Philip Roth (1933-2018)

Erdrich-Letter-from-Philip-RothIndignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen

by Adam Kitzes


I am not in the habit of fashioning headstones for writers on the occasion of their passing, but in the case of Philip Roth, this one line of his stands out for consideration. It made its appearance in Portnoy’s Complaint, the blockbuster novel that both catapulted Roth into unexpected celebrity and sent his professional career off in directions that nobody could have anticipated. We can only imagine what that career might have looked like if Portnoy had not made such a huge dent in the world of late night talk-show programs and related gossip-mongering that make up what passes for popular entertainment. (How would the Zuckerman novels have unfolded?)

Indeed, as a telling sign of how much Portnoy misrepresents Roth’s interests, consider the line quoted above. Nothing to do with psychoanalysis and the dubious virtues of narcissistic monologues, nothing to do with women or with slabs of livers, nothing even to do with “loudmouth Jews” or the Jewish self-loathing that the novel was supposed to perpetuate, in fact the line comes from a war song, specifically a marching song that the Chinese Red army sang during its revolutionary campaigns. I had mistakenly believed that Roth picked it up some time during his own term of service, though Portnoy himself recollects hearing it “in grade school, during the war, which our teachers called the Chinese national anthem.”

Re-reading the passage, I am delighted to find that Portnoy describes it as his favorite line,

“… commencing as it does with my favorite word in the English language: In-dig­-na-tion fills the hearts of all our coun-try-men! A-rise! A-rise! A-RISE!”

That puts me in good company, I suppose, since it is my favorite line too. (It is one of the lines I sing to my kids, often when they are out of sorts, a questionable attempt to infuse humor into their own fits of outrage.) But it also appeals to me as a reader of literature, since in its phrasing it speaks to so many of Roth’s prevailing concerns, among them the seductions of outrage, the passions of the heart that come with it – including our fears, real and imagined – and the bonds of community that shared indignation promises.

As I think back over the course of his tremendous literary career, the more than thirty novels, stories, and articles, I cannot recall an occasion when Roth looked away from indignation and the dangers that came with it, including the all-too-delicious postures of self-righteous outrage that seemed to define American culture during the 1990s – right when he started to put out some of his greatest titles, a list that includes Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, and of course the book whose title consisted of his favorite word.

It is that last novel on my list here, Indignation, which illustrates just how relentless Roth was in working out this topic. Published in 2008, the novel returns to the Korean War settings that marked off some of his earlier works, including of course, Portnoy’s Complaint, to which I consider Indignation as a kind of sequel. (I recall some three years ago re-reading Indignation, in an unproductive attempt to find the passage where the Red Army marching song appeared – there is no such passage – only to stumble across it, accidentally, while re-reading Portnoy for entirely different purposes.) Would counter-life be a more appropriate term? The narrator, Marcus Messner, is no Portnoy, even if he is as obsessed with sex and morals. But Messner’s life takes a starkly different course, one filled with horrors that Portnoy seems incapable of imagining. In one particularly stark passage, Messner and his school mates come face to face with their dean who reprimands their recent misconduct – a “panty raid” at the nearby co-ed institution – on the grounds of its puerility. The problem with their prank, as the dean sees it, is that one who takes part in it is utterly incapable of facing up to the challenges of their world, not least the army of young men who see their uprising in terms of entirely different injustices. I think the novel speaks to the tugging between these two ways of life. Winesburg College finally resolves the issues that motivated the prank in the first place, finally admitting co-eds onto its campus. No small victory, were it not for the narrator, who recounts it from the hospital bed where he sleeps under a morphine drip, dying from his wounds after being sent off to fight in Korea.

Maybe this is what I take from Roth: the subjects that obsessed him, that distinguished him as a writer and that marked him as a public figure, leave one utterly unprepared for the subjects that truly concerned him – and that distinguished him as a writer, and that marked him as a public figure. Roth certainly knew all of the pitfalls that came with writing about the things he wrote about – sex, self-loathing Jews, clowns and jerks in public office, plain old clowns, scandals both real and manufactured – even if they didn’t stop him from writing about them as if those pitfalls weren’t there. But I wonder if doing so meant that he could not take his mind off of still another counterplot, made up of characters who simply could not accept him on his own terms. This, at any rate, remains for me one of Roth’s most enduring legacies, his unflagging commitment to the problem expressed by another favorite line of mine, this one taken from Shakespeare – to whom Roth has drawn comparison. From King Lear: “Anger hath a privilege.”

This post was contributed by editor Adam Kitzes.

Image source: Inge Morath / Magnum, The New Yorker.


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