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Four Pathologies and a State of Sanity: Political Philosophy and Philip Roth on the Individual in Society

Four Pathologies And A State Of Sanity:  Political Philosophy And Philip Roth On The Individual In Society

The most important task of political philosophy is the normative evaluation of society. This evaluation means separating the aspects of a societal status quo that ought to be changed from the aspects that ought to be upheld. Political philosophy criticizes the former, that is, it depicts the reasons for altering the aspects of the status quo that are in need of revision. It does so in the hope that thanks to this criticism the public will be more prone to change these aspects. Political philosophy praises, on the other hand, the aspects of society that should be upheld, that is, it renders explicit the merits of these aspects of the status quo. It does so in the hope that thanks to this affirmation the public will be more likely to cherish and, if need be, defend these aspects. Both of these endeavors—criticism and praise—must be pursued in relation to a concrete aspect of society, not as an abstract idealization. To fulfill the task thus sketched political philosophy relies on conceptual instruments such as typologies, categories, distinctions.

As some of these conceptual instruments are applicable to an array of normative evaluations and thus of lasting concern there is—besides the evaluation side—also a conceptual side to political philosophy. The aim of this conceptual side is the construction, the improvement, and the deconstruction of the instruments recurrently relied on in concrete evaluations. Opposed to the evaluations, however, the conceptual work needs to be done in the abstract, without a specific aspect of society in mind, that is. Hence, political philosophy works on two fronts: 1) it conducts concrete normative evaluations; 2) it deals with the instruments hereby used. This is the same in dentistry, presumably in every profession. While dentistry provides concrete help to patients in operations it, at the same time, pursues an on-going effort to improve the instruments used in these operations. And, to linger with the analogy a bit longer, as the instruments are means for the operations (not vice versa), in dentistry as well as in political philosophy instruments get adjusted by a trial-and-error method in light of their performance in concrete operations. This explains why the conceptual tool box of the political philosopher as well as the dentist’s office look much different today than, say, a century ago.

Aside from exceptions that prove the rule, novelists do not, in my opinion, help political philosophy in its normative evaluations, i.e. in concrete operations. But there are novelists worthy to take a look at when it comes to the improvement of the instruments of political philosophy. Philip Roth is one of them. His work is stimulating for the conceptual side of political philosophy because much of it revolves around the influence society exerts on individuals and on the strategies individuals assume in reaction.[1] Moreover, in his novels, this mostly takes place in the United States of America in the second half of the twentieth-century, a society as demanding as it gets regarding societal expectations imposed on individuals.[2] One of the overarching themes of Roth’s work, as I understand it, is about individuals, often from minority groups, and their effort to find a place in American society. Roth usually treats society’s expectations as a given and devotes himself to an individual’s endeavor to deal with these expectations; or, as how I want to put it, Roth’s novels depict individuals aiming at reconciliation to society.

But, typically, these individuals fail. They fail—in richly varied and spectacular ways—in the face of a society that repeatedly leaves the desired reconciliation out of reach. And when Roth’s individuals realize the unattainability of reconciliation this often triggers the opposite reaction in them: radical protest against this very society. At times, Roth even presents what I call pathologies of reconciliation: individual efforts to reconcile to society of such enormous proportions or radical protest elicited by the reconciliation’s perceived unattainability of such enormous proportions that they render a rewarding life impossible. Roth’s masterpiece in this regard is the “American Trilogy” (AT)—a series of loosely-related books that consists of American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (2000).[3] In AT, on which I will focus, Roth depicts four types of pathologies of reconciliation of individuals to the society of the United States and also leaves some traces of how a truly successful reconciliation to this society could look like—four pathologies and a state of sanity.

Why is this of relevance to the conceptual side of political philosophy? As said in the beginning, with regards to an aspect of society that deserves preservation, political philosophy needs to outline the reasons why this is the case with the aim that the public esteems this aspect. Public affirmation of such an aspect is—at least in properly functioning democracies—necessary. Without it, society is in danger of losing something that is, according to a normative evaluation, worthy of preservation. Take, for example, social security and let us assume that, based on an all-considered-judgment, the social security system of country x improves the good of country x without negative effects on other countries. In such a case, the public, at least a decisive majority, need to be aware that this is in fact the case. Otherwise, social security—a beneficial system, according to the assumption—might get cut down, maybe even abolished by the ones who do not profit from it. This is why a public needs to be reconciled to the aspects of society that should be preserved.

Political philosophy tries to contribute to that by rendering explicit the normative arguments in favor of an aspect of society that deserves preservation. To be successful in doing so it, among other things, needs to be informed of the conditions under which individuals as the elements a public is made of are capable of valuing aspects of society in the first place as well as about general impediments that can hinder individuals from affirming aspects of society. Without such knowledge the efforts of political philosophy can be futile as they might miss the true causes for a public’s lack of reconciliation to positive aspects of society, causes that may need to be dealt with first in order to put the desired reconciliation into effect and, as the example with social security in country x delineates, to thereby safeguard the normative achievements a society has already accomplished. Awareness of the general reasons why gaps can emerge between what deserves affirmation from a normative point of view and what is, as a matter of fact, affirmed by the public is necessary for prevailing on this front. Analogously a successful dentist studies, first of all, the general causes for the gaps she is expected to close as well as to prevent from re-emerging in the future.

In presenting different causes behind an individual’s failed reconciliation to society, including the deeper psychological reasons involved, Philip Roth’s AT entails fundamentals for assessing and finally getting rid of gaps between the appreciable aspects of society and the appreciated ones. This is why this chapter distills AT for insights on an individual’s flawed relation to society and develops—section by section—a (preliminary) typology of pathologies of reconciliation from the substance thus garnered. Whether this typology amends the political philosopher’s toolbox in a useful way is to be tested in concrete normative evaluations, not in conceptual investigations like this one.[4]

As this chapter belongs to political philosophy’s conceptual side, not to its evaluation side, it can refrain, as far as doing so is possible, from commenting on the content of what the individuals in Roth’s AT are or are not reconciled to, i.e. the U.S.-American value system. This is synonymous with the assumption—nothing more than an assumption!—that this value system is, at least in major parts, worthy of affirmation by individuals. Otherwise, remaining irreconcilable would be the order of the day.

