Roth’s Pastoral


This is an essay I wrote for the appreciation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Read it after a long time, and enjoyed it, so thought of sharing it with you guys.

Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.
-Rainer Maria Rilke

If there was one thing that could be called omnipresent, it’s struggle. American Pastoral, intertwining Jewishness, Americanness, the struggle to be right, the struggle to be moral, the struggle to be true to oneself, the struggle to appear true to others, the struggle to remain true to yourself while appearing true to others, becomes a parable of life in its most basic form. The novel is more of a direct conversation with the reader of Roth’s confusion and less of an expert’s take on the dilemma of Jews living in America in the post-war era.

Roth relives the life of Jewish Americans in the guise of Nathan Zuckerman, a person struggling to decipher life. In the process he raises many questions about what defines life. Throughout the text, in a style as simple as it was prosodial, he subtly explores the ideologies, the beliefs and the acts of people by wide and versatile paradigms ranging from extreme non-violence to extreme violence, from an utter disrespect of life to an insanely high regard for it. He praises the protagonist, Swede Levov, almost raising him to a pedestal and then calls him fake and dumb and disposes of him as a phony. But throughout the novel, Roth remains absolutely convincing, which I believe is due to his inner struggle with these ideas. Roth’s masterful writing explores Merry as a lunatic and the reader cannot beg to differ. Then he sympathizes with Merry and again the reader cannot help but pity ‘the poor girl’.

In some sense the novel is an allegory of life, the pastoral a term for something we all believe in, something which each of us lives for. In the process of achieving this pastoral, this ideality, many lose hope, many adopt ways that are deluded. The styles of these delusions are also varied: on the one hand is Swede, a strict liberal, a true rational, living in the delusion that life will be perfect if he does everything ‘right’ and on the other hand is Merry, whose irrational beliefs make no sense to Levov, an extremely leftist ideology ranging from first violently fighting for the lower class to a frighteningly high regard for life in the end. Roth mocks both, Roth mocks everything.

By way of Nathan Zuckerman, Roth vicariously explores life by living in an era that was the best window into the nature of human thought. With death looming large in the war, the scar had hardly healed when America plunged into another battle with Vietnam over defending its capitalist regime. Life becomes precious in the vicinity of death, and forces even the ordinary mind to find ways to save it from devastation. With security in the economic sphere but death in the background, life had to be taken more seriously and not be compared by the accumulation of laurels, thus providing a case against the winner of the war, capitalism. Roth had the benefit of hindsight when he mocked the strict communist wave inside America, a so called retaliation for life, ironical in its modus operandi. By placing all extremities in a single family, Roth weaves a delightful drama, evoking a rich debate over what is right and how to live, essentially showing us how to think.

Roth subtly points out the various facets of life, unlike Bellow or Camus who adopt one of those to define life. He neither accepts life as bliss, each moment of which we should be grateful for, nor does he shun it by invoking Sisyphus, and calling life a mere myth of Sisyphus. The conversation between Lou Levov and Dawn elucidates the helplessness of religion to muster a reason, a meaning. I quote some lines from the book which will throw some light on what I want to say:

(Loneliness) “For him it was stripped of any other meaning- no meaning could make better use of that building. Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.”

(Merry’s answer to the question: What is life?) “Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.”

(Roth, according to me, mocks religion in these lines) “(Lou) I’d rather not leave it up to the child, Dawn…my grandchild is not going to eat Jesus…I give you the Baptism. That’s all I can do for you.”
Religion is a faculty that gives people a reason to live, a higher meaning for their lives. By way of these lines, Roth tells us how it fails when it is inherited or when you decide to fight it with reason.

(Here’s what Roth feels about blissful existence) ‘”A mere taste,” Proust writes, and “the word ’death’ has no meaning for him” So greedily I ate, gluttonously, refusing to curtail for a moment this wolfish intake of saturated fat but, in the end, having nothing like Marcel’s luck.’

Capitalism was ridiculed at every step by Roth, communism was ridiculed whenever he chanced upon it, Roth dissects fascism, tearing it to shreds, Roth mocks pacifism, Roth laughs at Judaism, he laughs at Christianity. He treats righteousness with a sinister derision, he denigrates intellectuals. This book is starkly elegiac in the fact that it mourns the death of such ideologies, the incapacity of these to explain life, to find a suitable way of living.

In spite of these arguments, and in spite of the fact that he is tempted to follow Sartre in calling life meaningless, Roth is not negative. Roth wants us to tackle reality head on and not be deluded by one or the other theories that tantalize us at one point of time or the other. As I put the book down and spent time meditating on its meaning, I felt that Roth had this to say to us: I don’t find bliss in existence, I don’t find relations meaningful, I don’t see why struggles define life, I don’t find meaning in anything but in the fact that we have to live. Roth is not a believer of any higher power, or as Michael Guillen puts it, “something that lies beyond the grasp of pure smarts.”

I end this essay by quoting Arthur Schopenhauer, “there was no Absolute, no Reason, no God, no Spirit at work in the world: noting but the brute instinctive will to live.”

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