J. C. Halliman cocks a doubtful eyebrow at novelist Philip Roth’s announcement he has retired from writing. (“The Monk Retires,” The Baffler, Vol. 27, pgs. 184-189.) If so, the essayist wonders, why do we keep seeing him on television or as a speaker at literary events. From this anomaly, Halliman draws a comparison between Roth and Henry James who tried to retire but, even on his death bed, he was scribbling words with his finger across his sheets. Perhaps, Halliman speculates, Roth is afraid he will sink into oblivion having seen evidence his books haven’t been read by keepers of the canon: those “charged with safeguarding his contemporary literary reputation.” (Ibid, pg. 86)
Halliman has a point. In today’s world, too often the artist must serve not only as a creator but as a self-publicists, a job formerly assigned to the publisher. Sadly, when a writer spends time promoting a piece, he or she tends to cheapen it because embellishing one’s image becomes as important as the work itself.
But Halliman’s main point is to question whether or not art is a job from which one can retire: “…being a writer is a special kind of life, and a writer serves a special role in relation to his or her culture and society.” (Ibid pg. 189) He doesn’t specify what that role is but at the very least, it should be a life lived as an observer — a chronicler of human events and passions in a noble, if futile attempt, to make sense of a senseless world. Henry James, lacking the tools of his trade, died scribbling words with his finger across the sheets of his death bed to that end. One could almost say, a person does not choose to be an artist, but is chosen, a calling which Helliman describes as “monkish” in that it requires a life of dedication and contemplation which only later is expressed as art.
How, in effect, does one retire from thought? Having glimpsed the spark of inspiration, like Prometheus, an artist wants nothing more than to carry it back to others of his kind. “Look, look. See what I have found.” The need to share, though human, is exaggerated and more desperate in an artist. One can no more retire from art than from insanity and, according to some, insanity might be the basis of creativity. (Click)
Halliman, being a writer, mocks Roth for pretending he can walk away from the Muse before he has drawn his last breath. True, Harper Lee published nothing after To Kill a Mockingbird. But putting pen to paper is the last stage of the process, the frosting on the cake. In her heart and in her head, no doubt, many great novels were written.