Pathology One: Merry Levov and Missing Embarkment

The first pathology of reconciliation discernible in Roth’s AT finds expression in Merry Levov. Merry is the daughter of American Pastoral’s central character, the rich, awesome-looking, successful, and extremely kind Seymour Levov, with great veneration called “the Swede,” and the Swede’s wife Dawn Levov, former Miss New Jersey, still with the according looks, hobby cattle farmer, and no less kind than her husband, the two of them together building one of the American “families full of tolerance and kindly, well-intentioned liberal goodwill” (Pastoral, 84). Except for a stutter, Merry has always looked like the logical result of perfect parents until, at the age of sixteen, during the time of the Vietnam War, she “all at once shot up, broke out, grew stout” and became “almost overnight […] a large, loping, slovenly sixteen year-old, nearly six feet tall, nicknamed by her schoolmates Ho Chi Levov” (95). She makes the opposition to America’s war in Vietnam her trademark and becomes, as her uncle puts it, “the angriest kid in America” (260). Lyndon B. Johnson is called names by her whenever he turns up on television: “You f-f-fucking madman! You heartless mi-mi-mi-miserable m-monster!”; when the name of some other member of the government is mentioned it can happen that Merry, in the middle of her parent’s splendid house, spits on the floor in disgust (260). Soon she falls so badly into a maniacal opposition to the War that she bombs the local general store and thereby inadvertently kills a person. After that, she is on the run and, as we find out later, the manslaughter she has committed does not lead her to repent but, quite the opposite, unleashes her even more, delivers her “from all residual fear and compunction” so that her anti-Vietnam standpoint culminates in the deliberate killing of three more people (241).

Merry’s straightforward triple homicide best signifies that she is totally out of bounds of the value system of the country she lives in; she trespasses with ease “that most fundamental prohibition” (241)—thou shalt not kill. What makes her case special is that her maturing, her becoming accountable for her own deeds, coincides with her transgressions. This means she has never managed to enter the circle of America’s core values; she has never been reconciled to these values in the first place. Therefore, I call her pathology of reconciliation to society a failure of initiation. Merry has not been successfully ushered into the values around which the United States is built; instead, she becomes a terrorist committed to fighting these very values.

Merry, the human-being behind the terrorist, is somebody we could call, with Kracauer, a short-circuit person (“Kurzschluss-Mensch”). Such as Kracauer’s short-circuit people, Merry, from childhood on, desperately clings to the latest fashion around the block and is quick to jump to the next that comes around: “She was a perfectionist who did things passionately, lived intensely in the new interest, and then the passion was suddenly spent and everything, including the passion, got thrown into a box and she moved on” (90). Thereby, the older Merry gets the more dogmatic the worldviews she throws herself at become. There once was her love of “astronomy and before astronomy the 4-H Club,” there was “Audrey Hepburn,” “there was even a Catholic phase” (89). Hence, her extremism against the Vietnam War needs to count as just one out of many passions along the way but this time she “proved that being in opposition to everything decent in honky America wasn’t just so much hip graffiti emblazoned on her bedroom wall” (241). And after this phase—the homicidal one—she becomes a Jain, member of a sect that is adamant in trying to protect all life on earth, animal as well as plant-life, and which, hence, necessitates starvation in the strict follower of this sect. As also this clinging—the suicidal one—is more than hip graffiti to Merry, it becomes her last.

Roth tells Merry’s story from the standpoint of her father and the father’s desperate search for an explanation for his daughter’s disruption. The most convincing among the explanations for Merry’s lack of initiation the father mulls over is that her parents failed in acquainting the daughter with a viable role-model of what being an adult can look like.[5] It all begins with the question of religion. The mother is a Catholic, the father a Jew, Merry is initiated into neither of the two faiths. Instead, her parents, especially her father, intentionally hold her in abeyance to make sure that neither of the grand-parents, who hold the denomination issue in high esteem, get offended (360). As a result, Merry feels torn and is unable to develop a serious stance with regards to religion.

Furthermore, Dawn Levov, Merry’s mother, has not been capable of developing a wholesale personality herself. As a former beauty queen, who still bears the looks, Dawn does not want to be identified with this feat at all, even though this aspect of her past is vital to everyone who sees her. Also Seymour Levov, the father, cancels out for Merry as someone to develop a standpoint to because he has the routine of cuddling each of his daughter’s fascinations—no matter how ludicrous these or their manifestations become—with an “outsized willingness to understanding”[6] instead of making clear to her the border between being excited and being extremist; perhaps his “mistake was,” so he ponders at one point, “to have tried so hard to take seriously what was in no way serious; perhaps what he should have done, instead of listening so intently, so respectfully, to her ignorant raving was to reach over the table and whack her across the mouth” (224).[7]

If there is anything graspable for Merry about her parents, it is their extreme beauty. But this beauty she cannot emulate in her coming of age as she has not inherited even traces of it. Therefore she decides to rebel against that beauty by, at some point, no longer being concerned about her looks or her demeanor at all, and also no longer concerned about overcoming her stutter which has been, so Roth hints, an unconscious rebellion against her parents from the start (91). Merry is hugely successful, even manages to become the “ugliest daughter ever born of two attractive parents” (227). But looking shitty—even world-class shitty—is, no more than looking beautiful, a quality to build a successful identity around. So her father is almost exactly right when he says about his grown-up daughter that she has “gone over the edge of the ship” (228), the ship being the value system of the United States. The only thing is that Merry has never boarded that ship in the first place because her parents, one of the most important links between an individual born into the world and the societal value system the individual is born into, failed when it came to their daughter’s initiation.

Pathology Two: Lester Farley and Going on the Rails

Lester Farley, the Vietnam veteran who in The Human Stain forces off the street and, as a result, kills the book’s protagonist Coleman Silk and his lover, Lester’s ex-wife Faunia Farley, suffers from another type of pathology of reconciliation to society. Before going to Vietnam, Les was just a normal American, a “boy from the Berkshires who put a lot of trust in people and had no idea how cheap life could be, […] happy-go-lucky Les, […] tons of friends, fast cars, all that stuff,” “easygoing” and “gregarious” (Stain, 764, 766, 1035). He went to Vietnam because this is what his government expected him to do, simple as that (768). Being the “loyal American” that he was he even “served his country” with a second tour—“to finish the god-damn job” (764). Thus, Les does not suffer from an unsuccessful initiation, quite the opposite, as a young guy, he felt like a part of his country and going to Vietnam was part of being a part. To risk his life for his country felt natural, felt natural to a young American in sync with his country’s values.

