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The Humbling- A Philosophy of Defeat

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 The Humbling- A Philosophy of Defeat


Louis Gordon holds a Master’s in Professional Writing (Fiction) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Southern California, and a J.D. from Cardozo Law School. He teaches in the Department of Political Science at California State University at San Bernardino, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in such publication as The Forward, International Journal of Comic Art, Jerusalem Post, Jerusalem Report, The Journal of Israeli History/Studies in Zionism, Midstream, Middle East Quarterly, New York Sun, Pasadena Star-News, Tikkun and Times of Israel. His chapter “Three Voices or One, Philip Roth and Zionism” appeared in the Political Companion to Philip Roth (2017) and his chapter « Updike’s Middle East appeared in the Political Updike (2017). He is the co-author of Middle East Politics for the New Millennium (Lexington Books, 2016).


Les travaux de jeunesse de Philip Roth, ses entretiens et son autobiographie, révèlent combien ses efforts pour briser les attitudes conservatrices à l’égard des relations sexuelles des Etats-Unis des années 50 contribuèrent à l’ouverture nouvelle des années 60. Cependant, à mesure que Roth vieillit, il devint plus conscient de l’inanité de ses efforts pour produire des changements durables dans le tissu social américain. Cette inanité est capitale dans Le Rabaissement (2009). Le protagoniste de ce roman, un acteur vieillissant dénommé Simon Axler, incarne l’ultime rejet des efforts de Roth en direction d’une libération sexuelle centrée sur le masculin, lorsqu’il est éconduit par une femme pour une autre femme. Cet article se concentre sur la prise de conscience finale de Roth qu’il n’a pas atteint ses objectifs, ce qui peut être compris comme une philosophie de la défaite. 


Philip Roth’s early works, interviews and autobiography, reveal how his efforts to break down conservative attitudes towards sexual relations in the United States of the 1950s contributed to the new openness of the 1960s.  However, as Roth aged, he became more aware of the futility of his efforts to make enduring change in the American social fabric.  This futility, becomes paramount in The Humbling (2009). There Roth’s protagonist, an aging actor named Simon Axler, symbolizes the   ultimate repudiation of Roth’s efforts towards a masculine centered sexual liberation, when he is rejected by a woman for another woman. This essay looks at Roth’s ultimate realization that he has not succeeded in his goals, which can be expressed as a philosophy of defeat.  The death of the once « widely heralded » Axler belies Roth’s belief that while he had won the freedom to use graphic language and to engage in unconventional sexual relationships, the liberalization that he fought so hard has gone further than what he had envisioned.  As Epistemology theory notes, Axler like Roth’s earlier character, Neil Klugman, only becomes aware of this reality after his reflection on his own experience of defeat.

Keywords: Historical Note, D-Day Invaders, Women’s Movement, Jewish Critics, NemesisIndignation, Wolfgang Schivelbusch


What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into

love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had

turned winning into losing, and losing-who knows-into winning?[1]

                                                          Philip Roth; Goodbye Columbus

Philip Roth’s early works such as Goodbye Columbus (1959), Letting Go (1962), and When She was Good (1967) along with his commentary in The Facts (1988), reveal his not insubstantial efforts to break down conservative attitudes towards sexual relations in the United States.  The writer Aram Saroyan once said that Goodbye Columbus, was the book that broke the hold 1950s conservatism had on American society.  Indeed, with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Roth found himself among the literary vanguard of the new openness of the 1960s.  But while Roth relished in the new freedoms he had helped create, as he aged, he became more aware of the futility of his earlier efforts to make enduring change in the American social fabric. This futility which is expressed in Everyman (2006), where the middle age protagonist’s affair with a beautiful model costs him his family, becomes paramount in The Humbling (2009). There, an elderly Roth alter-ego is subjected to the ultimate repudiation of his efforts towards a masculine centered sexual liberation, by a woman who rejects him for another woman. This essay looks at some of Roth’s literary efforts to create a more liberal sexual ethic, and his ultimate realization that he has not succeeded in his goals.  This failure, or more properly a philosophy of defeat, was first articulated by Roth in the novella Goodbye Columbus, where the protagonist perceives that defeat could actually be victory, comes full circle in The Humbling, where Roth, utilizing dialogue that recalls the earlier work, reiterates his philosophy of defeat with graver consequence for his protagonist, as well as for his own weltanschauung.

