Slavek finds himself so torn between, on the one hand, assuming his share of the responsibility for fighting the Nazis and, on the other, escaping into some private American happiness, that he suffers hysterical paralysis of his leg. (You can almost hear "As Time Goes By" playing between the lines.) But then the novel turns on a Koestlerian twist. Slavek presents himself to a psychoanalyst for treatment; and he finds out on her couch that his desire to fight injustice has been largely fueled by a neurotic impulse to self-sacrifice, even to moral grandiosity, deriving from irrational guilt over the accidental death of his brother many years before. Of course he would want to fight; that is his psychic disposition.
In record time (the plot is a contrivance, after all), Slavek is emancipated from the vise of this guilt and his leg recovers. Yet what emancipation is really possible from his terrible conundrum? Can knowing the tortured source of one's moralism--one's hubristic need to seem the champion--really help one decide a moral question? What should Slavek do, irrespective of his impulses, go to America or join the British army?
Koestler, it turns out, is not all that ambivalent. His Slavek chooses the army--the fight against the Nazis. Knowing what is understandable is not the same as knowing what is right. And right (here we see Koestler's admiration for Kant) cannot be grounded solely in knowing material facts, historical contingencies, universal pleasures--or psychoanalytic traumas. Some imperatives are, well, categorical: the need to see others as ends in themselves, even when you desperately want them to be your means; the need to do what you cannot ask others to do if you will not.
Indeed--Slavek concludes this--it is purely materialist explanations for human will that are themselves the problem; ethical systems that began with Bacon and Galileo culminated with Stalin and Hitler. In a farewell note to Odette, Slavek assumes the stance of a post-modernist prophet:
I'll tell you my belief, Odette, I think a new God is about to born. That is the kind of thing one is only allowed to say in certain moments... Praise to the unborn God, Odette. Do not try to divine his message or the form of his cult; this will be after our time... For we are the descendants of Renaissance Man, the end and not the beginning..
Slavek might well have paraphrased Dostoyevsky: if there is no God, then all things are actions are understandable.
WHICH BRINGS ME to Philip Roth's extraordinary new novel, Nemesis, and J. M. Coetzee's diamond-like essay on the book in the current New York Review. Nemesis has been compared in this and various other good reviews to Camus' The Plague; and Roth himself told me he was reading a lot of Camus at the time of its writing. You can almost hear Roth's young protagonist, Bucky Cantor, echoing Camus' Dr. Rieux, that there is no heroism in fighting the plague, only "decency." Coetzee writes that Nemesis is yet another book where "the plague condition is simply a heightened state of the condition of being mortal." Correspondingly, we surmise, standing up to the mysteries of mortality would seem Roth's version of existentialist spine.
Still, I wonder if the comparisons to Camus aren't a little rushed. Roth being Roth, we get a kind of a value-added existentialism in Nemesis, much like Koestler's in Arrival and Departure, only more dramatically convincing. We get, that is, a protagonist enhanced by our psychoanalytic knowledge of him and interpreted (this Coetzee wonderfully sees) by a narrator, another character, who may not be completely trustworthy. For Roth, I think, "being mortal" is even more complex and terrible than the way Camus presents the matter in The Plague--if not for the protagonist, then for us.
God may indeed be incomprehensible, as Marcia says. Nonetheless, someone who tries to grasp God's mysterious designs at least takes humanity, and the reach of human understanding, seriously; whereas someone who treats the divine mystery as just another name for chance does not. What Arnie is unwilling to see--or at least unwilling to respect--is first the force of Bucky's Why? ("this maniac of the why," he calls him) and then the nature of Bucky's No!, which, pigheaded, self-defeating, and absurd though it may be, nevertheless keeps an ideal of human dignity alive in the face of fate, Nemesis, the gods, God...Ill luck does not call for remorse on a grand, heroic scale: best to pick yourself up and get on with your life. In wanting to be regarded as a great criminal, Bucky merely reveals himself as a belated imitator of the great-criminal pretenders of the nineteenth century, desperate for attention and ready to do anything, even commit the vilest of crimes, to get it (Dostoevsky dissected the great-criminal type in the person of Stavrogin in The Possessed).
Coetzee sees only the former condemnation without fully appreciating its import ("The Bucky with whom Arnie does not sympathize is haunted by a suspicion that when he said 'Yes, I will flee the city,' the voice that spoke was not that of his daytime self but of some Other within him"). But the second is the more important one, and brings us back to Slavek's choice.
Okay, one might say, and as Arnie suggests, a man like Bucky could not stand the thought of living his life as a burden on Marcia or anybody. Yes, we know he has a psyche that would call for action "on a grand, heroic scale," or we think we know through Arnie's filter. Such people (as Coetzee suggests) can be dangerous. So what? One's propensity to "desperately seek attention" through "grand" moral acts does not, in itself, mean one's act is not morally sound. The residual problem is still whether it is right to live as a burden on the people we love. Roth, like Koestler, complicates things for us but the complexity only makes the simplicity of the moral question feel all the more compelling.
Nemesis leaves us dangling in circular questions of this kind. Yet Bucky's peculiar courage seeps into the back of our minds. Roth seems to be implying that living means living autonomously--being our own best evidence for autonomy. Dignity cannot (always) mean living with ethical clarity. But it does mean living responsibly: we may not ask what we cannot imagine fair for everybody. Anyway, we have nothing but fictions about one another, as Arnie has of Bucky, as Marcia has of Bucky, and Bucky has of himself, yet we judge, judge!, and JUDGE.