Yet, after his return from the War, Les is no longer the man he used to be, let alone the man he could have become. A relaxed fellow before the War, at ease with the world, at ease with America, after the second time in Vietnam, “he really doesn’t belong” anymore (765). He has fallen out of the state of being reconciled to society. He “regularly” beats his wife “black and blue,” he is “restless,” he is a drinker, he has a “basement full of guns,” he hates the government, especially the president, Bill Clinton, “’that scumbag son of a bitch’” (731, 766, 770, 901, 1029). He becomes the Vietnam vet of the most nightmarish form, reaching climax in the already mentioned double-murder. The only place Les can find a little peace is unstained nature—unstained from human presence—and he aspires to the “motto”: “If man has to do with it, stay away from it” (1038).[8] With post-Vietnam Lester Farley, Roth depicts a guy as unreconciled to society as it gets. Because Les has once been in harmony with the society in which he was born and raised and now is no longer reconciled to it, I call this second pathology the failure of losing-touch.

There are, in its Weberian ideal-typical form[9], two sorts of dynamic that can cause this pathology. When explaining the fate of Les and his alteration from being in sync with society to one of the severest cases of being out of sync, Roth focuses on the change of personality Les has experienced in Vietnam, his personal suffering from seeing so much suffering and violence, his post-traumatic stress disorder. The alienation Les feels when being around other people (maybe with the exception of co-veterans) finds its root in having “seen and done things so outside what these people”—i.e. Americans not having fought in Vietnam—“know about” (765). Hence, Les has lost touch with society because of a transformation he has undergone. What he saw fellow Americans doing in Vietnam, cutting off ears needs to count among the rather civilized habits (764-65), as well as what he got used to doing—as an American soldier and thus officially in the name of his in-bred value system!—was clearly among the things this very value system had educated him never ever to do. This discrepancy, the mother of all cognitive dissonances, makes it impossible for him to reconnect to the societal value system he had once been successfully initiated into. For Les there is no way back to where he used to be because he no longer is the guy who had once been in harmony with America. The dynamic behind the failure of losing-touch thus described, is that the individual has made experiences that drove her away from her former value system. The value system remains the same, the individual changes.

Besides this recapitulation, Roth also narrates traces into the character of Les that lead to the second sort of ideal-typical dynamic behind getting out of touch: a change in society to which the individual cannot adapt. This is most explicit when Roth lets Les moan the treatment he receives as a Vietnam veteran in comparison to the treatment veterans of World War II have been receiving (765). As opposed to World War II, which has in the United States—for very good reasons—always been regarded as a just war and as part and parcel of the country’s mission to make the world a better place, U.S. society has undergone a shift in its evaluation of the Vietnam War. Already during its course a dominating majority of the American public stopped perceiving this war—also for good reasons—as a necessity from the point of view of justice and instead began to deem it a failure, even an embarrassment to America’s mission to make the world a better place, maybe even as the end of pursuing this mission after all. This is why, so the interpretation could run, the country is unwilling to give the soldiers that have fought this war the treatment these soldiers think they deserve and the treatment World War II veterans can take for granted.

Under the circumstances thus altered, Les is no longer capable of intermingling because his country has undergone a significant change in values that went hand in hand with how the Vietnam War has been experienced, scrutinized, and investigated on the home front. Les, during that time a soldier on the ground, cannot comprehend the societal transformation that is behind the lack of appreciation he thinks he gets—and without help he never will comprehend it, let alone endorse it. Consequently, Les’s reintegration into the value system of his once cherished country fails. Back from the War, Les is unable to keep track and, finally, the norms of his country, norms to which he once firmly belonged to, make him run amok. Paradoxically, from a normative perspective, this is the case because American society has made a step that is (at least according to a majority opinion) going into the right direction when it comes to justice. However, what Lester Farley’s case underlines is that the United States should have done more for ushering its Vietnam War veterans back into civilian life, i.e. help them in adapting to a value system that has been transformed by a war that was a failure not only on military but even more so on normative grounds.[10]

Pathology Three: Eve Frame and the Narrowing of Frame

In I Married a Communist Eve Frame brings about the social annihilation of her formerly beloved husband, the story’s protagonist and celebrated radio star Ira Ringold by—in the heyday of the McCarthy era—accusing him of being a Communist spy. She is supported by the popular gossip columnist couple Bryden Grant and Katrina Van Tassel Grant who willingly commit themselves to her mission, even push her to go through with devastating her husband (Communist, 650). Among the motives for the social death warrant these three declare on Ira is an urge to do away with any traces of contamination of what they deem to be the pinnacle of the American value system.[11] This leads us to the third type of pathology.

Far from really being a Communist spy steered by Russia, let alone a significant one, Ira is, as a matter of fact, a member of America’s Communist party which consigned him to work as a “publicity agent,” as a “cheap propagandist,” mainly through his role in a radio show (651). But in 1951/1952, the time he gets socially slain by Eve and the Grants, it is evident that the Communist party does not have the power to overthrow the country’s political system.[12] More importantly, Roth describes the Ira of that time as having become a harmless, even embarrassing figure who, with his constant, repetitive and uncreative invectives against democracy and his rants over the U.S. having turned fascist, could no longer be taken seriously.[13] His celebrity status tamed not only the beast in him it also turned him into a travesty of the dangerous Communist, a Don Quixote of political realities.[14] Nevertheless, the three conspirators cannot bring themselves to spare him. And they are not even satisfied after they have killed his career but, on top of that, publish a book that widely exaggerates his importance to the Communist Party and his letdowns as a husband and stepfather just to make sure that he will never again gain a foothold in the entertainment industry or in what they deem to be respected society—they publish a book like “a bomb that had been thrown at him” (660).

For Eve, “a pathologically embarrassed Jew” (539) who hides her Jewish origins, the social slaying of her openly Jewish husband is not only a welcome strike against Communism but is, most of all, her way of cleansing herself from bearing what she perceives the stigma of being born a Jew. The annihilation of Ira is her greatest achievement in her effort “to deodorize life and make it palatable,” an effort that is otherwise a failure in that one of “the grandest of her projects” to do just that, namely her daughter Sylphid, has come to hate her, and tries to pay her back by “giving Mom a dose of life’s dung she’d never forget” (565).[15]

That Eve’s urge to pursue perfect purity is an expression of her not being in sync with America’s value system is nicely captured in AT. In a first step, Roth (thereby pre-ordaining the legitimacy of the life of Coleman Silk, the protagonist of The Human Stain) makes clear that Eve’s covering up of her heritage is completely legitimate, even needs to count among every American’s birth-right:

“You’re an American who doesn’t want to be your parents’ child? Fine. You don’t want to be associated with Jews? Fine. You don’t want anybody to know you were born Jewish, you want to disguise your passage into the world? You want to drop the problem and pretend you’re somebody else? Fine. You’ve come to the right country” (545).

