The Violet Hour By Katie Roiphe
Death surrounds me – a massacre of grandparents, fathers and mothers, friends, childhood playmates, aunts, uncles and cousins and pets. They die in car accidents, of heart failure, of cancer, of bad luck and worse luck.
This September, they’ll die again, in equal numbers with grisly fates.
I considered this grim relationship while reading Katie Roiphe’s THE VIOLET HOUR, an elegiac and sprawling examination of the last days and hours of six legendary writers. Sigmund Freud, for instance, suffering from throat cancer. He asks his friend Max Schur to administer a fatal dose of morphine. “It is only torture now,” he said, “and it has no longer any sense.”
To face that decision with crystal clarity, Roiphe writes that Freud had refused any painkillers except aspirin – despite suffering from a half-amputated jaw.
Roiphe presents authors sensing or fighting the last sentence of their story. Dylan Thomas brags about a night of 18 whiskeys – “a personal record.” Maurice Sendak nods “yes” in a hospice bed. Susan Sontag asks for any cancer treatment, every treatment, each more painful and horrific than the next.
If we’re being honest, we all want death to come without warning or awareness – a light abruptly shaded by a drawn curtain. Or if we see it coming, then to choose the moment on our terms, with final words of profound wisdom, like Sigmund Freud’s clear analysis of the situation.
Compare that to how Roiphe describes herself at 12 – suffering from a life-threatening lung infection: “One day when I cough, there is blood in the tissue. I taste blood in my mouth. I know this means I am dying, so I do the sensible thing and tell no one.” We’ve all had aches and pains that become an unwelcome pet, a Schrodinger’s Cat.
We know it’s coming. We “gear up,” Roiphe writes. In the hospital, the young Roiphe will read books on genocide – “I want to see children die.”
As the adult author of THE VIOLET HOUR, she writes “To see the world, I open a book. [Now] I want to see death. I think if I can capture a death on the page, I’ll repair or heal something. I’ll feel better. It comes down to that.”
Is that much different than students wrestling with the loss of a beloved grandparent? To feel better?
I don’t respect the student’s experiences, now that my grandparents are long gone: I forget the first left with my tears, the second with sudden shock, the third with melancholy, the final, not much more than a sad smile. So I may roll my eyes at each essay – another one? – but I’ve forgotten the face of my grandfathers.
Directed to write a “personal essay,” the students remember the drama of emotion – of that first loss. I tell them the moment isn’t what matters; they rarely listen, and I can’t blame them. It’s easier to reflect on harried hospital visits, sudden phone calls, choked-up conversations.
They are only 18, so they see their own path barely set. They wonder what life will be like without someone. Can’t comprehend the question the other way: What will life be like without me?
I can’t help but be affected by this murderous cavalcade, to see the thin cord our mortality unspools on. A father dies of a heart attack – why does my arm hurt? The aunt struck by cancer – what is this strange pain? The car crash – are my reflexes a step too slow? I understand my autumn years are here, until the question is the only question.
When will it be my time?
The students and Roiphe try to capture death, to repair, to feel better. What Roiphe’s subjects felt when they saw death coming, we can’t truly know. Is how Freud, John Updike and Sendak kept working until they couldn’t just their form of denial, no different than how Susan Sontag rebelled against cancer to the end, or Thomas drank himself into ignorance?
Sendak suffered a heart attack at 39 and Roiphe relates his contradicting feelings. “Afterward, he felt very uneasy being alone; he was worried he wouldn’t be able to get to the hospital….he says that he was born with his heart attack. He describes death as if it is a friend who is waiting for him.”
Sendak had said that “I want to be alone and work until the day my head hits the drawing table, and I’m dead. Kaput.” But Roiphe writes it didn’t work that way. He had multiple strokes, the final one would make him incapable of drawing and writing. He had discussed with his doctor “that when he couldn’t work or walk his dogs, he would be ready to die.” The doctor “asked Maurice if he still felt the way they had discussed. Maurice nodded.” From there, he lasted just three more days, ready to meet that friend. If the “nod” was his best attempt at a last word, Roiphe does not say.
Roiphe gives it dignity – even Dylan Thomas’ apparently purposeful self-destruction almost has a heroic feel. She writes that a private detective witnesses him taking Benzedrine after a day of drinking, medically pushing himself to hit the bars again.
“Is this itself the protest?” Roiphe writes. “Is this the ‘rage, rage, against the dying of the light?’ Five drinks, six drinks, seven, the desperate desire to carry on.”
After his 18 whiskeys, Thomas is seen by a doctor and left in bed – he tells a friend, “what an undistinguished way to reach one’s 39th year.”
Those are the last words of Thomas’ that Roiphe reports before he descends into a fatal coma. They are wry and perfectly literate. Nothing indicates any deliberate finality. Claiming a record means an expectation that record might be broken.