The Library of America, in its usual format, has issued a volume which contains the author’s last four novels, Everyman, Indignation (2006), The Humbling, and Nemesis (2010), along with a chronology of Roth’s life, corrections to the various books, and notes. While there is much to say about these last of Roth’s novels both individually and collectively, what is particularly curious about the Library of America edition is the way the two middle novels graphically unfold. The last page of  Indignation which is comprised of a « Historical Note, » appears as if it could be an epigram for The Humbling, a novel which though not per se about the  college campus,  touches on a number of crucial issues facing American higher education some sixty years after Roth was an undergraduate.  

Indignation, is the story of a Jewish college student at a Christian college in Ohio circa 1951, who protests the social conformity and moral hypocrisy found at the school, and who is subsequently killed while fighting in the Korean war.  The novel in fictional form reiterates some of the challenges Roth similarly faced while a minority Jewish student at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s. There Roth’s comic attack on the editor of the Bucknell school newspaper was in his words « more stylishly combative than the adolescent penchant for righteous contempt; transforming indignation into performance… »  For this attack, Roth was brought before the Dean of Men, and then for censure before the Board of Publications.  Though Roth would later claim he did not recall the second event, the two episodes would form the basis for a more dramatic altercation in a book he would actually entitle Indignation and publish some 18 years after The Facts.  The novel also contains an exaggerated version of a panty raid descried in the autobiography, in which a number of Winesberg men raid a women’s dorm, masturbate on the women’s clothes, and erect a snowman garbed in lingerie, prompting their expulsion.  Yet because the novel was written long after the autobiography, and is told through the prism of a somewhat different character than the Nathan Zuckerman figure who has haunted much of Roth’s fiction, its autobiographical origins may have not have been given their proper due.  Curiously, the Historical Note at the end of Indignation leaves the reader with the impression that though the protagonist, Marcus Messner, has perished in a morally ambiguous conflict, his legacy as a fighter for the freedom of independent thought lives on.  The « Historical Note » in an odd sense parallels the mantra of the U.S. Marine Corps, so strikingly expressed in Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket (1987) as « Most of you will go to Vietnam. Some of you will not come back…. But the Marine Corps lives forever. »[2]  Roth’s words in a similar way, eloquently wax on about how the protests, social unrest and changes which occurred during the 1960s, reached « even the apolitical Winesburg » by 1971 when in a spontaneous uprising, students occupied the offices of both men’s and women’s deans and demanded their rights:[3]

The uprising succeeded in shutting down the college for a full week, and afterward, when classes resumed, none of the ringleaders of either sex who had negotiated an end to the uprising by proposing liberalizing new alternatives to the college officials were punished by expulsion or suspension.  Instead, overnight- and to the horror of no authorities other that those by then retired from administering Winesburg’s affairs- the chapel requirement was abolished along with virtually all the strictures and parietal rules regulating student conduct that had been in force there for more than a hundred years….

Though Roth throughout his career insisted that his characters were distinguishable from himself, the author, Marcus Messner’s ideas are nearly all Roth. The son of a kosher butcher, Messner is a confirmed atheist who quotes the philosopher Bertrand Russell on « Why I am not a Christian » and advocates for the same type of sexual freedom which Roth’s characters advocate for in Goodbye Columbus, Letting Go and Portnoy’s Complaint, though his fate in the war is a tragic and extreme example of what could have happened to Roth had he actually been expelled by the Dean of Men.  Messner speaks of the struggles of the college students to find time alone, while seemingly oblivious to the fact that what they were doing in violation of the repressive school regulations was also misogyny.  « Some went to the town cemetery and conducted their sex play against the tombstones or even down on the graves themselves; others got away with what little they could at the movies; but mostly, after evening dates, girls were thrust up against the trunks of trees in the dark of the quadrangle containing the three women’s dorms, and the misdeeds that the parietal regulations were intended to curb were partially perpetrated among the elms that beautified the campus. » (127).   And while the perpetrators of the infamous panty raid are expelled from the university, we are confident from Roth’s « Historical Note » that such restrictions have been defeated with no harm to anyone.