But in a second step, Roth argues that the urge to become someone else turns pathological as soon as it leads to the hatred of the members of the identity one wishes to abandon. Thus, Roth continues the passage just cited with: “But you don’t have to hate Jews into the bargain. You don’t have to punch your way out of something by punching somebody else in the face” (545). Yet, this is exactly what Eve does with a vengeance (449). Eve’s failure—and now we reach full circle with the pathology I am currently interested in—is that she feels not fully at ease with the part of U.S.-American society she wants to belong to, namely the “real American Gentile aristocrat,” the Eleanor-Roosevelt-Nelson-Rockefeller-types (546-47). Feeling—due to her perceived Jewish stigma—unable to reach the desired degree of belongingness herself, she develops the need to, at least, eradicate from this part of society anybody who seems, in one way or the other, improper for partaking in it; she kicks down on everyone more on the fringes than her. Any deviator’s existence—no matter how insignificant and negligible it might have become—potentially contaminates what Eve perceives to be the pinnacle of America’s value system and needs to be disposed of if he or she comes too close.

This turns Ira, the successful radio act who always wears his heart on his sleeves, into the perfect victim—not only is he a Jew, even better, he is a Jew and a Communist. Two birds of not belonging with one stone. On him, Eve can finally satisfy her personal craving for purifying the entertainment industry off of Jews, and the Grants their craving for purifying the political space off of Communists whereby Eve’s fixation on purity is mirrored in Van Tassel Grant when Roth lets us know that “impeccable” is Grant’s favorite word (522). And, in this case, the whole is even more than the sum of the parts: “Eve could transform a personal prejudice [against Jews; M. F.] into a political weapon by confirming for Gentile America that, […] the Communist under every rock was, nine times out of ten, a Jew to boot” (653).[16]

Because of the urge to homogenize, to cleanse society of difference and to prevent intermingling, I want to call Eve’s and the Grant’s craving the pathology of purification. Although not the result of being widely out of bounds of society’s value system—as was the case in the former two pathologies—their behavior is nevertheless the result of a failed reconciliation to society. Their urge to cleanse America’s value system from everybody who does not have the place in society he or she is supposed to have—according to their definition—is an expression of a lack of reconciliation to this very value system in that it tries to realize at all cost its perceived essence. In being that unrelenting Eve and the Grants betray that they themselves are, as a matter of fact, out of sync with an important part of America’s value system: they cannot accept the tensions that are an integral element of it, its un-straightforward nature, its inner bifurcations and conflicts, its multidimensionality. Hence, they find no rest until the last aberration is folded away, the last Communist slain, the last loudmouth Jew muted; they find no rest until they reach what they deem to be complete order in society, total purification. Behind this failure of reconciliation there is a onesidedness, a mere partial reconciliation to American society that wrongly plays off a perceived essence of this society’s value system against the necessary tensions within such systems, “necessary” at least when it comes to the value systems of pluralistic democracies.

Pathology Four: The Swede’s, Coleman’s, and Ira’s Love’s Labor Lost

Whereas the first two types of pathology stem from a lack of reconciliation and the third from a mere partial reconciliation, the fourth pathology is triggered by what I call over-reconciliation to society. It is the main protagonists of the three books that suffer from it: Seymour Levov, a.k.a. the Swede, American Pastoral, Ira Ringold, I Married a Communist, and Coleman Silk, The Human Stain. They react to America’s especially highly demanding value system—“especially highly demanding” when it comes to what counts as individual achievement—by mobilizing not by shrinking. They pursue their individual realization of the American dream, of what the American value system depicts as possible roles for the successful man, with full force. Born as potential outsiders all three uncompromisingly strive to turn themselves into what the value system of their home country deems worthy of pursuing. They are after the American pastoral with a vengeance.

There is, first and most straightforward of all, the Swede. The character-shaping event of his life is the early stardom he acquires in his Jewish neighborhood as the local hero of the school’s baseball, football, and basketball team. Beyond that, he is admired for his astonishingly good and extravagant looks which earn him his nickname. As a result, “everywhere he looked, people were in love with him” (8). But the Swede does not, say, turn this adulation into self-adulation but reacts just in the way society expects its heroes to react: aware that “[a]ll the pleasures of his younger years were American pleasures,” aware that “everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American” (Pastoral, 199), he develops a “golden gift for responsibility” towards his family, towards his fellow citizens, towards his country (9). This responsibility manifests itself in an endeavor to live the even-beating-the-textbook American life, a “heroically idealistic maneuver,” a “strategic, strange spiritual desire to be a bulwark of duty and ethical obligation” (76). He strives to become “superordinary Swede” (82).

Born in 1927, it is needless to say that the Swede, in order to take his share in World War II, joins the marines as early as possible (17). Afterwards, he forsakes the life of a professional athlete and, on his father’s request, takes over—and with tremendous success—the family’s glove business. Following the father’s wishes, however, ends for the Swede where the beating-the-textbook American life begins so that, when push comes to shove, the allegiance to the country prevails over the allegiance to the father. Hence, although not fitting into the father’s imagination of a Jewish life, the Swede falls in love and marries the kind of girl America presumably expects its heroes to have: a beauty queen, a “shiksa. Dawn Dwyer. He’d done it” (18). Although not fitting into the father’s imagination of the practical house in a prosperous Jewish neighborhood he buys an all-American house, a castle-like brick structure, dating back to the eighteenth-century, all the way to America’s beginnings, surrounded by vast lands on as frontier a place as it gets when you need to commute to Newark on a daily basis (290).[17] Last but not least, he dreams the dream of the happy father with the sweet little daughter playing in the garden with the swing he made for her.

