What is the right thing to do — what is the good? And does doing it, if indeed we can know it, bring happiness? These questions are not exactly new. They are also not exactly bad. “Nemesis” raises them rather more starkly, and elegantly, than other books Philip Roth has written. “Nemesis” also adds little twists that Aristotle never quite got to.
First, what if we know that the man striving for the good has a peculiar psychological tick, which is a strong, perhaps hubristic, desire to prove himself dutiful, morally better than average, or at least never disgraced by moral cowardice, in short, to be thought good. How, if at all, would such a propensity impinge on moral action? What would such a person sound like? (Actually, we know: he might sound like something just short of Sophie Portnoy: “Oh, I know it a fault Alex, but I’m too good!”)
Second, what if the man in question can be known only indirectly, since everything we learn about him is from a story told by a now skeptical former acolyte? How can we judge him if we can’t quite judge the facts, or as Roth might put it, “the facts.”
Many have understandably compared “Nemesis” to Camus’s “The Plague.” But the book that, I think, better anticipates Roth’s parable of a novel is the little ignored parable of a novel by Arthur Koestler, published in 1943. He called it “Arrival and Departure.”
The story features a young protagonist, Slavek, a student leader from Eastern Europe (we assume Hungary) who escapes the local fascists after they had tortured him brutally, while the Nazis are rolling over Europe. He comes eventually to “Neutralia” (we assume Portugal, the way-station Koestler himself had escaped to). He falls in love with the fetching Odette, who gives him a bliss he had never known. Miraculously, the couple is offered safe passage to America. But Slavek is also given the opportunity to join the British army. What to do?
Slavek finds himself so torn between, on the one hand, assuming his share of the responsibility for fighting the Nazis and, on the other, escaping into some private American contentment, that he suffers hysterical paralysis of his leg. (You can almost hear “As Time Goes By” playing between the lines.)
But then the novel turns on a Koestlerian hinge. Slavek presents himself to a psychoanalyst for treatment. He finds out on her couch that his outsized desire to fight injustice, which helped lead to his arrest back home, has been largely fueled by a neurotic impulse to self-sacrifice, even to moral grandiosity. This derived from irrational guilt over the accidental death of his brother many years before. Of course Slavek would want to fight evil; that is his psychic disposition. What, then, should he do now?
In record time (the therapy is a contrivance of plot, after all), Slavek is emancipated from the vise of this guilt. His leg recovers. Yet what emancipation is really possible from his terrible conundrum? Can knowing the tortured source of one’s moralism — knowing one’s compulsion to seem the champion, knowing that one has a “messiah complex” — help one decide? What should Slavek do? Go to America or join the British army?
Koestler, it turns out, is not all that ambivalent. Slavek chooses the army — the fight against the Nazis. Knowing what is understandable is not the same as knowing what is right. And right (here we see Koestler’s explicit admiration for Kant) cannot be grounded in knowing only material facts, historical contingencies, universal pleasures — or psychoanalytic traumas. Some imperatives are, shall we say, categorical: the need to see others as ends in themselves, even when you desperately want them to be your means; the need to do what you cannot ask others to do if you will not.
Indeed — or so Slavek concludes — it is purely materialist, including psychoanalytic, explanations for human will that are the real problem of our age. Well before Camus’s “The Rebel,” Koestler attributes to Slavek what might be called existentialist faith: the presumption that there is a mysterious dignity to our being here that is proven, if by nothing else, then by our recalcitrance. That matter matters. That moral perceptions may be relative, but this only makes the imperative of reciprocity absolute.
Slavek writes Odette a farewell note:
I’ll tell you my belief, Odette, I think a new God is about to born. … For we are the descendants of Renaissance Man, of materialism’s cult, the end and not the beginning…
Slavek might well have paraphrased Ivan Karamazov: If God is dead, then all actions are understandable.
Which brings me to “Nemesis.” It is 1944, Newark; there is a polio epidemic. Bucky Cantor, 23, 4-F, precocious, sees his buddies going off to do what Slavek had determined to do. At first he stays on the job, devoted, coaching febrile, vulnerable boys in the city. And here is the greatest parallel with “The Plague.” Mr. Cantor is sticking to his post, just like Dr. Rieux, and, also like Rieux, his wards start dying. Bucky’s girlfriend, Marcia, is at a distant summer camp and urges him to join her — a prelude to engagement and the embrace of her loving family. He refuses. But something happens. In what seems a spur of the moment decision, an effort to be happy as Americans are happy, a reluctant concession that all are victims of an epidemic no one controls or is responsible for — Bucky does join her. Dr. Rieux tells us that we don’t need heroism to fight the plague, only common decency. (Bucky’s disappointed boss seems to feel the same way.) But the wrong thing in Rieux’s case, actually and metaphorically, was pretty obvious: fighting a plague or Nazi occupation. It is not so clear what good Bucky does. And Rieux’s notion of common decency takes for granted uncommon valor. Should this be expected of Bucky?
Anyway, Bucky and Marcia, reunited, make love as tenderly as we wanted Warren Beatty to make love to Natalie Wood in “Splendor in The Grass” (another departure for Roth, perhaps). Yet Bucky soon regrets his decision to come up to the camp. It now seems to him a sign of weakness, surrender. He is wracked with guilt for leaving his post. He determines he will return, whatever the dangers. (He does not yet know the job had been terminated.)
