Friday, March 03, 2006

What can change the nature of a man?

Monday night, around 10:30PM, I finished what feels like my first "serious book" in ages: "I Married a Communist" by Philip Roth. The remainder of this post describes why I was reading this book and my thoughts about it.

Throughout my life, I've been blessed with incredibly good English teachers. Junior High gave me Mrs. Wherry and my ninth-grade teacher; I've forgotten his name but not his powerful examination of Steinbeck. High school gave me some of the best teachers of my life, a near-holy trinity of Mr. Harris, Mr. Piro and Dr. Langlas; any one of those would have been sufficient incentive to pursue my English degree in college, and the combined effect of the three was incredible. Mr. Harris took me in under his wing after I arrived in Wheaton and made a scary move a lot less frightening through his humor and humanity; as a teacher he showed incredible talent at turning on his students, creating awakening an intellectual thirst that even he could not slake. I only had a single semester with Mr. Piro, but that semester probably did more to prepare me for college writing than anything else I did in high school; even more impressively, he effortlessly communicated why the rules were important. Any teacher can say "Don't use passive voice," but he had a gift for helping us FEEL the difference, with the result that most of us continue to follow his instructions to this day: we no longer need to, but he gave us the great gift of caring about how our words sound. (I'm afraid this blog sets a horrible example, but when I'm serious about writing something good, I can just turn on the Mr. Piro in my mind.) Finally, Dr. Langlas was a great elfin wizard who tied the literate to the metaphysical, showing that good writing could underly any worthy human endeavor. His canon often springs first to mind when I'm looking for good analogies.

The streak continued in college. I enjoyed a lovely range of talented, well-differentiated professors. There was Professor Hadas, the delightful Jewish atheist who taught Bible As Literature and found more beauty in the Scripture's words than many Christians can see. There was Professor Davies, my fiction writing teacher, who taught me the evils of deconstructionism and gave me the confidence to enjoy works for their quality. In my senior year Professor Munson introduced me to Old English; reading Beowulf felt like I had finally come full circle, from being turned on to literature by The Hobbit to exploring the words that had inspired The Hobbit's creation. Professor Meyer led the single most unique class I've ever taken: Electronic Poetry, a fascinating exploration of the very nature of art and the possibilities of automation. Professor Mackay brilliantly showed us that there is no such thing as postmodernist literature, and in the process helped me see the beauty in early 20th century English literature that has long escaped me. At the capstone of my academic career was Professor Johnston's semester on Joyce; reading Ulysses allowed me to cross one item off my list of "things to do before I die," and his kindness and force went beyond the classroom, allowing me to graduate as a more confident person than I would have been without him.

If Johnston was the capstone, though, Professor Robert Milder was the cornerstone. First as my teacher in two American Literature courses and later as my faculty advisor, he daily intimidated me with his brilliant mind. At Wash U, my cockiness in computer science classes was matched by my hesitation in English classes; I loved the material as much as anyone, but struggled to uncover the meanings and references that seemed to come easily to my fellow students. In Milder's classes, everyone was in the same boat; every day he led us out into dangerously deep waters, then under the waves, bringing us to an understanding few others have seen. I never felt happier to be an English Lit major or more despairing of my abilities than when I was in his class. By the end, the foundation he provided gave me a way of understanding literature that makes reading even more pleasurable than it was before.

Outside of class, he was a gentle and soft-spoken person. (I'm using the past tense here because I haven't spoken with him in years; unlike Mr. Harris and Professor Hadas, Professor Milder is still among the living.) He showed great interest in my path through the university and offered wise counsel which I gladly accepted. One of my most vivid memories of college is sitting in his office in Duncker Hall: the massive bookcase that reaches from floor to ceiling, the trees just outside the window, the incredibly comfortable chair he provided for his visitors. There was a softness and quitness in that room, it felt more like a sanctuary than any place else at the school, and simultaneously a serious place of learning where Professor Milder went to think his great thoughts.

