Politics & Prose March 2001

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

Philip Roth's recently completed trilogy of novels about America offers a vision of paradise lost
More

You don't read Philip Roth. He reads you. He tears up your map of the normal, replacing it with one compassed by that rude honorific "reality." In the trilogy of novels he completed last year, American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000), he gives you the inside story, the self, you, your fears, shames, betrayals, hungers, and the disguises that mask them—your defenses against full knowledge of you. And, in a more central way than I can recall in his writing since the Nixon satire Our Gang, he also gives you the outside story, the big picture, America since 1945. "He was fettered to history, an instrument of history," he says of the lead character in American Pastoral. The tragic fate of selves thus used is his grand theme.

Before reading this major contribution to contemporary consciousness, I should have thought that Thomas Mann's observation that "in our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms" did not apply to America—money terms, yes, political, no—but to Old World and Third World totalitarianism, with its iron grips of ideology and terror, compulsion and coercion. But Roth's trilogy brings ideology and terror home. American Pastoral is about a normal American family shattered by the antiwar violence of the 1960s. I Married a Communist is about a man who embraces communist ideology as destiny. The Human Stain is about the heavy weight of race—the master category in American life—on the selfhood of someone who wants above all to be his own man.

Roth presents this moral history of post-war America with a fierce dialectical intelligence that sets up then knocks down explanation, refereeing complexity in sentences elongated with emotion and thought that don't relent until he's pushed their burden—language, perception, meaning—to the limit. This prose is not a well-behaved vehicle for story. Roth would reject the etherializing connotations, but this is art writing. In a 1969 interview, Roth described post-war ethnic American writing, including his own, as having "the turns, vibrations, intonations, and cadences, the spontaneity and ease, of spoken language, at the same time that it is solidly grounded on the page, weighted with the irony, precision, and ambiguity associated with a more traditional literary rhetoric."

Roth's writing is to the wallpaper of media talk what a Cezanne is to an editorial cartoon. You come to late Roth to clear your mind of shallowness and cliché, to cauterize your facile formulations, to bone your verities. This hurts. Roth can wound. Now that Roth has completed his trilogy, you can step back from the individual plots, the varied characters and situations, and you can see the vision rising through them. It is a prospect of paradise lost.

"Let's remember the energy," Roth writes of 1945, in American Pastoral, when he was about to enter high school in Newark, and when the dream America now receding even from nostalgia seemed close at hand.

Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan. The war-crimes trials were cleansing the earth of its devils once and for all. Atomic power was ours alone. Rationing was ending, price controls were being lifted; in an explosion of self-assertion, auto workers, coal workers, transit workers, maritime workers, steel workers—laborers by the millions demanded more and went on strike for it. And playing Sunday morning softball on the Chancellor Avenue field and pickup basketball on the asphalt courts behind the school were all the boys who had come back alive, neighbors, cousins, older brothers, their pockets full of separation pay, the GI bill inviting them to break out in ways they could not have imagined before the war. Our class started high school six months after the unconditional surrender of the Japanese, during the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history. And the upsurge of energy was contagious. Around us nothing was lifeless. Sacrifice and constraint were over. The Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.

And in far off Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was quoting from our Declaration of Independence, citing our revolution, appealing to American anti-colonial sentiment, in announcing his newly liberated country's freedom from France.

Roth's three agonists, like America, were in motion in 1945, their fates still in play. Seymour "Swede" Levov, "the greatest athlete in the history of Weequahic High," was in Marine boot camp, his bid for independence frustrated when his primordial father, Lou Levov—who emerged from the "pits of grease, hills of salt, barrels of solvent" of a Newark tannery to found a successful ladies' glove business—uses his crushing moral authority against the Swede's marrying a Catholic girl from South Carolina. Ira Ringold, the primitive turbulence at the core of I Married a Communist, was on his way home from Iran where a fellow soldier had annexed his brute mind to communism, an ideology that makes him an ever-chafing slave to slogans and selflessness. And The Human Stain's Coleman Silk, as "Silky Silk," was boxing his way to his freedom, about to remake himself by repudiating his family and race, achieving assimilation, the post-war ethnic grail, by "the euthanasia of memories." In motion, the lid off, yet the prison of history was closing around these men just as they began to scale the future, and not only around them. A trilogy that opens with "Swede" Levov, "the household Apollo of the Weequaic Jews," "indomitable on the playing field," ends in 1999 with the funeral of Coleman Silk, killed on a country road in the idyllic Berkshires by a casualty of history, a Vietnam veteran, "a dairy farmer who had not meant to fail but did, a road crew employee who gave his all to the town no matter how lowly and degrading the task assigned him, a loyal American who'd served his country with not one tour but two, who'd gone back a second time to finish the goddamn job."

