19.7.10

Philip Roth's Indignation

Indignation as a central theme running throughout Roth's work
Philip Roth, 'Indignation'

Kevin Stevens explores the role that Indignation plays in the writing of Philip Roth:
Indignation has always been at the core of Philip Roth’s fiction. Goodbye, Columbus, his debut novella which won the 1960 National Book Award and established him as a major talent while still in his twenties, was a study in class resentment and sexual betrayal. A decade later, Roth was vaulted to unwelcome international celebrity by the psychiatrist’s-couch, masturbatory ravings of the eponymous narrator of Portnoy’s Complaint (that “wild blue shocker”, as Life magazine called it). Across a half century of writing that has produced twenty-nine books – satire, fantasy, memoir, masterworks of American realism – anger has consistently been subject, theme, tone, stance, and rhetorical device for Roth and his driven characters and unreliable narrators.

Even The Facts, a mostly even-toned autobiographical account of his upbringing and early life, published when Roth was in his mid-fifties, surrenders the last word (the last 8,000 actually) to his abrasive fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman. Having opened the book with a letter to Zuckerman asking him to read the manuscript, Roth closes it with Zuckerman’s blunt reply: “Don’t publish.” Absurdly but powerfully he accuses Roth of failing to characterise himself: “You no longer have any idea who you are or ever were.” Zuckerman goes on to chastise his creator for timidity and uses this unique opportunity to register his scorn towards Roth for saddling him (“for artistic reasons”) with a hate-filled father who condemns him from his deathbed.

Roth’s latest novel takes its title more specifically from his primary-school recollection of a nationalist song that would become the Chinese national anthem, sung in some American classrooms during World War II as a gesture of solidarity for a people oppressed by the Japanese military. The song begins: “Indignation fills the hearts of all our countrymen, / Arise! Arise! Arise!” For Roth, this scrap of memory has persisted throughout his writing life as objective correlative for his own (or his characters’) anger with, among other things, national orthodoxy, puritanical social codes, counter-culture anarchy, political correctness, the onset of old age, the timidity of the middle class, the decline of sexual power and the arbitrariness of history. In 1969, Roth had Alexander Portnoy note that the anthem starts with “his favorite word in the English language”. Four decades later, his nineteen-year-old narrator of Indignation, Marcus Messner, when forced to attend Christian religious services at his rural Ohio college, inwardly sings “the most beautiful word in the English language: ‘In-dig-na-tion!’”

Why the telling repetition? Why all the rancour? Well, like Swift and Twain, Roth is aesthetically propelled by anger; it supplies the energy needed for the massive, self-imposed task of dissecting, novel after novel, the suffocating paradoxes of twentieth-century America. And like Lenny Bruce, Roth in his early work used rant as a way of exercising his vitality and crafting an obscenity-fuelled response to a bland, hypocritical national environment. As he’s matured, however, his anger has grown more complex, manipulated as carefully as the shifting voices and points of view that help make his prolific body of fiction both deeply tragic and rich in comic expression. Sex, death, and American history are the subjects of his late period, relentlessly ravelled and unravelled, presented with willful ambiguity in a variety of dazzling narrative modes, marked by extended passages of highly articulate rage, and expressed in language of huge power and range. [Read the article]

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