In “Nemesis,” Philip Roth has written a deeply Proustian narrative of remembrance and loss in which the invisible power of the past takes its vengeance upon a 5’4”, short-sighted, earnest and physically powerful young man of limited imagination but innocent and good intentions.
Understanding the position of the Jew in the modern world, as Max Weinreich put it, requires more than consideration of Jews in their milieu as Jews; that is, as Jews faithfully following or angrily repudiating the prescriptions of their religious traditions. That is only half the story; and these traditions never occupy the narrative or moral center of a Roth novel. Instead, Roth treats Jews not as Jews but as individuals free or not, determined or not, beset or not by particular circumstances and the general conditions of life in America. Let me quote from the first paragraph of “Nemesis”:
The first case of polio that summer came early in June, right after Memorial Day, in a poor Italian neighborhood crosstown from where we lived. Over in the city’s southwestern corner, in the Jewish Weequahic section, we heard nothing about it, nor did we hear anything about the next dozen cases scattered singly throughout Newark in nearly every neighborhood but ours.
The Jewish Weequahic section of Newark is one of many neighborhoods, and the Jewish destinies that will be enacted there will be among many others. The Jewishness of Bucky Cantor, the novel’s protagonist, is not merely incidental, nor is it at the center of awareness of the novel. It is the subject of a double focus and renders the novel’s perspective very typical of the consciousness of much American Jewish life in general: an insularity with distinct boundaries that is nevertheless part of an eagerly embraced American collective. Most often it is an invisible factor in the lives of Roth’s characters, and is so in “Nemesis” until Bucky is confronted by the anti-Semitism of the Italian hooligans who spit on the sidewalk bordering the Chancellor Playground or by that of the Irishman who runs the Playground and tells Bucky, “All right, you got an answer for everything…. You Jewish boys got all the answers.”
The very invisibility of Bucky’s Jewishness, however, makes it an essential part of the story. Many other things are invisible in this novel, though with visible consequences, and it is not too much to say that the unseen menaces every aspect of Bucky Cantor’s life, from the infection of the dreaded polio virus to the disappearance of his crooked father, extending to the fact that he does not bear a proper last name, as though someone had simply erased that essential component of his identity. Cantor is his mother’s name, not his father’s. The unseen asserts itself in other ways, as well. Dr. Steinberg, the kindly father of Bucky’s bride-to-be possesses a nose that:
was his most distinctive feature…a nose out of a folktale, the sort of sizable, convoluted, intricately turned nose that, for many centuries, confronted though they have been by every imaginable hardship, the Jews had never stopped making.
Of course, what asserts its stubborn power in the shape of Dr. Steinberg’s nose are his genes, those tiny, invisible determinants of our outward being. Bucky’s given first name is in fact Eugene, a sly Rothian joke played upon his unsuspecting character in which the power of the invisible is embedded in his very name.
But there is another unseen presence ruling the narrative and that is the identity of Arnie Mesnikoff, one of Bucky Cantor’s boys on the Chancellor Playground, a polio victim, who it turns out has written the entire story, a fact not revealed until the very end. Bucky Cantor we realize is largely, if not entirely, the work of Arnie Mesnikoff’s imagination as was the entire polio epidemic of 1944 which, in an interview, Roth has said never happened. Mesnikoff calls him Mr. Cantor throughout the novel. Who is Mr. Cantor and who is Arnie Mesnikoff?
Arnie tells us that after contracting polio he was confined to a wheelchair for a year. Eventually he could walk with crutch and cane and his two legs braced. He served as an apprentice with an architectural firm in Newark and then with another polio victim started a consulting and contracting firm “specializing in architectural modification for wheelchair accessibility….we do our best to keep to our estimates and to hold prices down.” A contracting firm, indeed! The very pun begins to give his identity away.
Slowly,” he tells Mr. Cantor, “polio ceased to be the only drama, and I got weaned away from railing at my fate…. My wife’s been a tender, laughing companion for eighteen years…And having children to father, you begin to forget the hand you’ve been dealt.” Arnie is the one who forgets. Mr. Cantor in his rejection of his beautiful and bounteous Marcia is the one who does not forget. Arnie is the one who wants but “the tiniest thing in the world: to be like everyone else.” Just as Marcia had desired nothing more than to be “just an ordinary girl who wants to be happy.” Mr. Cantor refuses this comfort.
