Wednesday, August 25, 2010

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Seymour 'the Swede” Levov's most stupendous satisfaction in life was being a dependable person. He prepared and practiced the perfect life with obedience, uncompromising dedication to the essential, to things that matter most; the systematic building, the patient scrutiny of every problem, large and small; no drifting, no laxity, no laziness, meeting every obligation, addressing energetically every situation's demands; restrained in his aversions, neutral in his judgments, tolerant and charitable.

Perhaps the Swede carried his self-restraint a little too far? A certain dumbing down and dulling out occurs when one always follows 'the party line', when one is absolutely captivated by other peoples' needs, when everybody else's point of view takes precedent over one's own. Yes, goodness and sobriety bring forth inner tranquility but, after all, “what is so inexhaustibly interesting about mere decency?”

Boredom, however, was not Seymour Levov's problem [any more than it is for the other countless millions of narcissists who inhabit the American Pastoral]. It was the bewilderment which accompanies the opening of the door of the unexpected, the unseen, the counter-pastoral circumstance, the shadowing menace, the emergence of the indigenous American berserk; the confrontation with the transitory and mysterious- the messy, the dark, the hideous.

How to penetrate to the interior of people was a skill and capacity Seymour Levov did not possess. He just did not have the combination to that lock. Everybody who flashed the signs of goodness he took to be good. Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress and probably had never even begun to see into himself. What was he, stripped of all the signs he flashed?

Day and night Seymour “the Swede” Levov began to drown in inadequate explanations; overcome by a gruesome inner life of tyrannical obsessions, stifled inclinations, superstitions, horrible imaginings, fantasy conversations, unanswerable questions, loathsome self-limitation, unflagging self-castigation and remorse.

At dinner – outdoors, on the back terrace, with darkness coming on so gradually that the evening seemed to the Swede stalled, stopped, suspended, provoking in him a distressing sense of nothing more to follow, of nothing ever to happen again, of having entered a coffin carved out of time from which he would never be extricated... A lifetime's agility as a businessman, as an athlete, as a U.S. Marine, had in no way conditioned him for being a captive confined to a futureless box where he was not to think about what had become of his daughter, was not to think about how the Salzmans had assisted her, was not to think about...about what had become of his wife. He was supposed to get through dinner not thinking about the only things he could think about. He was supposed to do this forever. However much he might crave to get out, he was to remain stopped dead in the moment in that box. Otherwise the world would explode....

Vintage Books, 1997


  1. Roth provides a symptomatology of 'the American Pastoral under stress, of narcissism not in the sense of a simple ('Time” magazine inspired ) 'self-indulgent lack of civic engagement' but as outlined by Christopher Lasch, based upon the evidence provided by several studies of business corporations, to the effect that professional advancement had come to depend less on craftsmanship or loyalty to the firm than on "visibility", "momentum", personal charm, and impression management [Public Relations]:

    “ anxious concern with the impression made on others, a tendency to treat others as a mirror of the self.... a certain protective shallowness, a fear of binding commitments, a willingness to pull up roots whenever the need arose, a desire to keep one's options open, a dislike of depending on anyone, an incapacity for loyalty or gratitude.”(

    Roth does not provide a prognosis. It would be presumptuous of me to infer what he might have in mind, especially since I have read no other work by this amazing novelist. One avenue of adventure in this respect, however, offers a plausible conjecture.

  2. “Both in traditional Christianity and in Schopenhauer's mystical synthesis of Christianity and Buddhism, salvation consists in ascent from the mundane world of pain to a supernatural realm of bliss. Friedrich Nietzsche, we have seen, from his pious youth onwards, yearns for salvation, for a world made, not simply tolerable, but, like the ultimate world of Christianity, perfect. In 'The Antichrist' he says that the 'most spiritual' human beings are those who can affirm that 'the world is perfect', and in Part IV of 'Zarathustra, in a state of 'strange drunkenness' cause by fumes from a grapevine, Zarathustra does, for a moment, experience the world as perfect. Zarathustra rejects, of course, the supernatural. His task, therefore, is to show how salvation, perfection, bliss, can be discovered within the confines of naturalism, how the 'kingdom of heaven' can be discovered in the heart.

    'A hunchback tells Zarathustra he must cure the cripples if he is to convince the people of his teaching. 'Not so', Zarathustra replies. 'If one takes away the hunchback one takes away his spirit.' This reveals Nietzsche's basic strategy: theodicy – showing that problematic phenomena are really blessings in disguise, showing that, as the notebooks put it, 'Furies – that is just a bad word for the graces'. The rest of the speech shows us how to perform the theodicy.

  3. I walk among men...over a battlefield or butcher-field (Here, surely, Nietzsche is experiencing one of his post traumatic flashbacks to the stinking body-parts on the battlefield of Worth). Everywhere I see only 'fragments, limbs and terrible accidents- but no human being. We must 'compose into one', 'poeticize into a unity, all that is 'fragment, riddle and terrible accident. We must learn to 'will backwards' so as to recreate all 'It was' as 'Thus I will it.'

    The “Gay Science” has already told us what it is to 'will backwards': it is to narrate one's life so that 'everything that happens turns out for the best, turns out to be something that 'must not be missing' from the Bildungsroman of one's life: the story of one's spiritual development towards becoming who, according to one's ideal,one is, giving it unity, 'composing into one all that was previously meaningless 'accident'. Apparent accidents become parts of 'personal providence'. To authentic selves accidents never happen. For the rest, everything is an accident.

  4. What Zarathustra outlines in Part II is the concept of salvation: what one would have to do to 'redeem' one's life and -that life is lived, inextricably, in the world – the history of the world as a whole. This, however, does not mean that he ( or Nietzsche) is capable of carrying out the task of redemption. And in fact the final two speeches of Part II make clear that, as yet, he cannot. For what they reveal is his disgust at even the 'highest and best 'of those with whom he is compelled to share his world, his inability to 'redeem' them. This inability expresses itself as his inability to will, or even utter, the thought of the eternal return. What this shows is that the eternal return is just a dramatic expression of redemption. Redemption, salvation, finding the world perfect, amor fati, embracing the eternal return, are one and all simply different expressions of the same thing.”

  5. So perhaps this is an answer- impossible even for he (the 'seminal modernist') who proposed it- to the question Roth poses in the final paragraph of “American Pastoral”?

    “Yes, the breach had pounded their fortification, even out here in security Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again, They'll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible that the life of the Levov's?”

    Listen to and arrange the voices within, compose your own life, love fate?..the unexpected, the unseen, the counter-pastoral circumstance, the shadowing menace, the emergence of the indigenous American berserk; the confrontation with the transitory and mysterious- the messy, the dark, the hideous...these are the indispensable windows to eternity e.g. 'fullness of being', 'self-mastery'.

  6. Must be an enjoyable read American Pastoral by Philip Roth. loved the way you wrote it. I find your review very genuine and orignal, this book is going in by "to read" list.