thing I am afraid of is not death itself but the fear of death. This fear is not abstract to me. The knowing you are about to die. The panic of its approach. That is what seems unbearable to me. That’s what I’ve been trying to write my way through.

But here’s what I learned form the deaths in this book: You work. You don’t work. You resist. You don’t resist. You exert the consummate control. You surrender. You deny. You accept. You pray. You don’t pray. you read. You work. You take as many painkillers as you can. you refuse painkillers. You rage against death. You run headlong toward it.

In the end the deaths are the same. They all die. The world releases them.

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