The Difficulty of Stepping Away

Besides their ages, Philip Roth and Pope Benedict XVI would appear to have little in common. The mischievous, secular, and oft-profane Jewish-American literary provocateur and the sophisticated theologian, the staunchly traditional Bishop of Rome, seem cut from entirely different cloth. But each of these men recently made rather surprising announcements that were remarkably similar: They were retiring, stepping down and away from occupations that have historically been considered lifetime positions. In so doing, they have forced us to reconsider basic assumptions about vocation, career, and the management of a life.

Sometime in the late summer or early fall of this year, Philip Roth detached a Sticky Note from its fellows, scrawled a note to himself, and stuck it on his computer. For those responsible enough to utilize such mnemonically responsible props, they can help remind us to send e-mail, or meet a friend for coffee, or start thinking of the first chapter of our thesis. For Roth, it was a different kind of reminder, not to do something, but to stop doing what he had been doing for nearly half a century, nearly better than anyone else: writing fiction. In an interview with Charles McGrath of the New York Times, Roth read the note out loud to an America whose fictional sense of itself he helped fashion. It read like this: “The struggle with writing is over.”  Such renunciations of literary activity are more common than they might appear to be. Shakespeare famously retired back to Stratford-upon-Avon after writing “The Tempest” in 1610-11, and Harper Lee has not written a book since “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1960.  The Pope’s play is a little more unusual, not having happened in 600 years or so.

Of course, Roth, like Shakespeare and unlike Lee, was no one-hit wonder. From “Goodbye, Columbus” to the epochal “Portnoy’s Complaint” and through the Zuckerman trilogy and such late masterpieces as “Sabbath’s Theater” and “American Pastoral,” Roth has had an illustrious career. But what interests me is this notion of a “career,” and more specifically what our writers, celebrities, and spiritual leaders owe us.  Most recently and infamously, the NFL quarterback Brett Favre was widely denounced for continuing to play past his prime, for mistiming his exit cue and imposing his eroding skills on a public weary of his waffling career plans. Michael Jordan somehow managed to retire both too early and too late, leaving to play baseball at the peak of his NBA career and then returning to play basketball when he was no longer the same player. Perhaps we react so strongly to these decisions because they are tied to the body’s capacities and failings. We understand that to succeed as a professional athlete requires a breathtaking measure of grace, coordination, and strength, gifts vouchsafed to the young. The decline in those metrics that comes with age can be unseemly and can seem terrifyingly tangent to our own fears of hurried mortality.

In some ways, Roth’s decision to “hang up” his computer or Benedict his staff is analogous to the proverbial spikes. Just as much as shooting a basket or throwing a pass, the qualities of inspiration and composition and spiritual fervor tend to favor the youthful. The glories of both Wordsworth and Whitman date to an initial effervescence of creative force. Keats was dead at 25, and John Kennedy Toole wrote “A Confederacy of Dunces” before his 30th birthday. William Butler Yeats and Wallace Stevens both produced substantial poetry late in life, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. We expect writers to write continually. They owe us their insights and their books at regular intervals, to read and write papers about or maybe just place on our bookshelves.

Benedict and Roth thought differently, however, realizing that the profession of immortal truths is contingent on the possession of bodily strength, a perishable commodity. At moments when purpose and ability converge, the world feels commensurate to our aims, and its scale is congruent with our own. Both Roth and Benedict began to feel the balance tipping in the other direction, and the receding overlap between who they were and what they hoped to accomplish. It is fortunate that both of them thrived in fields that were always somewhat adjacent to inactivity; the still of prayer and the solitary isolation of the consumed reader always undergirded their more public iterations. Both faith and art are things you do alone and hope others can share. Finally, they both ask of us a final measure of devotion that is also a valediction.

I vividly remember a visit by the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul to campus last year. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas” is among my favorite novels. I asked the 80-year-old writer a question about the experience of writing the book. He refused to answer, a decision I only later understood. For me, the book was powerfully and emphatically in my present, reaching and teaching me with a powerful immediacy. For Naipaul, the book was an artifact 50 years old, a lifetime ago. Great works of art or the spirit can partake in a perpetual contemporaneity. Unfortunately, the men and women who make them adhere to a less leisurely chronology. Sometimes, one, or two, of them might want to step away from it all, leaving us a little in the lurch, but also a little in awe.

Ari R. Hoffman ’10 is a Ph.D. candidate in English and a resident tutor in Lowell House