I could write a nice long post on every single book Milder taught. They were uniformly great, well-chosen pieces. One of them (Moby Dick*) even won a coveted place on my Top Five list. This post, though, is about the sequel to a book I encountered in that class, Philip Roth's "American Pastoral."

Philip Roth is considered one of the three greatest living American writers. He has been writing since the late 50s and still puts out incredible work; he wrote American Pastoral 1997 and won a Pulitzer. American Pastoral is an American tragedy; it chronicles the public rise and private fall of The Swede, an incredibly likeable, kind, accomplished all-American guy. Like many of Roth's characters The Swede is Jewish; unlike the other characters, he seems to almost effortlessly assimilate into the mainstream of society. I don't want to go into the plot too much... well, I guess it isn't necessary for this post anyways. Read it if you get the chance.

Anyways. Just recently I was poking around online, and saw that American Pastoral was actually part of a series of "Zuckerman Novels." Zuckerman is Philip Roth's alter-ego, a Jewish author who narrates these books. The book immediately after American Pastoral was I Married A Communist. I immediately requested a copy, and a few weeks back began to read it.

Unlike what I'd imagined, it's a sequel to Zuckerman's story, not the Swede's. The overall framing device is very similar to the former book: once again Zuckerman talks with someone, hears a lot more about someone else's life, and proceeds to tell that person's story, interspersed with occasional memories from his own life. This time the subject is Ira Ringold aka Iron Rinn, and the intermediate narrator is Murray Ringold, Zuckerman's high-school English teacher.

The book was excellent, the best I've read this year (granted, that's only two months). I didn't enjoy it quite as much as American Pastoral. I've thought a little bit about why that is. Partly it's the subject matter; American Pastoral felt like a more political book, and its politics were centered around the radicalism of the 1960s, an era I find fascinating. I Married a Communist (henceforth IMAC) is also fairly political, but is more focused on the McCarthy era, which while still interesting doesn't carry the same force for me. Another reason, of course, was the way I was reading it. I think I'm a more capable reader now than I was going into school, but I certainly can't extract as much understanding from a book on my own than I can with the help of a capable teacher and fifteen avid readers. Still, the book was very good, and I'm sure I'll be returning to Roth in the future. Next on the list may be The Plot Against America.

Mega Spoilers

Like AP, IMAC is a tragedy. Once again a Jewish man rises towards the top of society, including a marriage to a famous and beautiful wife, and then is ruined and betrayed by his wife. That said, I was surprised by how different the novels felt. In large part this is because of how different the main characters are. AP's Swede was almost pure, an incredibly likeable guy who did nothing wrong but was still tormented by his own conscience for what happened to him. IMAC's Iron Rinn feels more like a traditional tragic figure from mythology: he is quite talented and has great ambition, but is felled a fatal flaw. Finding that flaw is left to the reader, and I'll talk about it some more below. Maybe. Anyways, Ira is strong where the Swede was weak, feeling confident in his own virtue no matter what happens, but he lacks the composure and control of the Swede, creating and compounding his own troubles.

At a surface level, Ira's problem is communism. He has embraced an ideology that has come under fire in the US, and must eventually suffer for it. Yet Roth is careful to show that Ira's fall was the result of his personal relationships. He had built up shields around himself, and only with the betrayal of his wife and others is he swept up in the national hysteria. So, what causes those shields to fail? Once again, the answer seems to be communism. While not open about his affiliation Ira is not at all shy about his convictions, and his tireless polemics against American society may have finally worn through.

However, Ira's radio world is filled with fellow sympathizers, who are content to express their worldview subtly in their work and among friends without browbeating their enemies. Ira is uncomfortably suspended between two worlds, the zealousness of O'Day and the comforts of stable family life. Now that I'm writing this, I think the problem is that Ira doesn't know his own mind. It isn't until everything comes crashing down that he even becomes conscious of the contradictions in what he is trying to do, being a perfectly good revolutionary Communist while simultaneously trying to achieve the perfect bourgeoise dream of a contented family life. Even towards the end he thinks that his Communism is only opposed to his job, and there he's content - he can go back to other work if he is shoved out of his radio job. But he doesn't recognize the struggle between his stated ideology and his heart's longing until too late. Even then, he puts the blame squarely on his desires instead of his intractable nature.

