Health Proxy (Stamford, Conn.: Yuganta Press, 2007).
The style is the man. That old adage is here true in its deepest sense – style as the discipline through which a fascinating individual, as he faces the onset of old age, struggles with the issues and activities that have defined his life as a man of the left. The book defies summary. It’s about the experience of acting as a health proxy for friends and relatives who are now deceased. (A health proxy is one who has legally accepted responsibility for making medical decisions for someone who is no longer able to make them. Two deeply moving examples here involve a friend dying of AIDS and an aunt suffering fatal burns.) It’s also a book about a man of the left engaged in a critique of the left: of our brand of conformity; our false as well as real solidarity; our hysterical competitiveness and compulsive status-seeking and all the other ways in which our “alternative world” so often mirrors the society we would overturn. Some of the sharpest observations in the book focus on this topic.
Roth is especially keen on puncturing the postures of academics, especially their need to affect a condescending superiority. Roth is perfectly positioned to develop this critique because while he is a deep and widely read man of considerable theoretical sophistication he is not an academic. In fact, the primary way he makes (or made) his living is by deliverying newspapers at NYU. That fact, which the reader learns roughly 1/3rd of the way through the book, is disarming to some readers I suspect, given the sophistication of Roth’s thought. It also reveals, I think, the primary source of the book’s honesty and its critical power. Roth is that rare leftist – the one Doris Lessing calls for: a man who is a socialist in his instincts. As a result everyone is treated as an equal: Professor X with all his titles and awards and Joe, the janitor who cleans his office. And as a result no idea escapes the right kind of inspection: does it actually arise from and contribute to our collective struggle for a humane existence or is it a self-gratifying posture?
The result is a frequently sharp critique of all easy, ideologically correct views and a willingness to give a hearing to views that it would be easy to dismiss for the same reason. The book is written primarily in vignettes, which are often brief, aphoristic, charged with complex and often conflicting feelings. The primary impression this book gives is that Robert Roth would be the ideal companion for an evening of serious discussion. As I read the book, the Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre often came to mind. Roth’s is an intelligence that ranges freely over diverse topics in a way that is always independent and provocative.
But in all this richness is there also a unifying thread? Yes, the one that binds us all: Death. The book’s title initially puzzled me. Roth’s work as a health proxy is treated early in the book then drops out as he turns to other topics. Or does it? Consider the possibility that we are all finally our own health proxy, becoming so being one way to describe the process of aging and the bitter realization that one will die. That’s the true subject of this book.
Roth’s book begins with an experience that comes to all of us if we manage to live on into our sixties and beyond – the death of friends (eight here by my count) and with it what Derrida called “the duty of the survivor”: to do for the friends what they’d have to do for us were the roles reversed; to remember each life in a way that sums up its meaning. What Derrida didn’t add is that the shadow of our own death is the reality that enables us to do this – by complicating the task. Though always without a trace of self-pity, Roth is preoccupied with his aging – with each sign of it as it intrudes on a once attractive, sexually active and athletic man who now finds that he has become afraid of sexual contact. But with that change comes a deeper recognition that most aging people unfortunately avoid: that long overdue act of calling into question the meaning of one’s life and what for lack of a better term we call our “self.”
Roth has led an active, deeply commited political life and has had countless friendships marked by mutual humanity. One of the great pleasures in becoming Roth’s friend as one reads the book is that of meeting his other friends, people of substance committed like him to the left. And yet the present is for Roth defined by doubt and frequently painful memories, because as he now reflects on his life he becomes a scrupulous observer of character flaws that now preoccupy him because they suggest the real terror of aging: the recognition that one has never lived or has failed to live fully because one has been afraid to risk oneself. I think Roth is too hard on himself; many of the political acts he’s taken in his life provide eloquent refutation of the charges he brings against himself. But in terms of the issues that now weigh on him, that is irrelevant. The demand for total self-honesty is all that matters. My own experience (at 64 and thus a year older than Roth) is that most people as they age become less honest with themselves, especially with respect to qualities that don’t flatter their self-esteem. The opposite obtains here. Here is a man who is willing to face defects where most people are concerned only to find narcissistic reassurance.