And it all works out great with the effect that the Swede “lived in America the way he lived inside his own skin” (199). But then it doesn’t: sweet little, short-circuit Merry—we already got to know her—bombs the local general store and thereby destroys his American pastoral. In order to keep up the imagination that he is still intact, and with that society’s expectation that “this mythic character the Swede had no limits” (69), he needs to supplement his “golden gift for responsibility” (9) by reactivating just another quality he has acquired as a young sports hero but which could lay dormant since having quit sports: “bearing burdens and taking shit”, what he had to do back then since the opponent teams have always concentrated their energies on stopping him (67). This re-awoken quality even enables him to frequent the local general store to drink his coffee and to do his mail although it is the successor to the very store that had fallen prey to his daughter’s rage (163)—just to pretend that nothing can happen that disturbs the Swede’s oneness with America. And then his marriage breaks down after he finds out that his wife Dawn—because she is unable to deal with what had become of her daughter as well as with her husband’s seemingly sanguine reaction—has fled into an affair with William Orcutt, his acquaintance and in many ways his antithesis. But the Swede, more than less, prevails. As Roth tells in hindsight, he remarries and begets three sons, all of them great guys: He “had got up off the ground and he’d done it—a second marriage, a second shot at a unified life controlled by good sense and the classic restraint, once again convention shaping everything, large and small, and serving as barrier against the improbabilities” (77).

All the Swede has ever longed for was a life fully filled out by America, a life not disturbed by anything chaotic, by anything in need of reconciliation to America: his purpose was “to avoid anything disjointed, anything special, anything improper, anything difficult to assess or understand” (77)—such as being Jewish and American at the same time, Jewish-American, such a hyphenation was too cumbersome a thing for the Swede to endure. So the role-model to the role-model, the Swede’s Swede, so to say, is Johnny Appleseed, the Disney character, not the historical figure, because Johnny Appleseed “[w]asn’t a Jew, wasn’t an Irish Catholic, wasn’t Protestant Christian—nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American. Big. Ruddy. Happy. No brains probably, but didn’t need ‘em” (295). Everything Johnny Appleseed has ever done, in the Swede’s imagination, came just naturally to him—without the need to think—stemming from his oneness with America which is why the Swede enriches the tale of Johnny by saying: “Nobody told him, sweetheart. You don’t have to tell Johnny Appleseed to plant trees. He just takes it on himself” when Merry, still the sweet girl, asks him who told Johnny to scatter apple seeds all over the country (296).[18]

But the total harmony, the American pastoral that Johnny Appleseed embodies is not all there is to America, this is what Roth wants to tell us as we already saw in the previous section. And just as Eve Frame’s daughter makes sure her mother gets a “dose of life’s dung” the Swede’s daughter guarantees her father gets a truck full of it. She ensures that he also partakes in “the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—[..] the indigenous American berserk” (82), or as the Swede’s brother epitomizes the Swede’s misery:

“You wanted Miss America? Well, you’ve got her, with a vengeance—she’s your daughter! You wanted to be a real American jock, a real American marine, a real American hotshot with a beautiful Gentile babe on your arm? You longed to belong like everybody else to the United States of America? Well, you do now, big boy, thanks to your daughter. The reality of this place is right up in your kisser now. With the help of your daughter you’re as deep in the shit as a man can get, the real American crazy shit” (259).

America as the pastoral is, according to Roth, a wrong or, at best, a truncated concept of what this country has ever stood for.[19] But right or wrong—my country! my identity! my pipe dream! is what the heroes of the American Trilogy hurl back in defiance. The next in line is Coleman Brutus Silk, the protagonist of The Human Stain. In his case the desire to fully belong to the country even assumes the form of an intentional destruction of any identity on the fringes of or even opposed to his utopia of America. Coleman is of African-American descent but his light skin color invites him to cover this up, an invitation he willingly accepts. Living—at least since having joined the Navy as a young man (Stain, 826)—by a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, people merely assume he is a Jew of Middle Eastern descent without him being forced to elaborate on this too much. Interestingly what lets Coleman go along with this passive lie is at least as much the thrill he gets from the elements of self-invention such a life entails as the increased proximity a Jew, as opposed to an African-American, had in those days to the conventional American dream (804).[20] At the same time, even this thrill of breaking free from his African-American upbringing is a manifestation of Coleman’s over-reconciliation to his country. In experiencing this thrill, so Roth remarks, Coleman mirrors America’s nativity and the challenges it involved: “To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving” (1021).

No matter how you turn and twist the matter, Coleman’s story is the story of a young man magically drawn to the American dream in its mainstream form. Even more, he is one of its embodiments, and this secures his place in the American Trilogy. Consequently, after Coleman’s non-African-American identity is firmly established he “never again lived outside the protection of the walled city that is convention,” at least not openly (1015). He became, as his brother in the novel puts it, “more white than the whites,” making a career in “[a]s white a college as there was in New England,” teaching “[a]s white a subject as there was in the curriculum,” namely Classics (1015). Needless to say, Coleman’s life is a success story through and through. He almost single-handedly overhauls the college he works for and turns it into a decent institution for higher education. He is married to a good-looking and intellectually concerned wife. He preserves his young boxer’s body as far as this is possible in old age. He, in short, is an epitome of America’s dream-men, all the way down to the exact number of children American Perfect presumably ought to have—four—although every new child’s birth presents a threat to the perpetuation of his passive lie (all his kids inherit a light skin color, though). His life is simply great—almost to the very end, until America’s insistence on politically correct speech is abused by revengeful colleagues of his to label him, of all people, a racist, until his light skin eclipses his over-the-top life.

In forging his future, Coleman not merely embraces Michael Jackson’s “I’m not going to spend my life being a color”[21] but uncompromisingly breaks away from his upbringing as a black. The totally exaggerated way in which he cuts himself loose—“totally exaggerated“ if it were only about covering up his lie—is a manifestation of the over-reconciliation I am interested in. The strictness with which Coleman draws the identity-line finds expression in three acts. First and foremost, he breaks with his mother although she has always provided him with “conscientious kindness and care,” giving him “just about anything he wanted” (792). Showing no mercy, her son Coleman Brutus tells her that for the sake of him no longer being identified as black they can see each other no more and confirms that she will never get to know her grandchildren, a heart-breaking scene that Roth captures with the following words: “There was no explanation that could begin to address the outrage of what he was doing to her” (833).[22] Second, Coleman could easily have told his really-Jewish wife “that he had been born and raised in a colored family and identified himself as a Negro nearly all his life” (825). She would have kept that secret if he had wished so, even more, thanks to her rebellious character, she would have appreciated having a husband with such a secret (825). Still, he does not tell her and prefers to lie to his own wife about the origins of his—and by then also her—last name. Third, when posing as a young Jewish boxer and fighting a rather untalented black guy Coleman is advised by an important promoter to only knock his opponent out in a later round so that the spectators get “’their money’s worth’” (812). Of course, he does not play along and after the fight, cornered by the promoter over why he could not have let the fight go on a bit longer, retorts: “’Because I don’t carry no nigger’” (813).