However, from a different angle, the « Historical Note » washes over the real struggle undertaken by many on the front lines of the campus revolutions, most notably at Columbia University where the leader of the uprising was Mark Rudd, who grew up in the Newark suburbs  admiring Roth.[4]  And  if one has any doubt that Roth had the same urge to smash the White Anglo-Saxon (WASP) strictures on sexual activity that is found in the overwhelmingly majority of his secular Jewish protagonists, those doubts will be put to rest by looking back at some of the earlier interviews Roth gave over the years and collected in George Searles Conversations with Philip Roth (1992).  The interviews, which range from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, offer a broader and less guarded self-portrait of Roth than he allowed in his own selections of non-fiction, and perhaps included some slip-ups Roth had not intended.[5]  But one comment made during an interview with Walter Mauro about Portnoy’s Complaint, in particular cements the bond between Roth and Marcus Messner as soldiers in the battle against the WASP strictures.  Noting that he could not find any particular intellectual or physical episode which was the catalyst for that novel, Roth stated:[6]

Moreover, the massive, late-sixties assault upon sexual customs came nearly twenty years after I myself hit the beach and began digging a foothold on the erotic homeland held in subjugation by the enemy.  I sometimes think of my generation of men as the first wave of determined D-Day invaders, over whose bloody, wounded carcasses the flower children subsequently stepped ashore to advance triumphantly toward that libidinous Paris we had dreamed of liberating as we inched inland on our bellies, firing into the dark. « Daddy, » the youngsters ask, « what did you do in the war? » I humbly submit they could do worse than read Portnoy’s Complaint to find out.

By the mid-1980s, Roth thought he clearly had won the war against what he labeled « parietal repression. » Single sex dormitories in co-ed American colleges had largely become a thing of the past along with concordant strictures against premarital sex, abortion, and many of the issues he had criticized in his early work.  In a 1981 interview with Alan Finkielkraut in Esquire,[7] Roth cavalierly dismissed an attack in the Village Voice by a woman activist that labeled him a misogynist alongside Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and Henry Miller. Roth explained that My Life as a Man (1974) was used as evidence against him because at the very moment the world discovered that women were singularly good, he « depicted a woman who was not good, who persecuted others and who exploited others- and that spoiled everything. »[8] Roth argued that « to depict such a woman was contrary to the new ethic and to the revolution that espoused them. It was antirevolutionary. It was on the wrong side of the cause. It was taboo. »[9]  Yet in response to further questioning, Roth responded that the novel was neither « intended, conceived » nor did it become « a challenge to the pieties of American culture. »[10]  Roth’s perspective did not seem that far from that of the 1960s political « Movement » which though rebelling against the inequities of the entrenched American capitalistic system, was still largely chauvinistic, as Jane Alpert had noted in her critique of Weatherman leader Mark Rudd.[11]

Roth may have underestimated the intensity of the post-1960s morality- which included the women’s movement- in the United States because he had at least partly won the battle against the criticism emanating from journals like Commentary, which argued that he was less than an honest broker in his fictional portraits of American Jews.  In a 1988 interview with Asher Z. Milbauer and Donald G. Watson,[12] the topic of relations with the Jewish community came up, and Roth questioned whether he irritated Jews any longer, noting that « after fifteen books I myself have become much less irritating than the Zuckerman I’ve depicted, largely because the Jewish generation that did not go for me is by now less influential and the others are no longer ashamed, if they ever were, of how Jews behave in my fiction. »[13] Roth noted that American Jews cira 1988 were « less intimidated by Gentiles » than they were in the 1950s when he started publishing and were now more sophisticated about anti-Semitism and what caused it, and « altogether-less hedged-in by suffocating concepts of normalcy. »[14]

But if by the 1980s Roth had made considerable headway in the battle with his Jewish critics, he could not integrate what Klugman had seen in Harvard Yard, that « winning could be losing, » and losing could in reality be winning.  Wolfgang Schivelbusch, the author of The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery (2003) has noted a peculiar aspect to a defeated person’s state of mind, in that such individuals believe that the « the loser is, in terms of knowledge and insight, a step ahead of, or, rather, a half-turn further on the wheel of fortune than the victor. »[15]  He explains that the loser understands what the winner has not yet begun to suspect, that due to the constant change in the positions of the winner and the loser, the victory will not endure.  Because of this phenomenon, the vanquished projects himself « as a figure of warning whose claim to authority is that he speaks as yesterday’s winner, » a theme which traces « all the way back to the myth of Troy- whose fall is cast as both an end and a new beginning… »[16]              

