Theory or Life?

When Marco Roth was sixteen years old, his parents suggested that he begin seeing a psychiatrist.  A couple of years earlier, the boy’s father (a noted hematologist) revealed that he was dying of AIDS and told his son that the diagnosis should be kept within the family.  Years earlier, an accidental prick with a needle had infected him.  Marco was an only child.  Not only was his father a famous academic scientist, but the boy’s mother was a talented pianist.  A sentence from the information on the book about the writer states that “Marco Roth was raised among the vanished liberal culture of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.”  Jewish, cultured, highly educated.  As a boy he was accustomed to house concerts, intellectual discussions with family and guests.

The sessions with the psychiatrist were intended to help Marco adjust to his father’s approaching death.  During those final years of his life, Marco’s father aided his son with his high school science projects, provided him with scientific articles to read—especially about possible cures for AIDS—and kept up a running dialogue about literature.  There were novels that Marco read because of his father’s recommendations.  The tension keeping his father’s approaching death from his peers led the young man to make endless speculations about his parents and refer to the virus as his “microscopic sibling,” the second child his parents never had.  His father had contracted the virus when Marco was in the second or third grade.

“That first year of my father’s full-blown AIDS, our kitchen transformed into a medical school cafeteria and a sort of war room where we followed the course of the illness.  Blown-up photographs of lesions wound up on the table, a few places down from where we ate spaghetti Bolognese.  My father and I practically dared each other to eat while looking at electron microscope slides of nematodes, while my mother left the table in protest, her food untouched, and took refuge at the piano.  We studied Kaposi’s sarcoma or looked into the milky, worm-ridden eyes of people suffering from river blindness.  These other pictures were there for perspective, as though we were telling ourselves how much worse it could be or was about to get.  My father knew that if he’d been African he’d already be dead.  But he couldn’t really know what was going to happen to him and he couldn’t really prepare us.”

All this was in the 1980s, when the AIDS pandemic was still in its early stages and there was much more optimism about a cure than there would be later.  Marco went off to college (to Oberlin briefly and then on the Columbia) and his father died the second year he was at the university.  The young man responded to the death in a slightly aloof manner, in part because his father had repeatedly told him to be his own person.  That self-identity might have emerged more easily had he not fallen under the sway of Jacques Derrida and a letter from his aunt (his father’s sister).

The infatuation with Derrida resulted in a decision to go to Paris and take courses from the great theorist/philosopher.  Marco visited the man in his office before the first lecture, but the famous scholar demonstrated “perfunctory disinterest” in the younger man.  How could it have been otherwise?  About the subsequent lectures, Marco notes, “He lectured for most of the time, an impressive feat, and he lectured fluently, though almost always from manuscripts.  The density of wordplay, the homophonic associations Derrida always delighted in, sometimes made it seem like I’d walked in during the middle of an ongoing performance of some strange experimental novel.”  The heated discussions that Marco and his fellow-students had engaged in about theory and resulted in his sojourn in Paris began to seem perfunctory.  He decided to return to New York, where he would eventually enroll in a Ph.D. program in comparative literature.

Then there’s the letter from his aunt, the writer Anne Roiphe, including a set of galleys for her forthcoming memoir, 1185 Park Avenue.  In the book, she implies that Marco’s father had caught AIDS in the more typical way—not from a needle prick. What to do?  If what Marco’s father’s sister wrote is true, doesn’t that alter his entire concept of his father, the dynamics of his family—even the scientific methods of research that his father appeared to be instilling in him?  In his anger, the young man lashed out at his deceased parent, rejecting the moments of love his father seemed to feel for him when he shared his most beloved books with his son.  Overlapping these conflicted emotions are the meetings Marco had with his aunt, his mother, and his father’s best friend—probing all of them about his father’s sexual identity.

The ambivalent feelings about his father continue for several years, as Marco begins his Ph.D. at Columbia and continues to dig into his father’s sexual past.  Along the way, The Scientists—which has been a rich, sensitive family memoir—suddenly fuses together the saga of his own marriage and the literary underpinnings of his critical work.  Re-reading four novels his father insisted that he read (Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, Ivan Goncharev’s Oblomov, and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons), a path opens up that leads him to a different view of his deceased parent.  His father, he realizes, had given him these specific novels as guideposts for his emotional development and—above all—an understanding of the concept of the family.

Marco begins to realize that he is “reading [his] father’s reading.” As he scrupulously analyzes these novels, with the skills of the most demanding literary critic, he understands that it is the enduring correction to literature that has become his father’s legacy, “after hope and all other connection [had been] lost.” In short, he has decoded his father’s character through the books his father recommended, especially Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

How ironic that Marco Roth did not get his Ph.D.—because he did not finish his dissertation.  Even more ironic that The Scientists: A Family Romance is a profound memoir because of the author’s depth of understanding, his interpretation, of several major literary works recommended by his father.  The book is of much more significance than most Ph.D. dissertations in literature, especially the ones that in recent years attempt to reduce all human action and emotion to the theoretical.

Marco Roth rejected theory for life.

Marco Roth: The Scientists: A Family Romance

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 196 pp., $23

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.