The trinity of Coleman’s obliteration of his past identity—the atrocious act with the mother, the blasé one with the wife, the sordid one with the promoter—betrays, I suppose, a similar urge to the one the Swede feels when he makes Johnny Appleseed, American raw and simple, his role-model. The Swede gave his all to reach and then to sustain his truly American identity which for him meant keeping anything remotely chaotic at bay. In principle, Coleman does the same—avoiding complications, living a life as little hyphenated as possible—but even goes a step further in that he eliminates any identity he perceives to be out of bounds of the inner circle of Americandom. Becoming American through and through entails for Coleman to fully break with his mother whereas for the Swede it merely entailed to disobey his father every once in a while.

What sets Ira Ringold, the protagonist of I Married a Communist, apart from the Swede and Coleman is that he starts out with a devotion to an identity that is not only far off the center of America’s value system but opposed to it, namely Communism, and while the Swede embodies America’s success in business and Coleman America’s success in the sciences, Ira stands for the success of the American entertainment industry and, in that, for the industry with the highest lure, back then in the 1940s and ‘50s when the story of Ira unfolds as well as today. It is precisely this lure—the pinnacle of everything that is luring about America—that seals Ira’s doom. Having gone through a rough childhood (early death of the mother, a loser for a father, a Jew growing up in an Italian neighborhood etc.), ending up with no education proper, Ira is easily won for the Communist cause by the “Big Sweeping Ideas” (Communist, 456) on the imminent proletarian revolution his self-proclaimed mentor O’Day confronts him with. Needing him as a “publicity agent” (651), the Communist Party, so Roth hints (441, 446), succeeds in maneuvering Ira into the position of a celebrated national radio star.

But soon enough Ira meets and marries Eve Frame, a big-time celebrity with a giant town house in Greenwich Village, insatiable urge to clean up, as we saw in the previous section, no Communist credentials whatsoever. Eve, in the beginning, gives Ira the time of his life, he is physically attracted to her, he shows her off, he partakes in her wealth, he walks through the doors she opens. Carried by Eve, he swiftly makes the transformation to “someone of enhanced importance” with all the “invigorating” effects such a transformation has in stock (456). Thereby, Ira gets enmeshed in what he came to fight, and life is no longer exclusively devoted to the world revolution and to dwelling in a “proletarian shack in the backwoods” but is also about “mating with a beautiful actress and acquiring a young mistress and fiddling with an aging whore and longing for a family and struggling with a stepchild and inhabiting an imposing house in the show-business city” (617-18). Over time Ira’s Communist mission falls prey to him being in the middle of all that is valuable according to America’s bourgeoisie so that he “jettisons his working-class Jewish past in order to enjoy the high life of a showbusiness star.”[23]

In this somewhat twisted manner, also Ira’s story is the story of someone so drawn to the American dream once he is gently touched by it that the identities that lurk outside the dream’s script need to back up. Akin, at least in principle, to the Swede’s abandonment of his Jewish script whenever it is in contradiction to his concept of the beating-the-textbook American life and to Coleman’s desire to completely wipe off his black origins, Ira cannot stick to his once chosen identity as a Communist, an identity that is itself served with an attractive narrative.[24] Therefore, only after the intrigue already mentioned has stripped him off his celebrity life is he capable of repenting his slippery-slope into America’s heart and soul: “All his ranting Ira now directed at himself. […] Everything to the side of the main thing, all the peripheral stuff of existence that Comrade O’Day has warned him against. Home. Marriage. Family. Mistresses. Adultery. All the bourgeois shit!” (660).

I want to call the pathology the three protagonists of AT suffer from the pathology of complete-fixation. All three overdo the effort to reconcile to society in that they try to achieve total conformity with what they deem the pinnacle of America, conformity so strong that everything not fully fitting in needs to retreat or, in Ira’s case, can no longer be upheld. Although—or is it: because?—the Swede, Coleman, and Ira were, by birth, prone to be outsiders, they shape their identity exclusively along the lines of their respective utopia of a harmonious America, they perform “Gatsbyesque experiments in American identity”.[25] But, ultimately, they fail. With a little twist of the Swede’s complaint, all three have reason to bemoan their destiny: “what is wrong with [our] life! What on earth is less reprehensible than [our] life?” (Pastoral, 395). Well, possibly, you tried too hard to feel worthy of America’s love, so hard that America was unable to bear you in the long run—your love-labour had, therefore, been doomed from the start. And thus it happened that three of her most devoted wooers got brutally rejected by America’s lack of virginity: lured in, tasted out, spat on.[26]

A State of Sanity: William Orcutt and the (Un-)Bearable Lightness of Being American

Clearly, Roth’s interest in AT is with the cases in which the reconciliation of an individual to society fails. Nevertheless, Roth also hints how a true reconciliation, a successful one, could look like when he offers the concept of the “real American Gentile aristocrat” (Communist, 546), the one Eve Frame and her conspirators were so eager to keep clean. Roth mentions Eleanor Roosevelt and Nelson Rockefeller as prime examples for such aristocrats, people who do not suffer from any pathology of reconciliation but are in a state of sanity when it comes to their relation to society. Unlike the three protagonists of AT these two do not suffer from any sort of maniacal clinging to society. They have no urge to belong because belonging is what they can take for granted. Furthermore, they are able to live with the fact that, in modern times, societal value systems are not monoliths, something Eve was unable to do. Referring to the times of Roosevelt and Rockefeller, Roth develops the latter point by ascertaining that you could as “an intelligent, sophisticated aristocrat […], unlike everyone else, […] force yourself to overcome, or to appear to overcome, the contemptuous reaction to difference”—“not to be able to engage Jews easily, with good-spirited ease, would [have] morally compromise[d] a true aristocrat” of that time (546-47). “Jews”—nor, as I may add, any other minority group not strong enough to significantly alter society’s value system—“aren’t a problem for these people. Why should they be?” (547). The true aristocrat of the Roosevelt-Rockefeller-bent curbs her resentment and is able to force herself to reconcile with the fact that truly democratic societies are not cast of one piece.