Mythology, both Greek and Norse, were not lost on Roth and it could be that this idea of the loser as true winner, drives from the Greeks.  Or it could be that as Neal Klugman was a philosophy student, he and his creator had explored Epistemology. That branch of philosophy notes a difference between defeating beliefs or experiences which one is aware at a specific time, and defeating beliefs or experiences which he or she would only become aware of after reflection. In Klugman’s case the reflection occurs when he realizes that he is free from the constraints of Brenda and the Patimkins. [17]   

Either way, with his overall literary success and the remaking of post-1970s America into a place much more to his liking than the Eisenhower era, Roth failed to perceive that the forward movement of political and sociological forces did not stop when he « landed ashore » but rather continued on, evolving into the political correctness which would take hold of American society and academia in particular, in the new millennium.  What Roth- having never lived in the American college dormitories of the 1980s missed (or unlike Tom Wolfe did not independently research)- was the inherent exploitation of women that resulted from the loosening of strictures for which he had so tirelessly advocated. Date rape, the placement of designer drugs in the drinks of unsuspecting women, and same sex harassment, are now properly the subject of harassment training on contemporary American campuses. However, such behavior to the extent it existed, was below the radar in Roth’s campus of the 1950s where « red-blooded » American men sought the conquest of their female counterparts.   Indeed, Roth was correct when he wrote that the change in American society would not come until more than a decade later when « the strain of Dadaesque Jewish showmanship » appeared in the form of « cultural-political deviants and cunningly anarchic entrepreneurs- mischief-makers as diverse as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, the Chicago Seven defendants;…not to mention Allen Ginsberg, Bella Abzug, Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer and me…. »[18]  However, with Simon Axler, the protagonist of The Humbling, Roth perhaps too late, acknowledged that an even newer ethos had taken hold of America and its college administrators, and it is through his next to last novel that he revives the philosophy of defeat he first introduced via Neal Klugman in Goodbye Columbus.   

Axler, a Shakespearian actor who has lost his ability to act, is unlike many of Roth’s other protagonists, indisputably not the author, but rather someone who he might have become.   As we know, when Roth transferred from Rutgers Newark to Bucknell, his interests switched from pre-law and drama to literature and writing. In The Facts, Roth notes that by the spring of 1954 « the classroom had become my stage, usurping the magazine as a laboratory for self-invention and displacing the student drama group, Cap & Dagger, where I’d played supporting roles in ambitious student productions of Oedipus Rex, School for Scandal, and Death of a Salesman. » By his senior year, Roth had « fewer illusions about becoming an actor »  rather than a writer.[19] Perhaps a more insightful observation about Roth’s early efforts at acting can be drawn from an early article about the young Roth which appeared in his home town Jewish Newspaper while he was student in New Jersey. The short blurb read:  « The ‘Mummers,’ the dramatic club of Newark Rutgers, will have the services of a very talented thespian this year. He is Phil Roth, a boy who has been active in amateur dramatic circles. Phil will have a leading part in Out of the Frying Pan this year, even though he is only a freshman! Congratulations. » [20]

Roth’s early successful efforts at acting as well as his marriage to British actress Claire Bloom clearly provided enough material for him to create and then get inside the head of Simon Axler, a six-foot four, bald, burly man who can no longer perform either low or high « intensity Shakespeare. » (228)  After Axler’s unsuccessful attempt at suicide, his doctor finds him a place in a psychiatric hospital. There, one of the patients, a retired teacher, provides him alternative approaches to suicide, the cowardly, the criminal and the heroic.  The teacher also notes the purists who seek to know the act was justified, and the clinicians concerned with the perpetrator’s state of mind, which is an aspect of Roth’s philosophy of defeat.  But Axler, in his greatest performance since he stopped working, provides a different interpretation of the taking of one’s own life:  « Suicide is the role you write for yourself, » and that « You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged- where they will find you and how they will find you….but one performance only. » (234).

Axler is saved from his feelings that he is finished with the joys of life, when Pegeen Mike Stapleford, the daughter of his old friends from the 1950s, phones him from nearby Prescott College, where she is teaching.  After the partner she lived with in Montana decides to take hormone injections in order to become a man, Pegeen lands a job at the eastern college after sleeping with the red-haired statuesque dean.  Seeking out Axler, she decides that « if Priscilla could become a heterosexual man, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female. » (253).