“Just an ordinary girl,” “the tiniest thing in the world.” Is it asking so much to be normal, like everyone else? To be happy? Marcia even tells Mr. Cantor that he has the “duty to be happy.” But Mr. Cantor believes his duty lies elsewhere. It is to set her free from his crippled body. And so he hides. He hides his withered arm and leg from the world; he hides from Dr. Steinberg when he comes to find him at the gas station; he hides behind his new mustache; his face hides behind the weight he has gained. What else does he hide?
When Marcia first tells him to leave his job and come to Indian Hill Camp to be with her he objects that he can’t leave his job; when she persists he tells her that he can’t leave his boys; to further protests, he says that he can’t leave his grandmother; and finally he declares that “I can’t leave Newark, not at a time like this.” A time like this? When the city is in the grip of a plague he didn’t cause and cannot cure? When his boys’ fates are demonstrably NOT in his hands? When in fact he has no role whatsoever in the unfolding of the events once his playground is closed by the city government? What is Mr. Cantor hiding? Could it be the heroic self-ideal infused in him by his Grandfather? The ideal of manhood that infected him through his Grandfather who had immigrated from Polish Galicia “whose fearlessness had been learned in the Newark streets,” a grandfather who proved that “though the world had tried, it could not crush him”?
What moral iron lung can keep you breathing after having assimilated the contagion of that ideal? When Mr. Cantor advances on the rat in his grandfather’s grocery store and destroys it with his shovel, he is already bound in the braces and leans on the crutches of his grandfather’s powerful example.
Arnie invents Mr. Cantor as his anti-self, his Mr. Hyde to Arnie’s Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Cantor is the hidden, though he is all hide, all body — a powerful, compact physical presence. He is the paradox of the invisible, the rage Arnie has forgotten, the absolute force of the past that destroys tenderness, the uncompromising voice of centuries of suffering and truth-seeking that is not interested in forgetting “the hand you’ve been dealt” or in keeping “to our estimates and [holding] prices down.” He is that within which passeth show and breaks the normal world to pieces. Arnie must invent him because he cannot be him. The moral choice in “Nemesis” is not between Arnie’s compromising normality and happiness and Mr. Cantor’s hidden rage and withered self. The novel does not present the reader with a choice at all. Rather, it is an awakening in the reader that one reality is inextricably bound up with the other as Ahab was with the White Whale, as Dr. Jekyll was with Mr. Hyde.
Melville wrote about the Whale’s whiteness:
Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Mr. Cantor leaves Arnie with the thought: “Let’s hope their merciful God will have blessed them… before He sticks His shiv in their back.”
There is no escape in Roth’s vision of Nemesis from the “stab from behind” or the “shiv in the back.” Arnie knows this but cannot speak it. Why? Because of his wife’s tenderness, his children’s love, his desire to hold down prices — all the outward, normal, decent things one should want and have. Mr. Cantor himself knows this when he quiets the frustrated and panicked parents by telling them, “The important thing is to keep everything in [the boys’] lives as normal as possible and… to stay reasonable and calm.”
Mr. Cantor is the unspeakable self Arnie can only imagine. The terms of his moral struggle are not that his uncompromising conscience condemns him for doing something he shouldn’t do despite ignorance or desire. Nor is he the Marquis de Sade of the id. Mr. Cantor believes in decency and the moral life; he wants them above all things. Nor does Mr. Cantor resemble Oedipus (with whom he has been compared in some reviews). He does not, in fact, murder his father or sleep with his mother or bring down the plague on his city. He only imagines that he does. His conscience condemns him not for doing something he shouldn’t do, but for doing something he should.
Arnie says that Mr. Cantor no longer has a conscience he can live with — and this is true not because it is a bad conscience, but because it is an invented one, one with which he has been infected by time and circumstance, by history and by the imagination of who he is. It is his imagination of himself that traps him and will never let him go. He cannot free himself from his own creation. The power of imagination is what gives his “Nemesis” its avenging cruelty and this is why Mr. Cantor is, and will always remain, in the novel’s last word, “invincible.”
Jonathan Brent is executive director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.