Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Burden Of Roth's "Nemesis"

In 1943, Arthur Koestler published a little novel, which he called Arrival and Departure. The story, actually a kind of dramatized essay, features a young protagonist, Slavek, a student leader from Eastern Europe (we assume Hungary), who escapes the local fascists after they had tortured him brutally. He comes eventually to "Neutralia" (we assume Portugal, the way-station Koestler himself had escaped to), where he falls in love with the fetching Odette. Miraculously, the couple is offered safe passage to America. But Slavek is also given the opportunity to join the British Army. What to do?

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.

I AM ASSUMING that if you have been staying with me this far, you have either read Nemesis or read enough reviews of it that you know the plot. If not, here is the outline:

It is 1944, Newark; there is a polio epidemic. Bucky Cantor, 4-F, sees his buddies going off to do what Slavek determines to do. At first he stays on the job, utterly devoted, coaching febrile, vulnerable boys in the city. Soon, some of his wards start dying. Bucky's girl-friend, Marcia, is at a distant summer camp, and urges him to join her--a prelude to engagement and the embrace of her loving family. He refuses.

But, eventually, and in what might seem an effort to pluck some joy out of an unhappy fate--an epidemic nobody could control or be responsible for, after all--Bucky does join her. Yet he quickly comes to see this as a show of weakness. Ironically, he discovers a few days later that he is himself the silent carrier infecting his boys; that, tragically enough, he would soon succumb himself to the disease; that in abandoning his job and fleeing Nemesis (the job was anyway--though he did know this--about to be terminated) he actually may have saved other Newark boys, though he wound up infecting various children at the camp.

But now comes the real moral problem. Bucky recovers, though his marvelous, athletic body is paralyzed. What seems to plague him most (we cannot be sure) is the shame that he had failed to do his duty. We get this idea because, confined to a wheel-chair, he refuses to even see Marcia. Finally, however, reluctantly, he allows her to visit, and she begs him to marry anyway, which presents him the decision once and for all. What should he do? Marry knowing he could never give her what he will get from her, or break off the engagement?

BUCKY, MUCH LIKE Slavek (I am not at all sure like Dr. Rieux), chooses to break off the engagement. He concludes that it is right to do so. But is it? Is agreeing to have a loving woman to care for you--that is, committing to such asymmetrical caring--really like acquiescing in, say, a Nazi occupation, or just the spread of a fatal disease? Everyone around Bucky, including the narrator, considers marriage to Marcia what he should have chosen if he were not encumbered by some stubborn, excessive moralism.

Indeed--and this is Roth's special gift--we "understand" Bucky in a way we could never understand Dr. Rieux. Like Koestler, but more compassionately, Roth complicates things by sketching a map to his protagonist's psyche: his childhood unhappiness, his physical insecurities, his family shame, his over-compensations, his comparative sexual squareness, leading to what vaguely seems all along an exaggerated, hubristic, sense of duty. And Roth--adding a ball even to Koestler's moral juggling--gives us a not-disinterested narrator to tell Bucky's story, the once-admiring younger Arnie, who having recovered from polio himself, cannot really forgive Bucky for wasting his "life" as he would not. What then can we make of duty?

Coetzee, it must be said, sets up these questions, but he does not, I think, take them on as squarely as the book would invite him to. Anyway, he misses Roth's point because he wants things to fit into a classical tragedy, not the contemporary kind Koestler implies. Coetzee shows convincingly that Bucky aims for a kind of dignity Arnie cannot or will not appreciate. And yet Coetzee supposes that dignity in Nemesis is utterly classical, a rejection of the very concept of chance, a determination to see life as meaningful, serious, hence moved by the gods; that dignity means acknowledging, if not accepting, their verdict. He writes:

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).

But Roth is implying a slightly different, and (if possible) even more heroic conception of dignity in Nemesis than what Coetzee suggests here. Bucky does not reject being a victim of chance, nor is he punishing himself in order to valorize a "mysterious design." Rather, he rejects living as a victim, period. For this move you cannot simply acknowledge "fate, Nemesis, the gods, God"--all of which imply some kind of order behind events. You need the "new God" Slavek introduces, a personal faith in the meaningfulness of things in the absence of design, a moral dignity that is itself mysterious.

Bucky, you see, is not wallowing in the verdict of the furies and refusing to get on with his life. He is getting on with his life. For "life," to him, means exercising his God-given powers, not surrendering to the powers of the gods. If he condemns himself, it is not for having fallen ill, even this infected others. He condemns himself, rather, first, for leaving his post when he thought he might make a difference (and even if, as things turned out, he could not). And he condemns, second, and preemptively, any Bucky who would impose an invalid on a lovely young bride before her life has really begun.

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.

If Bucky love Marcia would he not wish her to exercise her powers more fully than caring for him would allow? True, Bucky's reach for dignity implicitly denies Marcia the chance to reach for something like the same thing. (What right does he have to "save" her? Then again, what if not Marcia's limited horizons, cuddly family, and exaggerated sexual infatuation explains her propensity to give Bucky what he cannot give her? Should we trust his No any less than her Yes?) What, in any case, makes life worth living if not living by our own lights, in our own integrity, even when we cannot really know what the hell the gods want?

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.

The point is, this is not just a problem for unusual characters. Nor is the specific moral question Bucky deals with only for people crippled by disease. We all go the way of Bucky. I dare say every aging person, contemplating the diminution of his or her powers, and sickened by the prospect of becoming a burden to loved ones--actually, sickened by the prospect of no longer being oneself--thinks often about the question of when "life" is no longer worth living and even about the courage to end it. Who but Roth, the chronicler of the pathos of our autonomy, should help us be thinking about this now?