The dean who is eight years older that Pegeen refuses to accept that the affair is over and repeatedly phones Pegeen to insult her, shout and demand an explanation.  Accusing Pegeen of using her to secure her job, the dean, when she isn’t shouting, sometimes cries that she cannot live without the younger woman.  « A strong successful, competent women of forty-eight, a dynamic woman touted to be Prescott’s next president, and how easily she could be derailed! » (256).  The dean’s actions are the hallmark of an abusive relationship, and read like a scenario out of the sexual harassment training which has come to be required in American institutions of higher education under Title Nine, and foreshadow one of Roth’s most important points in The Humbling. That is the reality that the dean, who is empowered by the very sexual revolution in which Roth served as a soldier, is in her own way, no less offensive or repressive than those deans who served at Wineberg College or Bucknell University in the early 1950s. 

But the newly reinvigorated Axler tells Pegeen she doesn’t have to worry about the dean because she has him to fall back on. In « an orgy of spoiling and spending » he buys her earrings, bracelets, necklaces and calf-high boots. Pegeen now refers to her previous life as a lesbian, as a « seventeen-year mistake. » (257-258).  Her refusal to tell her parents that she has taken up with their old friend who is many years her senior though, parallels Brenda Patimkin’s similar lack of enthusiasm for getting a diaphragm in Goodbye Columbus and much of the ending of The Humbling replays the earlier novella’s plot.

The Dean’s phone call to Pegeen’s parents in Michigan telling them that she has been exploited by their daughter who has now taken up with Axler, underscores the aging actor’s fears, not unlike those of Neil Klugman’s, that the mismatched relationship will end and that « when she is strong and I am weak, the blow that’s dealt with be unbearable. » (259).  The conversation between Axler and Pegeen upon his hearing that her parents have discovered that they are together, is strikingly similar to the dialogue between Neil and Brenda when he learns her parents have discovered the diaphragm in her bedroom drawer and she has to decide whether to continue the relationship:

             The Humbling (261):            

             « Does it really matter to you that she told your parents?

             « Doesn’t it matter to you? » Pegeen asked him.

             « Only in as much as it troubles you. Otherwise not at all. I think it’s all to the good. »

             « What do I say when I talk to my father? » she asked.

             « Pegeen Mike- say whatever you like. »

             « Suppose he does not talk to me at all. »            

  Goodbye Columbus (129):[21]

             « Neil, be realistic. After this, can I bring you home? Can you see us all

             sitting around the table?

             « I can’t if you can’t, I can if you can. »

             « Are you going to speak Zen, for God’s sake! »

             « Brenda the choices aren’t mine…You can go home or not go home…. »           

But Pegeen’s parents are more cautious than the Patimkins were, and in the new post-modern era, tread carefully lest they alienate their newly post-lesbian daughter.  Cautiously, Pegeen’s mother tells her that it is strange that she has chosen to begin her new life with a man twenty-five years her senior. She points out that Axler « has been through a breakdown that led to his being institutionalized, » and is now « essentially unemployed. » (264). The lines again recall Mrs. Patimkin’s letter to Brenda which says, « About your friend I have no words. He is his parents’ responsibility and I cannot imagine what kind of home life he had that he could act that way. »[22] (GC, 129).

The attack on the flawed suitor by both the woman’s parents, a literary device which Roth successfully implemented in Goodbye Columbus, is again employed in the Humbling, though here the father’s response is presented after the mother’s. Pegeen’s father tells her « Look Simon Axler’s an intriguing actor, and probably to a woman an intriguing man » whose « cataclysmic downs » greatly worry him. He states, « I’m not going to talk about them as glibly as you do. I’m not going to tell you that I’m not going to try to bring any pressure on you. I am going to do just that. »(276).   The lines are another version of Mr. Patimkin’s letter to Brenda: « Of course I can’t say we weren’t all surprised because from the beginning I was nice to him and thought he would appreciate the nice vacation we supplied for him. Some people never turn out the way you hope and pray…now that you will be away at school and from him and what you got involved in you will probably do all right…”[23](129).