In 2007, I had also turned 39, and I know what my last words could have been – “Christ, this fucking sink” – said in a sheet metal shower stall at a combat outpost in Iraq, a few days into a 2007 reporting trip. The words digitally recorded, accompanied shortly afterwards by the hiss of a descending mortar, the shotgun blast of an explosion, a raining shrapnel of rocks, and my own sharp intake of breath. A matter of feet – 10 feet on that side of a concrete barrier instead of this side.
I can play the moment back – have played it back, many times – up until I hear my own humorless chuckle 45 minutes later when I notice the red light, and realize what the recording will contain.
It depended where a mortar team laid the metal base for the tube. Depended on how the dusty ground settled, on how much explosives packed the shell, on where they braked the car in the desert. None of it had anything to do with me.
So the question arises: what did I learn, seeing – hearing – death come so close, certainly no friend. I’d say nothing. I changed no behavior, had no epiphany, am no more noble or less venal. The close call teaches nothing.
Roiphe writes, “In even the worst deaths, observed closely, there is a great burst of life. I don’t want to be sentimental. I see Sontag’s epic fight against her cancer and am tempted to see something heroic in it, something inspiring. But I also think of David Rieff (Sontag’s son) writing, ‘To me, torture is not too strong a word.’”
I might have gotten off easy, if that mortar had landed right on my head, a great burst of quick death and a legendary story. Then again, I would have made the national news in the worst way – dead in a latrine. I wouldn’t have been around to say “shower,” not “shitter.” I know how that distinction would have been lost – not heroic or inspiring. And “Christ, this fucking sink” certainly lacks the resonance of Freud’s last words, the dignity of Sendak’s nod.
But back to “torture.” Let’s say you avoid the alcoholism, the heart attacks, the mortars from the sky. Say you live to 90, 95, 100. What do we earn? What will we learn? How to decide between hospital care or hospice, like Updike? How to draw with one eye, like Sendak? Or live with an artificial jaw like Freud, in a miasma of our own decaying skin? Hazily witnessing second wives pushing our first marriage’s children from the hospital room? Or having no children around at all?
My students shouldn’t raise those questions – they are the children, summoned to hospital beds; to lake houses where the guest of honor stays inside; to living rooms for talks with stern-faced parents; to cops at the front door.
Then they live. They live at high noon, with no shadows at their feet.
But from the corner of my own eye, I see the twilight sun edge into the tree line; a shadow creeps on the grass, turning summer’s green into Roiphe’s evening violet. What waits?
I know it won’t be a mortar in Iraq. One end avoided, by coin-flip luck.
I think of the driver’s blind spot we all double check, triple check. Instinct, looking over our shoulder, ensuring another vehicle hasn’t snuck in out of our vision. An instinct we don’t regard as survival, so civilized and common sense – but is it different than a gazelle’s skittish nature on the savannah? Think of the cars you’ve noticed – a dozen, a hundred? Think in terms of thousands, in the course of a driver’s lifetime.
We check the blindspot, we think rationally, we get checkups, we hope to live by Freud’s example, who wrote of a dead peer: “He lived his life with heroic clarity, did not disgrace analysis.” And Roiphe writes “It means there are ways of dying that Freud felt would disgrace analysis…not facing scientific fact, denying, suppressing, to enter into a drugged state or otherwise look away.”
She writes that Freud’s “wry acceptance” is an “exercise of this heroic clarity. A gearing up.”
We’re always gearing up, even if we don’t admit it. Our checkups simply mitigate what’s inevitable. Prevent this, cure this; wait for that.
The best we can hope for – the best! – is the checkup where the doctor says, “we need to talk,” and we get an answer for the last “friend” who’ll visit. Sendak said death would be a “great adventure.” That’s fair. Sontag’s opposing defiance strikes me as an unwillingness to be alone, for that most private trip – no adventure to her.
The students are left to write about what comes after. It was never our story – we’re all chapters in someone else’s story. The story someone tells, about what they felt when we were gone.
That’s what Roiphe has done: reflected how she felt about these six writers. It’s her story, her construction of these lives. James Salter provides an interview for Roiphe’s epilogue – and then he did what any perfect character in writing does – he died to fit the narrative.
What should a reader learn? I’m an educated man, a war veteran, with a wife and responsibilities, who stands alone in front of a classroom with the mantle of authority. So what did I learn?
Comparing and contrasting the fates that Roiphe collected, broke down, reflected upon and analyzed, and from the body count of dozens of student essays, and the choices made and the fights lost, I think I have learned there will be no “heroic measures” or feeding tubes or huddled crowds at hospital beds. I think I see New Hampshire’s White Mountains in wintertime, deep grey and a chill wind blowing. I think if a doctor ever says we need to talk, and I’m given the chance to look all the way into that blindspot and with wide eyes see what finally will outrun me on the primeval plains, I think I’ll bet my life that I can climb Mount Washington in January.
Nathan Webster is currently a Lecturer of English at the University of New Hampshire. His previous writing includes freelance reporting from Iraq in 2007-09. Other writing has appeared at the Daily Beast, the New York Times, the Rumpus and other venues.