The Secular Saint

Philip Roth is ready to retire, but we can't bare to let him go.


in Archive



Why can’t the old man retire in peace? He’ll be 80 years old this coming March. He doesn’t want to work anymore. He will write no more novels. When he talks about his retirement, Roth sounds satisfied. He no longer wants to be Philip Roth, The Writer. He has written everything that he could write. He has had a long and amazingly successful career. He is tired. Speaking with Charles McGrath at The New York Times, Roth said, “I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time. …I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

This news has not gone down easy. It doesn’t feel right that Philip Roth should be allowed to retire from writing. It feels like a betrayal. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Ken Gordon wrote, “You expect ordinary, hard-working mortals to retire from their dull and unfulfilling jobs to Floridian condos and Hawaiian shirts. But not Roth. Retirement was for the rest of us.” The sense that it is wrong for Philip Roth to retire from writing has kept the story of his retirement alive for longer than the four or five days it would otherwise have taken up in the news cycle. It is now officially interesting not that Roth is retiring, but that we are finding it so difficult to accept the fact that Roth is retiring. A person could get the idea that deeper issues are at stake. Indeed, they are.

Arthur Plotnik, a former student of Roth’s at the Iowa Writer’s Fiction Workshop, tapped into some of those deeper issues in a piece he wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. Arthur Plotnik felt shocked when he first heard the news that Roth was retiring. “I can’t help feeling,” Plotnik wrote, “as if the Master — the patron saint of fiction for two generations — has let me down.” Plotnik further recalls how Roth would tell his students that he “imagined fiction to be something like a religious calling, and literature a kind of sacrament.”

I don’t think this religious language should be taken lightly. Calling Roth a saint is not exactly a metaphor here — it is something deeper than a metaphor. We have to think about what a saint actually does, what role a saint performs. A saint is a person set apart for their holiness. The saint is still a human being, of course, still a sinner. There is a famous quote by Fr. Bernard Carges that says: “A saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.” But the seriousness of that trying, the relentlessness of that trying, marks the saint as beyond a normal human being. The saint thus becomes a model for everyone else struggling to make difficult choices, to behave well when there are so many motivations for behaving less-than-well. But it is even more complicated than that. It was always acknowledged, from the time of the early Christian saints, that the vast majority of human beings would never achieve a saintly level of holiness. So the saint is both a model and an impossible standard. The fact that the saint takes on the task of living life at a higher and unachievable level adds meaning to the lives of everyone else. For many centuries, human beings seem to have enjoyed stories of the saints as a way to acknowledge their own limits. People have been glad that saints exist and simultaneously glad that they do not have to be saints. There is a tension in those two feelings but not, I think, a contradiction. Confronting a saint is like confronting a better version of yourself, a version that you know you cannot ever become. The confrontation creates feelings of inspiration, then frustration, and then acceptance. Or so it was for many centuries of Western Civilization.

Then, to condense much history into one phrase, secularization happened. Saints didn’t go away. The Catholic Church is canonizing people to this day. Mother Theresa lived and died and is well on her way to sainthood. Nevertheless, saints are less important than they once were. They have lost their mainstream social role. And yet, the world still holds a spot in its heart, a saint spot. This kind of thing happened again and again in the secularization process. What once was religious had to be made into a secular version of itself. It has been said that the modern concept of progress is but a secularization of the old Christian eschatology that explained how human history would culminate in a Second Coming. History doesn’t just stop being one thing and magically become another. Subtle transformations occur. Categories shift and overlap across time.

The saint problem, however, has been a particularly thorny one. How do you have saints without religion? It would seem a contradiction in terms. Not so, said the Romantics of the early 19th century. Let us, they suggested, put the artist into the role of the saint. To be fair, the Romantics didn’t exactly consciously plan to secularize saints. But they did begin to speak about artists and to idealize artists in ways that resembled the way people used to speak about saints. “The artist alone sees spirits,” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe proclaimed, “But after he has told of their appearing to him, everybody sees them.” The artist, in short, has a special and heightened relationship to the world. The rest of us benefit from the wonders that only the artist can reveal. Likewise, the artist, many Romantics thought, has a special relationship to suffering. Everyone knows the trope of the Romantic artist in anguish. Lord Byron said, “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.” The saint who once suffered in the knowledge that suffering can bring one closer to God has been transformed into the artist whose suffering reveals the truths of our worldly condition.

The feeling, then, that Philip Roth has “let us down” (as Arthur Plotnik put it) is understandable. The identification of artist as saint means it is unimaginable to think of the artist/saint as finishing. Their art/saintliness is supposed to be who they are at the deepest level. Finishing would be tantamount to dying. Imagine Mother Theresa suddenly announcing that she was done with her work and would spend the last few years of her life vacationing in the Caribbean.

At the same time, we’ve forgotten all of this history. We are not terribly clear why artists are supposed to live a genuinely different kind of life. We have forgotten how and why saints were so important in pre-modern times. We’ve also forgotten the Romantic history through which we transformed artists into saintly figures in order to compensate for the loss of religious saints. Now we have the residue of this historical process, without understanding it. In many of the articles that have been written about Roth’s retirement, the writer begins by expressing hurt and astonishment, only to end the article by apologizing for that thought. In the aforementioned Atlantic article, Ken Gordon goes from expressing his personal, visceral sense of loss at Roth’s retirement to writing, “So I’ve decided to give the guy a break. He’s done plenty for me already. He finally has a chance to live his life as an ordinary person.” This pattern has been common. First, there is the outrage. Second, there is the realization that the outrage wasn’t fair and that it should be retracted. On the one hand, we are burdened with the historical legacy of the artist as saint. This gives rise to the outrage. On the other, we are burdened with the post-Enlightenment idea that all human beings are pretty much the same, pursuers of their own happiness on their own terms. This gives rise to the apologies, to the on-second-thought wishes that Roth be allowed to enjoy himself however he likes.

The final irony of all this is that the literature Roth wrote throughout his long career was about men trying to enjoy themselves however they like, and the attendant complications. It is, you could say, the literature of contemporary life, of modern-day subjects. The critique of Roth was always that he indulged in the self-absorption of the 20th century American male to the point of endorsing it. In his more nuanced novels, like American Pastoral, it is clear that Roth was doing something much more sophisticated than that. He was trying to show us that who we understand ourselves to be is shot through with misunderstanding.

Roth’s last act, his retirement from novel writing, is thus appropriate to the man who wrote American Pastoral. He has forced us to take a look at our confusion, our mixed-up historical categories, our oddly incompatible moral intuitions. The artists of the secular age cannot, alas, also be our saints. The anti-climax of Roth’s retirement is thus an uncharacteristic bit of humility on his part. Call it the saintly last act of one of the 20th century’s greatest literary sinners. 17 December 2012