Throughout the novel we catch hints of some violence in Ira's past. In the novel's final chapters the violence explodes to the surface, strongly altering the reader's perception of Ira; he now appears dangerous, unhinged, murderous. Looking back, we realize that this was the true self that he had hidden all this time.

That is one of the most striking things in this novel: the difference between perception and reality. Obviously, this is hardly a new topic and drives most of modern literature, but I thought it was particularly well-done here. We are introduced to Ira through Nathan, and Nathan's own early memories of Ira as this dynamic, idealistic, wonderful man serve as the baseline for our perception of him. Things get added to it - "Oh, this great man had a rotten marriage." "This great man was a Communist." It isn't until the end, when the earlier image collapses under the combined weight of Murray's story and Nathan's own recollections, that we seriously start to question that underlying perception. Was Ira really all that good? Or were we praising his luck and success, which had given him a sheen that glossed over his deficiencies?

I have way too strong a capacity to identify with characters in novels. Here I really identified with Nathan. In a narrow way I share his quietness, the way he seeks to observe everything and soak it up instead of participating in what's happening. More broadly, his ideological evolution closely mirrors my own, in arc if not in content. First of all, both of us are strongly drawn to ideologies. I like finding or inventing core principles, and then judging everything in relation to this principles. In the same way, Nathan felt incredibly confident when he could argue with his father for Wallace because that support was part of a fully-constructed worldview. Secondly, while both of us stick with our ideology while we have it, we can shift from one to another with surprising ease. Nathan seemed to absorb the teachings of the strongest personality he was near, whether Murray, Ira, his U of C prof, or O'Day. I tend to be periodically jolted by major events and, unmoored, seek for more fitting principles on which to rebuild my worldview. The 1996 CDA law made it impossible for me to support Republicans (or Democrats, for that matter), and brought me into the Libertarian fold. The Enron and Worldcom scandals dashed my faith in the invisible hand and brought me back into the statist fold; the Iraq war and our fiscal nightmare drove me to become a Dean Democrat, where I remain today. Finally, we share a certain awareness and wry humor about our situation. Nathan marvels at how he could ever have found Ira interesting, and I wonder who I will be voting for in a decade.

While Ira's story is the main one, Nathan's is also intriguing. It feels like a condensed version of the inevitable process of coming of age. There's an old saw that goes, "Anyone who is young and conservative has no heart; anyone who is old and liberal has no head." In my own experience, this is not true. Some of the smartest and more liberal people I've ever known were elderly college professors, and the youngest member of my own family is without a doubt the strongest Republican. No; I think the difference is that the young are most idealistic. I remember first studying political science in junior high and thinking everything was so pure, so abstract. It felt like a physical science: you just need to find the principles, and everything flows logically. It goes beyond politics; in morals, religion, literature (did you ever know anyone who would read nothing but sci-fi?), and more, younger people seem to have a greater capacity for wanting the best and purest of whatever they're looking for. Inevitably, they are disappointed, and the urge is strong to remake the world so that the principles can fulfill their promise.

After you have been disappointed enough times, you come to realize that it is probably a doomed cause. You can either struggle on in pursuit of the unattainable goal, doomed to failure; or you can give up the fight and live in the imperfect world. A third option presents itself: set your goals just a bit lower, try to change this one piece instead of the whole, and continue the struggle. It will be hard to explain yourself to your ten-year-old son, who can't understand why you aren't voting for the candidate who agrees the most with you, but you carry on, knowing that the possible good is greater than the impossible perfect.

Or, it might end in another way. The longer you live, the more people you meet, at least some of whom have different ideologies from yourself. The longer you live, the more experiences you have, some of which may call into question the rightness of your beliefs. You see others changing their convictions as they grow older and, encouraged, you begin a process of introspection, examining the ideologies you have accumulated and judging which to keep and which to discard as you re-examine your worldview. You now begin to see ideologies as lenses through which you can choose to examine an issue, rather than empirical declarations about what the world really is.

