mardi 2 novembre 2010

“Everyman” by Philip Roth and the hedonic treadmill

Le présent billet a été rédigé par Jacquie Bridonneau, que je remercie. Une traduction en français sera publiée prochainement.

I have just finished reading “Everyman” by Philip Roth, a very short book, but one in which every word is weighed, and is the exact word to use in these circumstances and which is one of the most profoundly just books I have read in a long while.  This book starts at the protagonist’s funeral, with his few friends and family members attending, some of them reminiscing of good and not so good times in his life while throwing in the clod of dirt onto the casket, and ends after a lifetime of reminiscing while his life is retold in the first person when he has cardiac arrest on the operating table.


The book plunges the reader into the life and eventually death of the unnamed protagonist, a successful businessman in advertizing, father of three children with three different marriages, an active retiree giving art classes in his assisted living facility, while pursuing this biography almost as a medical series of events, spanning a minor operation at the age of nine, acute appendicitis, by-pass surgery in later life, as well as many bouts of surgery with stents to open clogged arteries. His sons from his first marriage hate him, though he still enjoys daily contact with his daughter Nancy from his second marriage. He ends up resenting his older brother to whom he had always been very close, not because of envy for his successful life and career, but because little by little he became jealous of his good health. “Suddenly he could not stand his brother in the primitive, instinctual way that his sons could not stand him.”

Philip Roth tells it as it is for many people as they become older and their health fails them.  Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” One of the most poignant and generous moments for the protagonist, one of the few redeeming ones, takes place in the art class he organized for village residents when one of his students, Millicent, who was suffering from extreme bad back pain, has to lie down, and they have a conversation as he tries to comfort her. “It’s just that the pain makes you so alone… It’s so shameful.”

Millicent, like the protagonist, had a full life, we could honestly say that the hedonic treadmill had always been turning for her – she had great souvenirs of her life with her husband, the owner and publisher of a county weekly paper. They went everywhere, travelling the world, while remaining well-known and respected members of their local community. They were by no means millionaires, but they had enough money to be happy, and they made the most of their lives when they could. Love and respect of the other filled their cup of life until the brim.

The protagonist however, though materially much better off materially speaking than Millicent and her husband, was never satisfied.  His hedonic treadmill also turned, but he was just trying to keep up with the pace in his adult life.  One woman after another, never enough, never satisfied, never happy.  Even very late in his life, when retired, he tried to “score” with a twenty some jogger, who very gracefully (and perhaps luckily for him), refused to take his bait. And finally he died, much as he had lived, alone, missed by few. “He was no more… Just as he’d feared from the start.”

So is there any conclusion to this partial book review and partial philosophical meandering about the hedonic treadmill?  Perhaps it is simply in the age old saying that money does not bring happiness, often far from it. Is happiness a warm puppy?  Probably much more so than a pocketful of cold cash.

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