Leon Wieseltier on Roger Rosenblatt’s Journey into Hell Mouth

Sooner or later, and in one form or another, all human beings make their journey—and on more than one occasion throughout a lifetime—into what James Wood and others have coined “Hell Mouth”—the Job-like inferno in which we encounter unavoidable and extreme anxiety, suffering, or loss. And, of course, the final Hell Mouth for one and all is death. When it comes to life, alas, “nobody gets out alive” (Ray Kurzweil’s fantastic ambitions to cheat death through the Singularity not withstanding).

Journalist Roger Rosenblatt, like the rest of us, is a mortal vulnerable to anxiety, suffering, and loss, and, for our instruction, he has written a new book mapping the territory of his own recent journey into Hell Mouth: Making Toast: A Family Story  (Ecco 2010). At the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier has written an exquisite review of it. Here’s a taste: 

[I]t is the account of an unbearable sorrow, and I wish it had never befallen Roger Rosenblatt. On December 8, 2007, his daughter, Amy Rosenblatt Solomon, thirty-eight years old, the mother of three children, a pediatrician, collapsed at home in Bethesda and died. Rosenblatt and his wife . . . immediately left their home on Long Island and drove to their mutilated family. When one of his little grandchildren asked how long he is staying, Rosenblatt replied, “Forever.” This book is the journal-like narrative of the first year-and-a-half of Rosenblatt’s new life, of his broken-hearted and soldierly attempt to hold his family together. It is a collection of anecdotes about parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, relying upon love for their improvisations against loss. It is written with modesty and with calm—with a restraint that it is itself a great achievement in the aftermath of a cosmic cruelty. Rosenblatt’s powers of observation—his descriptions of his family have an Ozu-like clarity—were unimpaired by his pain. Indeed, they seem almost to have been sharpened by it. He understands that the first challenge of sorrow is cognitive. Making Toast is a small glowing jewel in the literature of grief.

Rosenblatt is a learned and literary man, and his bereavement is punctuated by philosophical and psychological reflections. He is repeatedly brought back to the most crushing feature of death, which is its finality. “Nothing will ever be normal again.” “We will never feel right again.” He notes about himself that “anger and emptiness remain my principal states of mind.” “My anger, being futile, flares in the wrong places and at the wrong times.” Sometimes his anger extends to the metaphysical: “my anger at God remains unabated.” “I cursed God. In a way, believing in God made Amy’s death more, not less, comprehensible, since the God I believe in is not beneficent.” But generally Rosenblatt is not inclined to such speculations. He records that he and his wife “avoided religions ourselves and reared our children without one,” and so in the wake of his daughter’s death “God was not with us.” There is nothing complacent about his reluctance to explore these matters any further. He is simply too wounded for disputation. The problem with theodicy, and with the arguments against theodicy, is that it is all so abstract. Brilliance is for the whole days, not the broken ones. When one buries one’s dead, one’s first thought cannot be that Leibniz was wrong, even if Leibniz was wrong.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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