More light, and especially more recent light, is shed on the concept of the ‘real American Gentile aristocrat’ by the character William Orcutt III, the already mentioned lover of the Swede’s wife, Dawn Levov. Heir to a couple of generations of aristocrat’s practice, accepting the fact of difference is something to which Bill does not need to force himself. His generation takes difference for granted, so I assume from Roth’s silence on the issue when it comes to Bill. This effortless tolerance does not prevent him, however, from feeling superior to the Swede and the Swede’s wife Dawn simply for the reason that he, Bill, is a Protestant but the Swede “only” a Jew and Dawn “only” of Irish-Catholic descent (Pastoral, 282). But, to belong to the ranks of America’s Gentile aristocracy it is not sufficient to have the right denomination. This needs to be supplemented by the according ancestry, in Bill’s case the family patriarch who fought with George Washington, the forebear who got promoted by Andrew Jackson, the grandfather who graduated with Woodrow Wilson from Princeton— “Orcutt could spin out ancestors forever” (286). It is needless to say that an ivy-league education is also part of the deal (300). Furthermore, Bill’s generation carries on the aristocratic conservationist tradition by focusing on the preservation of the countryside, in Bill’s case protesting the construction of highways, jetports and the like, “’to keep the modern ills at bay,’” as he puts it (281). But by far the most visible manifestation of Bill’s blue-bloodedness is his confidence, “superconfident Orcutt” (312). This finds, inter alia, expression in his outfit, “raspberry-colored linen pants and, hanging clear of the pants, a loose-fitting Hawaiian shirt decorated with a colorful array of tropical flora,” an outfit that says: “I am William Orcutt III and I can wear what other people around here wouldn’t dare to wear” (312-13).

But Bill’s recurring exhibitions of the latest very bad abstract paintings he has painted might betray a dark side. To publicly display that he partakes in such an un-WASPian activity bespeaks, so Roth, “a secret and long-standing desire” “to be out of tune” (302). But rather than really betraying a dark side I think it is better to regard Bill’s persistent but always controlled urge to be otherwise as the slight flaw that is necessary to round out the concept of the “real American Gentile aristocrat” just as in classical Greek architecture a temple is only taken to be of perfect proportions if its symmetry is every now and then interrupted by slight curvatures, so slight that they remain invisible to the naked eye but not so slight that they could elude the mechanic’s level.

Equipped with this perfecting flaw, Bill can take for granted that he gets whatever he wants, and be it Dawn, the beautiful wife of a demigod such as the Swede. In doing so and opposed to Eve Frame who needs to kick down on social climbers that get in vicinity to her social standing, Bill simply fucks, literally, the social climber Dawn—Dawn “the laughable lace-curtain Irish, a girl who’d somehow got down the knack of aping her betters so as now to come ludicrously barging into his privileged backyard” via being married to a Jew who was able to buy himself into a part of the country that is usually fully controlled by Bill and his likes (282). Bill’s cunning taken-for-grantedness, combined with his preservationism, prompts Roth to provide the following denouement of this character who bears life so lightly and whose thriving is yet so unbearable to the reader: “The humane environmentalist and the calculating predator, protecting what he has by birthright and taking surreptitiously what he doesn’t have. The civilized savagery of William Orcutt” (357). That precisely an individual like Bill is completely reconciled to contemporary American society—feels in it as sound as a bell, roams it effortlessly like the top-at-the-food-chain fish the waters—can be taken as an indication that there is something not quite right with this society. Thus I understand Philip Roth.

 

Notes

[1] In a study on political initiation Brühwiler has recently demonstrated Roth’s fecundity for political studies and related disciplines, such as political philosophy. See Claudia Franziska Brühwiler, Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth (New York et al.: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[2] The expectations imposed on individuals in the United States are high because the individual has a lot of freedom when it comes to the content of her life—what she wants to believe, whom she wants to marry, what profession she wants to enter etc. This freedom, though—and this is behind the seeming paradox that more freedom leads to more societal pressure—is served with the expectation to make something out of that freedom, to become an achiever in whatever it might be an individual commits herself to. Grand Expectations is therefore the fitting title of Patterson’s authoritative book on the United States between 1945 and 1974. Patterson traces the surge in expectations, imposed on the individual as well as on the country, of that time back to a new rights-consciousness which emerged as a result of economic prospering. See James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations. The United States, 1945-1974 (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), ch. 19.

[3] I quote AT from The Library of America edition: Philip Roth, “American Pastoral,” in The American Trilogy, ed. Ross Miller (New York: The Library of America, 2011), 1-395, Philip Roth, “I Married a Communist,” in The American Trilogy, ed. Ross Miller (New York: The Library of America, 2011), 397-699, Philip Roth, “The Human Stain,” in The American Trilogy, ed. Ross Miller (New York: The Library of America, 2011), 701-1038. That AT is Roth’s masterpiece when it comes to individual reactions to society’s expectations is the starting point of Brauner’s essay on the Trilogy. See David Brauner, Philip Roth (Manchester, New York: Palgrave, 2007), 148.

[4] The well-known criticism that it is a fallacy to take a look at literature when developing political philosophy because literature cannot (and mostly does not) claim to tell the truth (see on this debate: Simon Stow, Republic of Readers? The Literary Turn in Political Thought and Analysis (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007)) is, therefore, not applicable to the methodology employed here. I search literature for clues with which to develop the instruments of political philosophy but then these instruments need to stand on their own: literature is their midwife, not their guardian. Anyway, the idea that philosophy must not be permeated by literature gathers real momentum only under the assumption that there is a gulf separating literature from philosophy because the latter deals with eternal truths or something similar (it is no coincidence that this idea goes back to Plato), a conviction the here proclaimed understanding of political philosophy is not committed to.

[5] Brühwiler, Political Initiation, 106.

[6] Till Kinzel, Die Tragödie und Komödie des amerikanischen Lebens. Eine Studie zu Zuckermans Amerika in Philip Roths Amerika-Trilogie (Heidelberg: Winter, 2006), 131, my translation.

[7] The “helpless parent” is, as Brühwiler demonstrates, a characteristic part of contemporary novels about adolescents on the path to becoming terrorists. Political Initiation, 99.

[8] For Les’s longing for unstained nature as a manifestation of a misguided urge to purify—one of the leitmotifs of AT—see Kinzel, Tragödie und Komödie, ch. 4.12 as well as the next section of the essay at hand.

[9] Max Weber, “Objectivity in Social Sciences and Social Policy,” in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, A. Shils and H.A. Finch, ed. and trans. (New York: Free Press, 1949), 90.