Whichever path you take, and I think a lot of people take both at some point, the result is the same: experiences show that the world is a muddled, messy place, and you can no longer have absolute loyalty to a particular ideology. I think there are two places you can go from here. The first is what I think of as realism, best exemplified in the book by Nathan's father. The realist has unbounded desires but realizes that he can never fulfill them all, so he chooses to pursue those which are most important or most achievable. He retains the idealist's drive but not his all-or-nothing goals. The other result is cynicism. The cynic sees the impossibility of perfection and despairs. He may still act, but does so only for the act itself and not because he thinks it will accomplish a goal.

Returning to the story, one of Ira's flaws was, in a way, his inability to grow up and surrender his armor-clad idealism. As readers we're drawn to idealists, they're very interesting and powerful; in the real world, however, idealists have and create all sorts of problems, and the nature of Ira's downfall feels organic and inevitable.

This story is filled with contrasts. One of the most useful may be between Ira and Nathan. Ira holds firm to his convictions. I'm strongly reminded of the theory of imprinting advanced by Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson, which Murray more or less echoes when he says that, if Ira hadn't been exposed to O'Day, he would have become just as committed to whatever else he happened to be around at that time. When he was young Ira was changeable, but once he gets set in place, that ideology stays with him forever. Nathan, though, has spent his entire life shuttling between convictions, and at this late stage in his life doesn't seem to believe anything strongly. It seems as though this is a prerequisite for Nathan becoming a writer, and his conversations with the college professor explicitly state this: artists are concerned with the individual minutia of reality, and must be on guard against the pull of ideologies which will color and distort that minutia, obscuring some and elevating others, making art subservient to meaning.

Personally, I think that's a way to describe art, but not all art. Most of my favorite authors fall within this camp of creation in the service of art itself. However, just off the top of my head I can think of plenty of works that are made better for their service to an ideology, or that wouldn't exist without it. Think of George Orwell's 1984, or the beautiful propaganda posters of the Spanish Civil War, or La Marseillaise. Each owes its existence and power to the creator's devotion to an ideal. It's certainly not fashionable these days to create art in this way, but I don't believe that means it's any less good. (I cheerfully grant, though, that ideology-driven art is probably much more likely to be awful than that created for its own sake.)

As a final note, these two Roth novels have made me more pessimistic about having kids than anything else in my life. In a way, I can't make up my mind which daughter is worse. Sylphid is objectively the worse person; her spite, vindictiveness, sadism, and repulsive physical appearence don't have any redeeming counter. The Swede's daughter seems almost tame in contrast; she has turned her heart to stone and runs with a bad crowd, but she comes across as more of a victim while Sylphid is the victimizer. On the other hand, though, Ira has an out with Sylphid: she's not really his kid, he puts up with her for as long as he can stand and then walks away. The Swede, though, saw his daughter born, raised her, loved her, gave her every attention and care, only to have her destroy him and break his heart. To me, that's the more horrifying scenario, and I'm sure it's something every parent dreads: the fear that, no matter how good a parent you may be, your child will somehow not turn out right. I admire and hate the way the Swede blames himself for his daughter's inexplicable drifting away. It feels like such a heavy burden, and there's only so much you can do.

So, that's that. I'm glad I took this break from comic books, fantasy novels and video games to dive into "serious" literature once again.

* Whenever I say "Moby Dick," I mean "Moby Dick: The Robert Milder Cut." It's basically Moby Dick with a short list of chapters we were allowed to skip. They added up to around 50-75 pages and all dealt with the minutiae of whaling, from how whales communicate to many chapters on the items one collects from a stripped whale carcass. The book might still be on my Top Five list even with these chapters included; I'll re-read the entire book some day and let you know.


  1. 9th grade, I believe that was Mr. Ketcham.

  2. All I remember from that class was the time he ran up the wall to get everyone's attention. Also, "In Dubious Battle."