The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End

Violet Hour crop

Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour: Great Writers at the End gathers more than famous last words, such as Malcolm X’s unforgettable “Let’s cool it, brothers,” spoken to the three assassins who had just shot him sixteen times. Roiphe pursues the bigger picture: capturing the time in the shadow of approaching death, the violet hour as a fading. She explores how that time was lived by five writers/artists, men and woman, people whom Roiphe admired for their work, their high degree of perception and precision, and who had confronted death in their words and images, felt its heat in their work, life, death.

When Roiphe is twelve years old, she catches pneumonia. When her temperature hits 107, her mother brings her to the hospital. “I forget how to breathe. I am being pulled underwater.” Malfunctioning lungs deny her sufficient oxygen. She is dying. “Someone puts a mask on my face. I taste the sweetness of the oxygen, like tasting sky.” She lives, she improves, she leaves the hospital. But all is not well. Shortly thereafter, “when I cough, there is blood in the tissue.” Inflammation is cooking her lungs. “I do the sensible thing and tell no one.” You can fool some people all of the time, but not your mother. Back to the hospital. “This is when I start writing this book.” In her head, where it incubates for thirty-five years, taking shape as its subject shapes her: what she will study, how she will be in the world. The wait was worth it. Roiphe has thoroughly sifted the coming of death, and the result is fine and weighty.

The Violet Hour is not Roiphe the essayist-provocateur lobbing mischief bombs, as she did early in her career. Here she is in earthquake country, the ground unstable and just the one road ahead. How did Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, and Maurice Sendak travel that route? What worldviews or self-consciousness did they use as emotional maps? These five are sensitive writers and artists; they have worked death into their art. Were they inspiring, heroic, bewildered, angry, confused, intrigued? Did death become seductive, Roiphe wants to know, were “they in love with it the way you love someone who has hurt you”? Like Virginia Woolf, did they experience that “illness often takes on the disguise of love, and plays the same odd tricks”? Are these the best — or worst — hours, days, weeks, years of their lives? Or something else entirely.

Roiphe finds Freud stoically quoting George Bernard Shaw: “Don’t try to live forever, you will not succeed.” Susan Sontag, by contrast, has no truck with such resignation. Diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer in 1975, she seeks aggressive treatment, approaches the disease like a math problem, a logical puzzle. Remission. “I am gleaming with survivorship.” We gleam with/for her, and agree with Roiphe the “brush with death was incorporated into her dark glamour.” Sontag was fierce, unconventional, a thinker, and a self-mythologizer — “shaping them into an idea of herself as exceptional.” She brain-bullied her way through uterine cancer, too, before leukemia finally laid her low in 2004. Like W. H. Auden (“I must have knowledge”), like Samuel Johnson (“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight it concentrates his mind wonderfully”), Sontag argued, “patients need clarity, rational thought, and information, to prepare themselves for the hard work of the cure.” Even hazy at the end she remains the woman who we know, “up for anything . . . a dipper of toes in a strange world.”

Over here is Dylan Thomas, who was fierce, if not brimming with clarity — “I’ve had eighteen straight whiskies, I think that’s a record . . . ” He was unstrung and wound as tight as a violin; he was a great unmade bed, his marriage an inescapable shamble. “Anyone who has lived through the unraveling of a marriage knows that there comes a certain point when death does not seem like an unsensible solution,” Roiphe writes. His radical irresponsibility, let alone paying bills or returning a borrowed shirt, “says something about his apprehension of time: Life is not scrolling forward for Thomas in the usual way.” That his behavior would catch up with him, that he would be called into account, “was so abstract to him . . . that it didn’t mean anything.” It didn’t stall the self-hatred: “Thank God I don’t have to meet myself socially, listen to myself,” he wrote. Roiphe writes, “The collision of his vividness, his vitality, with his self-destruction was hard to assimilate; it seemed both impossible and inevitable.” His wife, Caitlin, seemed to have imbibed something of his attitude toward the end; Roiphe notes that she smashed a crucifix on her way out of Thomas’s hospital room, “knocked over a statue of the Virgin Mary. She bit an orderly on the hand.” Do not go gentle, indeed.

With Freud, clarity returns: a little aspirin for the intense pain, perhaps a hot water bottle. As a man of science, “to engage in fantasies of immortality or to enter into a drugged, woolly state, or to otherwise look away, would be shameful.” (Even Sontag: “One can’t look steadily at death any more than one can stare at the sun.”) As with Thomas, Thanatos was hard at work here: Freud used a clothespin to prop open his irradiated mouth enough to pull on his cigars. “Unconsciously,” Freud wrote, “every one of us is convinced of his own immortality,” and Roiphe reads his declaration of elegant resignation as raising “at least the specter of their opposite . . . as if he were persuading himself.” Freud used morphine to slip-slide away. John Updike enjoyed his smoke, too. If we get no deeper into Updike’s head than the fear of losing his legerity, we do get Roiphe’s smart take on Updike’s immortalizing infidelities: “If you have a secret, submerged, second life, you have somehow transcended or outwitted the confines of a single life.”

Maurice Sendak‘s life was eighty-three years of violet hours — an unwanted child and told so, depressions as suffocating as a wet blanket — where a compliment would be met with, “I still have to die.” His art was his savior, witness, and death dream: in In the Night Kitchen, “the image of the child in the oven is made over into a fun one.” There, “on the thrilling edge between scary and funny,” Sendak would live without peace, in a blackness that was vital: “He called it the shadows.” The darkness that laps at the edges stylishly consoles; a childhood friend is hit and killed by a car: “I see the arms and the head; he’s flying.” Death is a dream life. “I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again.” A happy death? “It can be done. If you are William Blake and totally crazy.”

The Violet Hour is wonderfully rangy, an easy-handed association of the protagonists’ being in and then exiting the world. There is nothing tidy about it, much like Thomas’s bed, messy as life. And there isn’t enough of it, like any final conversation. Questions remain, because the end is often mysteriously aphoristic. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud writes: “The aim of all life is death.” That seems pretty far beyond pleasure, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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