This theme enters the book unobtrusively. Imagine someone telling you what a wonderful fellow he is for serving as a health proxy. Roth tells a different story – not only of his own ambivalence about being called on to play this role (and the ambivalent motives of those who ask him to do so) but also of his failures to do the job properly. No major drama here. Just the usual failures and fears: to be insistent in dealing with doctors and other hospital personnel; the curious decision to Fax the form that will enable a doctor to take a friend off a life-support machine rather than delivering it personally. For Roth however such failures have a deeper source that must be confronted. As he puts it in the first of many unflinching confessions: “ In ways deep and often constant I engage other people’s pain, their panic. Never letting myself fully be touched.” Not just now, when faced with the death of friends, but his whole life – that’s the level of self-knowledge Roth seeks, even though it reinforces the fear that he’s never lived. And consequently the need to deepen the critical self-analysis. At first in the third person: “His life has brought him to a very strange place. He can only connect with people when he is reading in front of a large audience.” The rest of the time one plays roles because real human contact is unbearable: “My anger seems subdued into a melancholy lament. All my emotions seem subdued into this melancholy sound.” What makes this melancholy so devastating is that it takes away any chance to risk and even leads to the self-deadening tendency to see those who still risk, despite their age, as pathetic and deluded. But that’s a conveniently self-serving attitude Roth realizes. Get beneath it and one discovers the bitter truth: “my whole life I have not allowed the full force of experience to affect me. I have always been too numb, too frozen by life-shock.”
All of us, but especially those who cut our teeth on the political struggles of the sixties, like to look back on our lives and congratulate ourselves on all that we risked. Roth, who has led a life of exemplary activism, will have none of it. Aging and the coming of death cast a cold eye back on his entire life. His erotic, creative, and political energies are blocked now, he realizes, because they were always blocked. (He adds a prescient comment: “This blockage is, in fact, a communal affliction.”) Is it possible that the most honest reflection on one’s life will reveal that it was not what you thought it was; and that, in fact, the claims you made for it were essentially compensatory? This is a painful question for the left because it suggests that our activism is often an attempt to fashion a self-conception that will deny a condition we don’t want to face. Pursuing this line of thought brings Roth to the deepest place in his psyche: “Beneath the repression, beneath the fear… beneath the trauma, there is an interior world where I am too afraid to enter. I need to open up that door and see what is there. What do I need to do?” That, as Hamlet would say, is the question. And for Roth it reveals that his basic problem as a writer and as a man has been the same. (This is also, I would suggest, a problem that defines all of us.)
Whenever he opens up – to anxiety, love, writing, interaction – something in Robert Roth shuts down. Anxiety triumphs over the possibilities of experience. As he puts it in a telling sentence: “Any insight becomes arrested by a tiny catharsis.” There is a single word of criticism that must be added here. This insight comes only a few pages before the book ends. Like so many brave acts of self-examination – Rilke’s Malte is one that often came to mind when reading this book – the book ends where it really should have begun. Or where Roth’s next book must.
But this sentence also summarizes the book’s essential theme. Its often stunning critique of leftist ideologies and its narrative of painful self-discovery is marked by an even more painful arresting of insight. And Roth knows it. Which brings me back to the title. We are all our own health proxy and for the most part we do a bad job of it because we let our anxieties, our fears, our defenses and our “identities” control us. Insight is thus constantly sacrificed for “a tiny catharsis,” i.e., that feeling of well-being one gets not when one has resolved a problem honestly but when one has banished it. Knowing that about us is the beauty of this book. It shows the ways we delude ourselves ideologically and why as death comes toward us we must now find these ways untenable. That is the only way to be a genuine health proxy for oneself; by making the hard decisions that one is no longer able to make because one is so the creature of habit that “a tiny catharsis” has become an overriding necessity. The title thus points to a fundamental psychological self-division: the ill and dying animal losing the ability to do anything about its state and the health proxy intervening to insist that the demands of human existence will remain the law we follow until the moment we die – especially when it means that we must face things we don’t want to see or admit about ourselves. In that sense this book aspires to what few books do – wisdom.
In focusing on this theme I fear I’ve given one incorrect impression. This is not a gloomy or self-preoccupied book. Nor does the view Roth has of himself match the way he comes across in his interpersonal interactions, which are all marked by honesty, respect, and caring. Friends reading the book will, I suspect, hotly debate Roth’s self-criticisms. Personal insight comes slowly and intermittently in a book that is alive with incidents, memorable characters, acute political perceptions, all done in a style that is tough, economical, full of humor and irony and often with a concentrated power to say the most painful things in the way they must be said – in well chosen words that impress themselves indelibly on the reader’s mind. As in: “National liberation is not human liberation. The two are often confused… The university is called contested terrain by people trying to justify their location and often their complicity in an oppressive institution… My own death lurks somewhere off to the side as I comment on everything and everyone.”
Reviewed by Walter A. Davis
Ohio State University