Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End, is a journalistic exploration into the lives of Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas and Maurice Sendak, at the end of their lives, in their most personal voices and from the people closest to them. The zig-zag quality of each subject's narrative mimics the summing up of life that most people travel through when close to the end, pausing on the meaning of relationships, accomplishments, regrets and as time approaches, the end itself. Katie Roiphe reaches closely and deeply into the final edges of these lives.
Throughout this process, the reader is drawn into Roiphe’s own life. She is transparent as to what moves her and from where her questions stem. Her inner voice takes the reader back to her pre-pubescent experience of being deathly ill herself and describes how that time shaped her character and urged her to somehow make an agreement with the fact and mystery that we all will die.
Her work reads as if it were her own personal journal: notes in brief paragraphs, private thoughts, confessions, layered in research of her subjects that supply the same pattern of inner and outer voices: public and private, distant and intimate. Roiphe takes what the tabloid magazines have long built empires upon, that our lives are worth reporting and each individual’s story reflects something universal, familiar and mysterious.
I was intrigued by the order in which the subjects appeared as if Roiphe were sub-texting a broader message.
Susan Sontag’s life at the end was the most grueling and extended event by Sontag’s own design. She sought to be cured until the very end, investing in as much technology and treatment into the fight against death, as money could buy. Yet Sontag's writing speaks from a source that sees the epiphany and wholeness in death and dying.
“We no longer study the art of dying, a regular discipline and hygiene in older cultures, “ [Sontag] wrote, “but all eyes at rest contain that knowledge.” (Pg. 35)
The irony is today we are in "The Fight Against Cancer". We hear it everywhere and sometimes secretly prepare for it if it hasn't yet touched us. Still we the living, witness death and dying from a long way off. The Art of Dying is no longer a wisdom passed down by elders and seen by the living. It's a memory hundreds of years gone past.
Sontag's story with cancer began in her 40's with her first diagnosis. At that time, she led her own research into the latest treatments and sought the most aggressive treatments in Europe. Her victory over the disease became part of her own mythology, that she was somehow super-human to what others succumbed to.
In “the Way We Live Now,” her excellent short story about illness, about what it is like to be sick, Sontag writes: Dying is an amazing high he said to Quentin. Sometimes I feel so fucking well, so powerful, it’s as if I could jump out of my skin. Am I going crazy, or what? Is it all this attention and coddling I’m getting from everybody, like a child’s dream of being loved? Is it the drugs? Or what? I know it sounds crazy but sometimes I think it is a fantastic experience.” (Pg. 33)
Her time of death meant she hadn't achieved the outcome she had held onto - a cure. Rather, she endured a very long dying process. Her story, although extreme, is one which many people endure today.
Conversely, Sigmund Freud, the master of control, achieved his death. His theories of obsession, sexual repression, control and release exist within the same house of death. And although criticized by contemporary thinkers for having lightened the impact of modern society's denial of death, Freud appears, in Roiphe’s research, to contain the reality clearly within a holistic pattern of life.
As Freud put it, “our habit is to lay stress on the fortuitous causation of the death---accident, disease, infection, advanced age; in this way we betray an effort to reduce death from a necessity to a chance event.” (Pg. 21)
Roiphe's research goes into the human drama surrounding Freud, and precisely on the unspoken contracts between family members and his doctor. Similar to what we experience today in the death and dying arena, many unspoken agreements, some of them lies.
Freud is a writer that so many thinkers have loved to analyze. Roiphe does not so much analyze but tells us the "he said, she said" through the various names of people in Freud's life who served to mirror his inner complexities.
“We cannot observe our own death, “Freud wrote so authoritatively, so convincingly, and all the while he was trying his best to do exactly that.” (Pg.110)
John Updike: the middle-class man, juicing up the American dream. The flimsy boundary between his personal and creative life heightened his celebrity. His love for irony rescued him from the comforting, pneumatic, social mores he was raised in. His death, common to many, was surrounded by words left unspoken. We only know this because of the family interviews. We read glimpses of what hurts when things are left unsaid, which of course makes us ponder our own lives.
In his novel Couples, there is a scene where the thirty-ish hero visits a dying man in the hospital: “he saw, plunging, how plausible it was to die, how death, far from invading earth like a meteor, occurs on the same plane as birth and marriage and the arrival of the daily mail.” (Pg 155)
Coached by his second wife to not be struck down in despair, apathy or weakness at the end. Updike heroically wrote a collection of poems while in the last stages of cancer. He participated in his own dying. He gave it a voice and enlivened his artistic purpose in doing so.
With what stoic delicacy does
Virginia creeper let go:
The feeblest tug brings down
A sheaf of leaves kite-high,
as if to say, To live is good
but not to live—to be pulled down
with scarce a ripping sound,
still flourishing, still
stretching toward the sun—
is good also, all photosynthesis
abandoned, quite quits. (Pg. 150)
Dylan Thomas, the gifted and spiritually wounded poet. His quiet death, in contrast to his wild and reckless ways, was the centerpiece for the drama that ensued around his death bed and the pain that his broken relationships bled thereafter.
The protest, the great loud mournful cry, the violence, are all there, rolled up with the praise. The beauty and the life-giving can’t be separated from death. (Pg. 191)
Dylan's example of the drunken writer/celebrity does not hold the glamor it did back in the day. It must have died with his romanticism.
The true mystery of Thomas’s last days, however, 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. (Pg.199)
Maurice Sendak: his early traumatic wounding nested in his work for children, signals to them what they want to hear - their own fears! Oblivion, death, a fleeing from home, a kidnapping from one's own bed, all of these he writes and draws.
His story is placed at the end of Roiphe’s sequence. His own ending has a child-like clarity to it. Coming full circle, Sendak comes into old age with a peacefulness and deep gratitude for life. It's an achievement that escaped him in his striving years. Most of all he experiences forgiveness for the obstacles to love that wounded him. Dying well, requires that of us.
Now she said to him, “How does it feel to be famous?” He said, “I still have to die.” (Pg. 217)
It's as if Sendak is telling us that dying is bigger than any amount of fame and that fame cannot separate us from the hardest things in life - dying and grieving.
Roiphe's writing is deep and delicious. She savours each intimate look into these lives, neither making saints out them now that they are dead or casting a foul shadow on their name. Her chronicles respect the souls that lived their time and read like extended eulogies that bring the whole person into the room and give everyone present at least one new look at their person, they never knew before.
The final chapter of the book is written in conversation between James Salter and Katie Roiphe. The two sat down to discuss her subjects, their work, and her work on them. Writers writing about writers, talking about the writing and writing some more. The work is a reflective quest that shines light on what we are taught to fear, folds in on itself and then grows wider in order to find its edges and frame.
“The book is the worn stones of conjugal life. All that is beautiful, all that is plain, everything that nourishes or causes to wither. It goes on for years, decades, and in the end seems to have passed like things glimpsed from the train---a meadow here, a stand of trees, houses with lit windows in the dusk, darkened towns, stations flashing by---everything that is not written down disappears except for certain imperishable moments, people and scenes. The animals die, the house is sold, the children are grown, even the couple itself has vanished, and yet there is this poem.” James Salter in a Paris Review interview of his book, Light Years. (Pg. 267)