Nor can we know if this determination is not just a kind of arrogance. For Roth has given us a convincing sketch of Bucky’s psyche, and the picture is mixed: his childhood unhappiness, his physical insecurities, his family’s chaos, his impulse to over-compensate for being at home while his buddies were overseas, his comparative sexual squareness. Could all of this not lead to an exaggerated sense of duty.
And now comes the big blow of fate. Tragically, Bucky discovers a few days later that he is himself the silent carrier infecting his Newark boys; that he would soon succumb himself to the disease. Ironically, in abandoning his job and fleeing Nemesis, he actually may have saved some boys, at least in Newark, though he wound up infecting various children at the camp.
Now comes also the real moral problem. Bucky recovers somewhat, though his marvelous body is ravaged. He refuses even to see Marcia, holding fast to his seclusion. Finally, reluctantly, Bucky allows a visit. She begs him to marry as planned. What should he do? She loves him, no doubt, or at least the man he was. Now it is she who’s determined to the right thing: care for him, cherish him, presumably enjoy his company, though we never got the idea Bucky was a spectacular conversationalist. Is Marcia, too, prone to an exaggerated sense of duty? Should Bucky marry her knowing he could never give her what he will GET from her?
Bucky, much like Slavek (I am not at all sure like Dr. Rieux) chooses to break off the engagement. He concludes that it is right to do so.
Roth adds another ball to this juggling. He gives us a not-disinterested narrator to tell Bucky’s story, the once-admiring younger Arnie, who having recovered from polio himself, cannot really forgive Bucky for not getting on with his “life” as he, Arnie, had done. In spite of polio, Arnie had become a husband and father, and (a nice touch) an architect making ramps and such for invalids. He thinks Bucky was more or less nuts not to marry Marcia. Roth depicts most people around Bucky sharing this view.
And is Arnie wrong? What, to ask Kant’s crucial question, if everybody did that? Would that really be so bad?
Some, like J.M. Coetzee in a wonderful review in The New York Review, suggest that Bucky is not simply punishing himself for leaving his job, but aiming for a kind of tragic distinction that Arnie, and by implication, I suppose, ordinary Americans, do not readily appreciate. The good man, the Homeric hero, rejects the very concept of chance. In accepting the punishment of the furies, Bucky determines to see life as meaningful, serious. Coetzee writes:
What Arnie is unwilling to see—or at least unwilling to respect—is first the force of Bucky’s Why?… and then the nature of Bucky’s No!, which, pigheaded, self-defeating, and absurd though it may be, nevertheless keeps an ideal of human dignity alive in the face of fate, Nemesis, the gods, God…
Coetzee is on to something, but Roth, I think, is implying a different, and (if possible) an even more heroic conception of dignity in “Nemesis” than what Coetzee suggests here. Bucky is not rejecting being a victim of chance, nor is he punishing himself in order to valorize some “mysterious design.” Rather, he rejects living as a victim, period. For this move you cannot simply acknowledge “fate, Nemesis, the gods, God” — all of which imply some kind of order behind events. You need Slavek’s lonely faith in the meaningfulness of things in the absence of design: a dignity that is mysterious in its humility.
Bucky, you see, IS getting on with his life. For “life,” to him, means exercising his powers, or what is left of them, not surrendering to those of the gods. Perhaps he condemns himself for leaving his post, but that was in the past. Now, he could not stand the thought of living his life as a burden on Marcia or anybody.
Yes, a man like Bucky WOULD think that. And such morally stubborn people (as Coetzee suggests) can be dangerous. But so what? The residual problem is whether it is right to live as a burden in what should be a partnership:
Look Marcia was a sweet, naïve, well-brought up girl with kindly, responsible parents who had taught her and her sisters to be polite and obliging… She was a young new first-grade teacher, wet behind the ears. A slip of a thing, inches shorter even than me. It didn’t help her being more intelligent than me — she still didn’t have any idea how to go about getting out of her mess. So I did it for her. I did what had to be done.
And all this Bucky tells Arnie with a kind of magisterial poise. Earlier Bucky had told him: “Whatever was done was done. Whatever I did, I did. What I don’t have, I live without.”
The key, I think, is the weight of the word “I.” What I don’t have, I live without. Nietzsche could not have said “I” more proudly or beautifully. And we all go the way of Bucky — do we not? — contemplating the diminution of our powers, sickened by the prospect of becoming a burden — actually, sickened by the prospect of no longer being ourselves. Roth has always spoken to that hyper-precious moment when the child has gone into eclipse, and the adult pleasure of autonomy (bodies, risk, power) and its surprising allies (aggression, pitilessness, moral courage) present themselves.
We may have nothing but working fictions about one another, as Arnie has of Bucky, Marcia of Bucky, Bucky of himself, and Roth of us. But if happiness is possible, is it not in feeling the power of one’s own judgment, of acting in spite of serial misjudgments? Happiness is not in accumulating means to future goods, or becoming a sung hero. Happiness is assuming the burdens of autonomy. Happiness means struggling like Neil Klugman, Alex Portnoy, Peter Tarnopol, Nathan Zuckerman and Mickey Sabbath. Bucky Cantor is, perhaps, the capstone of a life’s work that demonstrated to Americans how little a “work” our lives are fated to be.
Bernard Avishai, is a journalist, Hebrew University business professor and author of a forthcoming book about “Portnoy’s Complaint. He blogs at Bernard Avishai Dot Com.”