The Humbling’s final chapter, « The Last Act » is as sexually graphic as anything Roth has written. Crippled from spinal pain Axler can only engage in intercourse while Pegeen is above him, but when she asks him if he wants her to penetrate him and enter a new frontier, Axler declines.  (274). Axler’s actions symbolize Roth’s refusal to bow to the women’s movement as the true embodiment of a post-1960s sexual ethic which has sought to curb misogyny. When Pegeen says « you should know you’re still a very twisted man to be turned on by a girl like me, »  Axler responds that « I may way be a twisted man, but I don’t believe you qualify as a girl like you any longer. » (274) His words are reminiscent of the language deemed offensive by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commisson (EEOC) in a case where a lesbian employee « reputedly harassed because of her sexual orientation was subject to derogatory comments regarding her sexual orientation and appearance, such as « I want to turn you back into a woman » and « You would look good in a dress. »[24]   While Axler is Pegeen’s lover rather than her employer, his choice of language suggests Roth’s continuing rigidity to the feminist critique and the new ethos that have permeated society.  Roth’s use of such politically charged lines in the novel and here in particular, appear as the last effort of Roth’s soldiers to hold back even more revolutionary forces. But when Pegeen tells Axler that she had slept with two women, he knows he is « helpless to hold onto her and keep her, his alone,…. » The terror of returning to being « completing finished » had returned. (275).  

But what of « The Last Act’s » last sexual scene?  While the erotic excesses here rival the ostentatious opulence of the Patimkin wedding, as the last such passages in Roth’s oeuvre, they constitute his final effort to promote his own personal vision of sexual liberation. To this end, Axel and Pegeen fantasize about seducing a nineteen-year-old- an idea which recalls the seductive actions of Roth’s fifty-three-year-old protagonist in Everyman. But « Everyman » is an inapposite appellation for a fifty-something man who seduces a nineteen-year-old secretary and then a twenty-four-year-old Danish model. Such behavior, if it does exist outside of the novelist’s fantasies, is far outside the experience of an « everyman. » In contrast, The Humbling is more that an apt title for both the novel as well as its final denouement at the direction of Pegeen to whom Axler now knows he has ceded power.  Axler and Pegeen’s seduction of Tracy, a young woman too drunk to drive and thus unable to provide consent, is marked both by the psychological manipulation of the woman by the couple and Pegeen’s preference for the woman over Axler.  At the same time, it illustrates Roth’s belief that the openness for which he fought so hard, has led to new and unexpected boundaries of sexual expression. Roth acknowledges this noting « There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though, in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magic composite of shaman, acrobat, and anomaly. » Roth’s surprise that the liberation from the « parietal restrictions » also meant liberation from an exclusive heterosexuality,  is apparent as well in the Humbling when the narrator notes « It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and not supposed to be. » (284).  However, by the end of The Humbling, Roth through Axler concedes that he is in the position which Mrs. Patimikn found herself in when she found Brenda and Neal had slept together in her own house.  In her letter to Brenda she noted, « Times certainly have changed since I was a girl that this kind of thing could go on. » (GC, 129). Though Axler visits a fertility doctor after Pegeen tells tell him she wants to bear his baby, shortly thereafter she tells him its over, and Axler realizes that his introduction of Tracy into their life had both eroticized and set the path for the end of the relationship, not unlike Neal Klugman’s introduction of the diaphragm to his life with Brenda.

Like Goodbye Columbus, where Klugman’s befriending a poor black kid at the library foreshadows his coming loss of Brenda, The Humbling’s subplot also contains an act of good will which alludes to forthcoming tragedy.  In the Humbling, it revolves around Roth’s befriending a fellow psychiatric ward patient, Sybil Van Buren, who attempts suicide after finding her husband abusing her eight-year-old daughter.  Here Axler’s act of good will is his refusal to accede to Sybil’s request that he murder her husband, noting that if he were a hit man, he would do it for free, but as an out of work actor he would just « botch the job » and send them both to jail. (239). But when Sybil winds up killing her husband in an act of courage that resolves this subplot, Axler realizes that he too could undertake such an act of courage.  Recalling the suicide of Chekhov’s Konstantin Gavrilovic Tepelev in the concluding scene in his play, The Seagull, he thinks it would constitute his return to acting » but to succeed he has to pretend that the attic where he shoots himself is real.