The source of evil in the world of Roth's trilogy is the temptation to purity, to expunge the human stain, to repeal the banishment from Paradise. In The Human Stain, while a young woman is feeding a snake—in a scene with Miltonic vibrations set in a kind of nature preserve—an older woman who has suffered into knowledge remarks of a caged crow, unable any longer to live in the wild,

"That's what comes of being hand-raised," said Faunia. "That's what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain," she said, and without revulsion or contempt or condemnation. Not even with sadness. That's how it is—in her own dry way that is all Faunia was telling the girl feeding the snake: we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen—there's no other way to be here...The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It's why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling....

And murderous. Promising secular redemption, communism, according to the most recent scholarly estimate, has killed 80 to 100 million people in pursuit of this fantasy. The American crusade to purify the communist-ridden world also has blood on its hands, our hands. There is the constant compulsion to make straight Kant's crooked timber of humanity, to locate Evil—whether capitalism, communism, or impurity—in the Other. This is the vision that lingers in the mind after reading the novels. Thus Swede Levov's much-loved teenage daughter, with no cause commensurate to the act, inflamed by a war-hating righteousness so absolute that it justifies murder, detonates a bomb in her idyllic New Jersey hamlet, killing a man, a doctor up early to mail his bills. Her actions "brought the war home to Lyndon Johnson by blowing up the post office in the general store." Ira Ringold, also a murderer, dreams of the Utopia of communism where money shall not rule and the living are as pure as the dead—Ringold marries a woman who wants to wipe clean the "stain" of her Jewishness, to start over in the land of the Gentiles. And Coleman Silk, to shuck the role history has cast for him, the black man in racist America, builds a life around an escape from blackness, the human stain made flesh.

Roth's panoramic canvas finds room for Jews, Irish Catholics, WASPs, blacks, Italians, homosexuals, idealists, cynics, intellectuals, feminist academics, old immigrants, new immigrants, illiterates, blue-collar workers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, an actress, school teachers, maids, store clerks, housewives, businessmen, gossip columnists, miners, taxidermists, and whores. Newark broods over the trilogy, a city whose economy burnt down in the riots of the sixties, "when the wild behavior was still new," a symbol of what justified and all-justifying rage can wreak and has wrought in America.

Against the disorder, the social veneer always vulnerable to eruptions of "the indigenous American berserk" that we all take our chances with—the teenager ordering his combat knife over the Internet, the "disgruntled employee" unwrapping the AK-47 he bought through the mail—Roth sets the artist, his alter ego of past novels, Nathan Zuckerman. It is he who tells the stories of the Swede, Ira, and Coleman Silk. Zuckerman is "the author," as the other characters identify him, committed to rationality, explanation, consciousness, and the word. When Nathan shows his English professor at the University of Chicago an agitprop radio play he's written under Ira's spell, he gets back a brilliant jeremiad against art as propaganda.

Who taught you art is slogans? Who taught you art is in the service of 'the people'? ...You want to rebel against society? I'll tell you how to do it—write well....You want a lost cause to fight for? Then fight for the word. Not the high-flown word, not the inspiring word, not the pro-this and anti-that word, not the word that advertises to the respectable that you are a wonderful, admirable, compassionate person on the side of the downtrodden and the oppressed. No, for the word that tells the literate few in America that you are on the side of the word!

Prostrate cancer surgery has ended the erotic life that gives the heat to earlier Zuckerman novels. Now he lives alone in a cabin in the Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts—"I came here because I don't want a story any longer. I've had my story." He is a monk of the word, paring himself out of the picture, the better to see through his times.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Saving Central: One High School's Struggle After Resegregation

Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In