The Humbling, Philip Roth
I devoured Philip Roth’s newest novel, The Humbling, in about 180 minutes. This brief novel tells the story of Simon Axler’s fall from thespian fame. For decades Axler held the masses captive with brilliant acting. His glory attracted women, money, and fame. And then one day it was gone. He was on stage and froze, unable to act. The magic disappeared.
Axler mopes about the house, spins downward into a depression, lands in bed unable to get up. He searches for a reason. Why? Why did he just “lose it”? What happened? His wife leaves him. Miserable, he climbs the attic, grabs his shotgun, and contemplates suicide. But then he comforts himself with a thought: “I’m a stable man playing a broken man. A sane man acting like an insane man.” Ahh, that’s the issue. It’s his acting turned inward. He checks himself into a mental hospital to try and gather his wits.
As the story unfolds, Axler leaves the mental ward to retire at a farmhouse in upstate New York. He waits. He’s waiting for something to come, the magic or something. A relative, 25 years his younger, shows up one day. Pegeen. Pegeen is a lesbian with a rocky relational past. Axler takes her in, as his lover. Charged with emotion, pleasure, and happiness, Axler thinks he may have found what he was waiting for. He doesn’t need the fame; he needs Pegeen’s love. Pegeen’s hooks sink in. Axler visits a physician to explore the possibility of fathering a child with Pegeen before he dies, only to return to his farmhouse with Pegeen’s belongings cleared out. He hears a sound, steps outside, and through tears cries out for her. Too late. She is gone, forever.
Axler climbs the attic once more. Shotgun in hand. He can’t do it. He can’t pull the trigger. So, he climbs into character, writes a note, and pulls it.
Awfully dark but realistic. Axler’s fall from fame sends him reeling because his self-worth was so embedded in his vocation, his art, and how well he did it. In fact, his worth was so twisted into his acting, like a corkscrew, that he had trouble undoing himself from it. And as he did, he unraveled. Axler needed something more to live for, so he turned to love. But even love failed him.
Perhaps most striking of all, is that Axler actually believed he temporarily lived as an insane man. He made the false assumption that was what was most permanent was his sanity, his stability. And that his fall from grace was a mere lapse in an otherwise ordinary, extraordinary, life. He made the mistake of assuming he was “a stable man playing a broken man. A sane man acting like an insane man.”
This is the mistake of all humanity. We assume that our moments of insanity and brokenness are temporary moments, when in reality, these are moments of lucidity, times when we see ourselves for who we really are: broken men playing stable men. Insane men acting like sane men.
Axler’s fall from glory mirrors the fall of all humanity. Life is a search for the restoration of our true humanity. Fame, love, and balance can not achieve this restoration. The insane cannot talk himself into sanity. The broken cannot put himself back together again. We need a restoration for our permanently broken estate. We need someone on whom we can cast our brokenness, in exchange for his wholeness, someone who can rescue us from our affair with self love and glory. We have stolen the spotlight of a greater glory and made life a story about ourselves. That glory must be returned. And when it is, the stage is set straight, and restoration is possible. Our affair with love can be replaced with love that never fails. Our insanity exchanged for sanity. Our glory returned, in its place, on the greater stage of life.