This evening, I finished Philip Roth’s I Married a Communist and I know, I say everything wows me, and perhaps most writers do, but wow, wow, wow – this is the sixth book of his I have read and I am still not tired of him, still impressed so much. I have said that I think Roth is the most talented American writer alive before. I think I am going to stick with that, maybe even get rid of that national qualifier. I cannot think of any novelist that is more talented. His books aren’t flawless, not at all, but those heights he is able to sometimes reach, so high, the weaving of stories, his Zuckerman persona – I am just baffled that this old man is able to still produce book after book, amazing books that contain so much. I can think of many better stylists, people with the most elegant sentences. But Roth’s sentences sometimes have an outrageous elegance that seems all the more wow because they come in the middle of these breathless pagelong monologues. Seriously, throughout this book, I kept exclaiming, “Philip Roth, are you kidding me? How are you doing this?” I can’t get enough of him and am probably going to start The Human Stain tonight even though I had resolved to myself to write some cover letters and a sex story, but later, maybe, who knows, we’ll see what, if anything, gets accomplished after I do some dishes. Below are three passages I loved so much I got up to find a pen even though there was one nowhere near me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by his mental energy, even by his enthusiasm for the three-hundred-word writing assignment—discuss, from the perspective of a lifetime, any one line in Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy—that the professor had given his elderly students. Yet that a man so close to oblivion should be preparing homework for the next day, educating himself for a life that had all but run out—that the puzzle continued to puzzle him, that clarification remained a vital need—more than surprised me: a sense of error settled over me, bordering on shame, for living to myself and keeping everything at such a distance. (151)
Occasionally now, looking back, I think of my life as one long speech that I’ve been listening to. The rhetoric is sometimes original, sometimes pleasurable, sometimes pasteboard crap (the speech of the incognito), sometimes maniacal, sometimes matter-of-fact, and sometimes like the sharp prick of a needle, and I have been hearing it for as long as I can remember: how to think, how not to think; how to behave, how not to behave; whom to loathe and whom to admire; what to embrace and when to escape; what is rapturous, what is murderous, what is laudable, what is shallow, what is sinister, what is shit, and how to remain pure in soul. Talking to me doesn’t seem to present an obstacle to anyone. This is perhaps a consequence of my having gone around for years looking as if I needed talking to. But whatever the reason, the book of my life is a book of voices. When I ask myself how I arrived at where I am, the answer surprises me: “Listening.”
Can that have been the unseen drama? Was all the rest a masquerade disguising the real no good that I was obstinately up to? Listening to them. Listening to them talk. The utterly wild phenomenon that is. Everyone perceiving experience as something not to have but to have so as to talk about it. Why is that? Why do they want me to hear them and their arias? Where was it decided that this was my use? Or was I from the beginning, by inclination as much as by choice, merely an ear in search of a word?
“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other—they are in a an antagonistic relationship to each other. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t to be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, a la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself—for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized. During the first five, six years of the Russian Revolution the revolutionaries cried, ‘Free love, there will be free love!’ But once they were in power, they couldn’t permit it. Because what is free love? Chaos. And they didn’t want chaos. That isn’t why they made their glorious revolution. They wanted something carefully disciplined, organized, contained, predictable scientifically, if possible. Free love disturbs the organization, their social and political and cultural machine. Art also disturbs the organization. Literature disturbs the organization. Not because it is blatantly for or against, or even subtly for or against. It disturbs the organization because it is not general. The intrinsic nature of the particular is to be particular, and the intrinsic nature of particularity is to fail to conform. Generalizing suffering: there is Communism. Particularizing suffering: there is literature. In that polarity is the antagonism. Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalizing world—that’s where the battle is joined. You do not have to write to legitimize Communism, and you do not have to write to legitimize capitalism. You are out of both. If you are a writer, you are as unallied to the one as you are to the other. Yes, you see the differences, and of course you see that this shit is a little better than that shit, or that that shit is a little better than this shit. Maybe much better. But you see the shit. You are not a government clerk. You are not a militant. You are not a believer. You are someone who deals in a very different way with the world and what happens in the world. The militant introduces a faith, a big belief that will change the world, and the artist introduces a product that has no places in the world. It’s useless. The artist, the serious writer, introduces into the world something that wasn’t there even at the start. When God made all this stuff in seven days, the birds, the rivers, the human beings, he didn’t have ten minutes for literature. ‘And then there will be literature. Some people will like it, some people will be obsessed by it, want to do it…’ No. No. He did not say that. If you had asked God then, ‘There will be plumbers?’ ‘Yes, there will be. Because they will have houses, they will need plumbers.’ ‘There will be doctors?’ ‘Yes. Because they will get sick, they will need doctors to give them some pills.’ ‘And literature?’ ‘Literature? What are you talking about? What use does it have? Where does it fit in? Please, I am creating a universe, not a university. No literature.’” (222-224)
I blew out the candle’s scented flame and stretched myself across the chaise on the deck and realized that listening in the black of a summer’s night to a barely visible Murray had been something like listening to the bedroom radio when I was a kid ambitious to change the world by having all my untested convictions, masquerading as stories, broadcast nationwide. Murray, the radio: voices from the void controlling everything within, the convolutions of a story floating on air and into the ear so that the drama is perceived well behind the eyes, the cup that is the cranium a cup transformed into a limitless globe of a stage, containing fellow creatures whole. How deep our hearing goes! Think of all it means to understand from something that you simply hear. The godlikeness of having and ear! Is it not at least a semidivine phenomenon to be hurled into the innermost wrongness of a human existence by virtue of nothing more than sitting in the dark, listening to what is said? (320-321