The Anatomy Lesson

By: Philip Roth

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THE COLLAR





When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women. He’d never had so many women at one time, or so many doctors, or drunk so much vodka, or done so little work, or known despair of such wild proportions. Yet he didn’t seem to have a disease that anybody could take seriously. Only the pain—in his neck, arms, shoulders, pain that made it difficult to walk for more than a few city blocks or even to stand very long in one place. Just having a neck, arms, and shoulders was like carrying another person around. Ten minutes out getting the groceries and he had to hurry home and lie down. Nor could he bring back more than one light bagful per trip, and even then he had to hold it cradled up against his chest like somebody eighty years old. Holding the bag down at his side only worsened the pain. It was painful to bend over and make his bed. To stand at the stove was painful, holding nothing heavier than a spatula and waiting for an egg to fry. He couldn’t throw open a window, not one that required any strength. Consequently, it was the women who opened the windows for him: opened his windows, fried his egg, made his bed, shopped for his food, and effortlessly, manfully, toted home his bundles. One woman on her own could have done what was needed in an hour or two a day, but Zuckerman didn’t have one woman any longer. That was how he came to have four.



To sit up in a chair and read he wore an orthopedic collar, a spongy lozenge in a white ribbed sleeve that he fastened around his neck to keep the cervical vertebrae aligned and to prevent him from turning his head unsupported. The support and the restriction of movement were supposed to diminish the hot tine of pain that ran from behind his right ear into his neck, then branched downward beneath the scapula like a menorah held bottom side up. Sometimes the collar helped, sometimes not. but just wearing it was as maddening as the pain itself. He couldn’t concentrate on anything other than himself in his collar. The text in hand was from his college days. The Oxford Book of Seventeenth Century Verse. Inside the front cover, above his name and the date inscribed in blue ink, was a single penciled notation in his 1949 script, a freshman apercu that read, “Metaphysical poets pass easily from trivial to sublime.” For the first time in twenty-four years he turned to the poems of George Herbert, He’d got the book down to read “The Collar,” hoping to find something there to help him wear his own. That was commonly believed to be a function of great literature: antidote to suffering through depiction of our common fate. As Zuckerman was learning, pain could make you awfully primitive if not counteracted by steady, regular doses of philosophical thinking. Maybe he could pick up some hints from Herbert.





… Shall I be still in suit?

Have I no harvest but a thorn

To let me blood, and not restore

What Ihave lost with cordiall fruit?

Sure there was wine

Before my sighs did drie it: there was corn

Before my tears did drown it.

Is the yeare only lost to me?

Have I no bayes to crown it?

No flowers, no garlands gay? all blasted?

All wasted?

… But as I rav’d and grew more fierce and wilde

At every word

Me thought I heard one calling. Childe: And I reply’d. My Lord.





As best he could with his aching arm, he threw the volume across the room. Absolutely not! He refused to make of his collar, or of the affliction it was designed to assuage, a metaphor for anything grandiose. Metaphysical poets may pass easily from trivial to sublime, but on the strength of the experience of the past eighteen months, Zuckerman’s impression was of proceeding, if at all, in the opposite direction.



Writing the last page of a book was as close as he’d ever come to sublimity, and that hadn’t happened in four years. He couldn’t remember when he’d written a readable page. Even while he was wearing the collar, the spasm in the upper trapezius and the aching soreness to either side of the dorsal spine made it difficult to type just the address on an envelope. When a Mount Sinai orthopedist had ascribed his troubles to twenty years of hammering away at a manual portable, he at once went off to buy an IBM Selectric II; however, when he tried at home to get to work, he found that he ached as much over the new, unfamiliar IBM keyboard as he had over the last of his little Olivettis. Just a glimpse of the Olivetti stowed away in its battered traveling case at the back of his bedroom closet and the depression came rolling in—the way Bojangles Robinson must have felt looking at his old dancing shoes. How simple, back when he was still healthy, to give it a shove and make room on his desk for his lunch or his notes or his reading or his mail. How he’d loved to push them around, those silent uncomplaining sparring partners—the pounding he’d been giving them since he was twenty! There when he paid his alimony and answered his fans, there to lay his head beside when overcome by the beauty or ugliness of what he’d just composed, there for every page of every draft of the four published novels, of the three buried alive—if Olivettis could talk, you’d get the novelist naked. While from the IBM prescribed by the first orthopedist, you’d get nothing—only the smug, puritanical, workmanlike hum telling of itself and all its virtues: I am a Correcting Selectric II. I never do anything wrong, Who this man is I have no idea. And from the look of things neither does he.

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