This Week's Show • 5/24/18

Remembering Philip Roth

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his ...

Our long, gabby afternoon with Philip Roth in 2006, at his farmhouse in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut, was a sort of pay-off. I’d helped him find just the right Boston location for a scene in his last big counterfactual novel, The Plot Against America. My reward was the chance to record what stands up very nicely here. Meantime, he’d written the slim late novella, Everyman, about an old New Jersey athlete with a failing heart, pondering broken relationships, physical decay and coming extinction.

Philip Roth spoke – not to mention: wrote — the American language like nobody else. From Newark, New Jersey and then the University of Chicago, Philip Roth had emerged in the nineteen fifties full of scandalous humor and classical ambitions as well – part Henny Youngman, part Henry James, as he said of himself in his youth. By 2006, he was wrapping up a bounteous late burst of novels. He was also down at heart on the turn of events from 9.11 into the war in Iraq: “an orgy of national narcissism,” in his view. At the age of 73, with us, he sparkled through his grim notes on the dimming of his energy, the paring down of his own rich life, and what it would mean to die. Even then Philip Roth was rehearsing his death. And hard at work, writing every day.

If I can emerge from my studio with a page, I’m not downhearted. If I emerge with less, I’m pretty frustrated. If I emerge with nothing, then I want to slit my throat. I haven’t yet, but sometimes you can’t go any further. It’s not writer’s block, that’s not the right phrase to describe it — it’s that you are not penetrating the material in a way that will release whatever is strongest in you.

Philip Roth on Open Source

In Everyman, Roth paraphrases artist Chuck Close, “Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Part of the secret Roth offered, in an aside, may be his birth year 1933, the early depression. He’s conscious of entering the world at virtually the same moment with prolific writers he still admires: Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike and Reynolds Price. We dropped many other names along the way: David Riesman, Sarah Vaughan, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, the several Henrys (Miller, James, Aaron, and Kissinger) and, yes, Tolstoy.

June 9, 2016

American Hearts and Minds

With the presidential primaries practically over, let’s take a moment on the psychiatrist’s couch, with an eye on the health of American hearts and minds. We spent months and months inside two overheated political races, ...

With the presidential primaries practically over, let’s take a moment on the psychiatrist’s couch, with an eye on the health of American hearts and minds.

We spent months and months inside two overheated political races, and nearly half of all Americans are displeased with our options.  We’re left without a feeling of confidence, let alone consensus.

But Marilynne Robinson—novelist, essayist, and friend of POTUS—declares that the political pandemonium is all to the good, if it can reintroduce us to ourselves, and to a country that many of us have ceased to understand.

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Robinson sees the world through her own Christian moral learning. So for her, America is an old and venerable civilization that has finally come to appreciate what we had in Barack Obama. We’re often saved by human ingenuity, we make a few simple requests, for solid public education and affordable healthcare, and yet we’re tempted by fear, greed and division.

Robinson recalls that we’ve been in worse scrapes before. In 1968, after the death of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Chicago convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey was marred by the protests of young antiwar voters.

After that, Humphrey was stranded, Richard Nixon ascended—and brought with him a period of democratic decay.

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What if we had a replay of that strange fractured moment in the 1960s and ’70s? And what if we asked the wisest Americans we know what to do in another moment of democratic uncertainty and disappointment?

With a very wise panel—of psychologist Andrew Solomon, philosopher Nancy Rosenblum, and historian Bruce Schulman—we’re talking through just what we’ve learned.