The death of the once « widely heralded » actor belies Roth’s belief that while he had won the freedom to use graphic language and to engage in unconventional sexual relationships, like Axler, at the end of his life he has to face the realization that the liberalization that he fought so hard for has gone further than what he had envisioned.  As epistemology theory notes, Both Axler and Klugman as stand-ins for Roth, only become aware of this reality after their respective reflections on their own defeating experiences. [25]

As Neal Klugman walks through Harvard Yard at the end of Goodbye, Columbus, and he sees his image in the window, his anger is so palatable that he thinks of throwing a rock through the glass, but instead looks through it hoping to get a glimpse of what was behind his eyes. He observes, « What was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing-who knows-into winning? »[26]  Roth would later write that he got it backwards in rejecting Brenda’s Patimkin’s model, a Jewish girl from a caring home for Josie, a woman he perceived as having strength and courage for having survived sexual abuse and an alcoholic father.[27] Yet Neal Klugman faced with the new knowledge of Brenda’s betrayal, suspected that he was winning as he rode that train back to New Jersey on the first day of the Jewish new year.  Despite Axler’s triumphant claim that his suicide would be his return to acting, there is no such illusion of a future for Axler or Roth at the end of The Humbling.  That terror has returned, and Roth concedes defeat knowing that all his efforts towards sexual liberation have come full circle.  Roth would write only one more book after the « Last Act, » and though that novel, Nemesis, may be one of his best works, it does not reverse the loss he acknowledges in the Humbling.

[1] Philip Roth, Goodbye Columbus, (Vintage, New York, 1991), 135.

[2] Stanley Kubrick, dir., Full Metal Jacket (1987; Beverly Hills, CA: Warner Brothers); IMDB, Full Metal Jacket (1987), R. Lee Ermey: Gny. Sgt. Hartman, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093058/characters/nm0000388.

[3] Philip Roth, The Humbling, in Philip Roth Nemesis, 2006-2010 (New York, Library of America, 2013), 223.

[4] Mark Rudd, “Why were there so Many Jews in SDS? (Or, the Ordeal of Civility), 


[5] George Searles, ed. Conversations with Philip Roth, (Jackson, MS, University of Mississippi Press, 1992).

[6] Walter Mauro, « Writing and the Powers-that-Be, » The American Poetry Review, July/August 1974, 18-20, in George Searles, ed. Conversations with Philip Roth, 84-85.

[7] Alain Finkielkraut, « The Ghosts of Roth, » Esquire, September 1981, 92-97, reprinted in Searles, 120-130.

[8]Id.,  123.

[9] Id., 123.

[10] Id., 123.

[11] Jane Alpert, « Mother Right: A New Feminist Theory, » Ain’t I a Woman?, Vol. 3, iss. 4, June 22, 1973, 5-9, Independent Voices, https://voices.revealdigital.org/(accessed May 11, 2020).

[12] Asher Z. Milbauer and Donald G. Watson, « An Interview with Philip Roth » in Reading Philip Roth (New York St. Martin’s 1988), 1-12, reprinted in Searles, 242-253.

[13] Id., 244-245.

[14] Id. at. 245.

[15] « The Losers:  An Interview with Wolfgang Schivelbusch, » Sina Najafi, Jay Worthington, and Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Fall/Winter 2003, http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/12/najafi_worthington.php

[16]« Id.

[17] « Defeaters in Epistemology, » Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://www.iep.utm.edu/ep-defea/#H5 (accessed May 10, 2020).

[18] Philip Roth, The Facts, in Novels and Other Narratives, 1986-1991 (New York: Library of America, 2008) 350.

[19] The Facts, 361-362.

[20]Gilbert Openhard, « Inside Rutgers, » New Jersey Jewish News – December 29, 1950, 14 https://jhsnj-archives.org/?a=d&d=A19501229-NewJerseyJewishNews-19501229-01.1.14&srpos=33&e=——195-en-20–21–txt-txIN%7ctxTA%7ctxCO%7ctxTY%7ctxTI%7ctxRG%7ctxSG%7ctxSE%7ctxSB%7ctxCT%7ctxIE%7ctxIT%7ctxTE%7ctxLA%7ctxSU%7ctxSP%7ctxDS%7ctxAD%7ctxPR%7ctxTR%7ctxFI-phil+roth———-

[21] Goodbye Columbus, 129.

[22] Id., 129.

[23] Id., 129.

[24] « IFCO Systems Will Pay $202,200 In Landmark Settlement Of One Of EEOC’s First Sexual Orientation Discrimination Lawsuits, » U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Press Release, June 28, 2016,

https://www.eeoc.gov/newsroom/ifco-systems-will-pay-202200-landmark-settlement-one-eeocs-first-sexual-orientation (accessed May 11, 2020).

[25] « Defeaters in Epistemology »

[26] Goodbye Columbus, 135.

[27] The Facts, 377-378.

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