Philip Roth once famously wrote ‘Sheer playfulness and deadly seriousness are my closest friends’. In The Humbling Roth endows this characterisation of his work with new meaning. It is embodied in the tragic figure of an actor unable to do what used to define him – stage the perfect illusion. ‘He’d lost his magic’, this is the cruel self-evaluation Simon Axler’s story begins with. Axler now fears the stage, unable to act any longer, he falls into deep lethargy and depression. However, Simon Axler is not willing to let go of life and the possibility of staging a good act again quite yet. On the verge of committing suicide he admits himself to Hammerton, a mental hospital, thinking he might be able to stage the good patient. However, the mental institution Simon Axler spends 26 days in is soon compared to a ‘kindergarden’ with grown ups playing out their infantile fantasies, blaming others or blaming themselves for the way life has treated them. All in all a ‘pathetic group’ Axler finds. In Everyman the protagonist was the art teacher of a group of elderly people, he is now the reluctant patient, refusing the first class care his fame and wealth could afford him. Once again Roth directs the focus towards his own development as a writer. The notion of psychoanalysis central to his early novels only attains a brief satirical mention here. It seems to Axler the chaos which real suffering creates is too big a threat to staging the perfect illusion and so arouses disgust in the artist. The sincere and ordered act counts for more than chaotic real life ever could. Axler claims there is no psychological reason for his breakdown and thus psychoanalysis is done for, once and forever.
Instead the protagonist makes one more attempt at gripping life and overcoming his humiliation on stage, falling in love with a woman 25 years his junior. Having turned away from the psychoanalytic setting, Roth artfully translates mind language back onto the body. The body chosen here is Pegeen’s slender shape, which 65-year-old Axler desires as if he was a young man again. Despite better knowledge he gives in to the illusion of erotic love as a means of salvation. Setting himself the impossible task of converting the 40 year old lesbian Pegeen into a heterosexual woman he aims for disaster. Instead of potency his body shows ever more signs of a geriatric patient as he limps and trips his way through the novel. He is only just able to overcome Pegeen’s attempts to take on the male role in bed. From now on she is in control. In Axler’s show of pretending to want life Pegeen becomes the prize, which eventually he is not able to win.
Next in his quest for life we see Simon Axler enter another clinic, this time to meet a fertility specialist in order to find out about the risks of fathering a child at 65. Instead of accepting Pegeen’s ambiguous role as a woman who loves both men and women, he is suddenly drawn to the idea of her as his child-bearing wife, trying to put order in what one might call confused gender relations. As Arthur Frank has suggested, modernist medicine regards suffering as puzzle to be controlled. Control is what Axler is looking for but this time the setting is different from earlier Rothian visions of old age. The body has not been stripped bare by decline but has instead been covered in a web of illusions. Axler seems deluded when he inquires about the risks of fatherhood at his age. Instead of accepting his real ageing body he clings onto the vision of himself as a potent man. Roth has moved on in his description of the physical, from Nathan Zuckerman’s pain that ‘changed it all’ to Simon Axler who registers his decline but chooses to take flight in the illusion of being young and healthy.
This time, other than in The Dying Animal, it is not the younger woman who has to pay the prize but the ageing hero. When Pegeen leaves him to be with a young woman instead of bearing his children, his dreams are crushed. Axler receives the final blow to his already battered ego. And in his panic he resorts to one last mechanism in order to control his life and body and uphold the idea of power. Instead of travelling the country to seek cure (The Anatomy Lesson) or spending hours with his psychoanalyst (Portnoy’s Complaint), Axler decides to take the bull by the horns. If decline is inescapable, then why not decide when and how the end is going to happen? Axler goes one step further than attempting to cure his body, perceived of as machine in a modern manner, but ends it by means of a machine, his Remington 870 pump-action shotgun. The passive patient’s body has evolved into Axler’s body, which is at the will of the patient. With Axler’s suicide Roth has chosen the most violent and rigid response to physical and artistic decline yet to be found in his work. The story ends where otherwise it could have become another Rothian illness narrative full of playfulness in the face of the deadly serious threats to life. In this case, however, the playful actor has created a web of illusions around his body, which has to be annihilated when signs of dysfunction are looming. To Axler life itself has become too chaotic and painful to be endured. On his private attic ‘stage’, pretending to be Chekhov’s Konstantin Gavrilovich, Axler is finally able to pull the trigger. Staging illusion has now become the playful answer to life’s serious threats – even if death is the outcome.