[10] With Les’s character, Roth also ponders whether, even worse, the things that are actually being done to re-accommodate Vietnam veterans might exacerbate things. For Les the celebrations on Veterans Day make it even worse. Being cheered while marching with the parade, gives him the feeling of getting mocked: “Now he was supposed to be in some two-bit parade and march around while a band played and everyone waved the flag? Now it was going to make everybody feel good for a minute to be recognizing their Vietnam veterans? How come they spit on him when he came home if they were so eager to see him out there now?” (Stain, 933). On Veterans Day, people like Les “are more disgusted with their compatriots, their country, and their government than on any other day of the year”, so Roth ascertains (993), and thus touches on what I think is a vital point when it comes to any sort of societal appreciation of individual action: idealistic veneration, such as a Day of Honor, can add value, but only if it rests on a solid material foundation, such as a decent pension.

[11] Revenge in Eve’s case and a political promotion in the Grant’s case are other motives that account for what they do.

[12] That Communism will not gain a foothold in American politics is clear already after the 1948 Presidential election in which the Progressive’s candidate Henry Wallace is lambasted because of his failure to draw a distinct line between his campaign and Communism. See Patterson, Grand Expectations, 157.

[13] Ira’s diminishment is illustrated in the book by the contempt Nathan Zuckerman, the book’s narrator and back then an adolescent, comes to feel for him. Starting as a fully devoted admirer of Ira, he can, by that time, no longer endure Ira’s endless rants; having felt greatly honored when Ira spent time with him, he, by that time, is happy to get away from him (Communist, 574-576, 599-600, 622).

[14] Cervantes’s Don Quixote is, by the way, also an interesting case when it comes to pathologies of reconciliation. He, and this is partly also true for Ira, has lost not only attunement to a particular value system but, more basically, to his times as such. He is even out of the realm of what could be called the background of agreements regarding the specifics of a time that competing value systems agree on (e.g. that we live in a globalized world)—the agreed upon facts behind disagreements on how to react in light of these facts from a normative perspective. Therefore, when it comes to reconciliation, a Don Quixote is unable to connect to any value system as he even lacks attunement to the shared facts different value systems answer to.

[15] Eve’s urge to purify her daughter is obviously already behind the name she picks for her; Sylphid is based on Paracelsus’s ‘Sylphs’, spirits of the air that do not take up “room in this world whatsoever” (Communist, 625) and therefore do not produce dirt also.

[16] Roth speaks of the “latent anti-Semitism” of the “Cold War paranoia” (Communist, 653).

[17] Glaser makes the importance of this house – “the emblem of the Swede’s American dream realized” – palpable by connecting it to Freud’s elaborations on the double meaning of the German word “heimlich” (“uncanny” and “homey”). See Jennifer Glaser, “America’s Haunted House: The Racial and National Uncanny in American Pastoral,” in Philip Roth. American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, ed. Debra Shostak (London, New York: Continuum, 2011), 44-59, here p. 54.

[18] For the central meaning of Johnny Appleseed to the Swede see Kinzel, Tragödie und Komödie, 132-33.

[19] That, according to Roth, the United States have always also been a chaotic place full of injustice is Pozorski’s main point which even prompts her to make the case that the country suffers from a trauma that needs to be traced back to the fratricide which was part of the American Revolution. See Aimee Pozorski, Roth and Trauma. The Problem of History in the Later Works (1995-2010) (London, New York: Continuum, 2011), 12.

[20] It is hard to say whether it is rather the opportunity-issue or the self-invention-issue that convinces Coleman to go for the lie. Parrish stresses the opportunity-issue and traces Coleman’s later rage back to the lack of opportunities Coleman had as a young black man. Morley, however, is rather on the side of self-invention. See Tim Parrish, “Becoming Black: Zuckerman’s Bifurcating Self in The Human Stain,” in Philip Roth. New Perspectives on an American Author, ed. Derek Parker Royal (Westport, CT, London: Praeger, 2005), 209-223, especially 213-14; and Catherine Morley, “Possessed by the Past: History, Nostalgia, and Language in The Human Stain,” in Philip Roth. American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, ed. Debra Shostak (London, New York: Continuum, 2011), 80-92, especially 81-2.

[21] Michael Jackson, “Black or White,” released by Epic Records, 1991, produced by Michael Jackson and Bill Bottrell.

[22] He “commits a virtual matricide“, Brühwiler, Political Initiation, 87.

[23] Brauner, Philip Roth, 150.

[24]  Royal makes the case that Ira and the Swede have a lot in common, especially their yearning for—though in somewhat different versions—an American pastoral. See Derek Parker Royal, “Pastoral Dreams and National Identity in American Pastoral and I Married a Communist,” in Philip Roth. New Perspectives on an American Author, ed. Derek Parker Royal (Westport, CT, London: Praeger, 2005), 185-207, here 191. Brauner is enlightening when it comes to the quest for the American pastoral as the bracket that holds Ira, the Swede, and Coleman together, Philip Roth, 150-51.

[25] Michael Kimmage, In History’s Grip. Philip Roth’s Newark Trilogy (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 13.

[26] Brühwiler spots a common pattern here by pointing out that Coleman shares his bad ending with “all the other Rothian figures who created an identity beyond ethnic, religious, or cultural constraints”, Political Initiation, 88.

 

Available is the introduction to A Political Companion to Philip Roth with the following chapters: “Serving His Tour as an “Exasperated Liberal and Indignant Citizen”: Philip Roth, a Public Intellectual?”; and “The Politics and Literature of Unknowingness: Philip Roth’s Our Gang and The Plot Against America”; also see the introduction to Andy Connolly’s Philip Roth and the American Liberal Tradition and Lee Trepanier’s essays, “The Paradoxes of the Body in Everyman, Nemesis, and The Humbling” and “What Can Philip Roth Tell Us About Politics Today.”

This was originally published with the same title in A Political Companion to Philip Roth (University of Kentucky Press, 2017).

Michael FestlMichael Festl

Michael Festl

Michael Festl has been a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St. Gallen since 2013. Besides his doctorate in philosophy in Munich, St. Gallen, and Chicago, he graduated with a Master’s Studies in Business and Finance at the University of St. Gallen and in History and Literature at University Hagen. Michael is founder and director of the John Dewey Center in Switzerland and Vice-President of the Philosophical Society of Eastern Switzerland.

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