In Philip Roth’s otherwise dark and terrifying Pulitzer Prize-winning novel American Pastoral, there is an improbably lovely sequence during which the protagonist, Swede Levov, is romping over hill and dale on his gentleman’s country estate, caught up in reminiscences about his boyhood literary hero Johnny Appleseed. Youthful, vigorous and successful before Roth begins to turn the vise of multiple tragedy tighter and tighter on his neck, Levov is concluding his jaunt by cheerfully pretending to toss apple seeds across his beloved land from an imaginary bag on his shoulder.
Having observed him from an upstairs window, his wife inquires upon his return to the house what he had been doing. He doesn’t answer, but Roth does on his behalf: “What he had been doing out on the road—which, as though it were a shameful or superficial endeavor, he could not bring himself to confess openly, even to Dawn—was making love to his life.”
Making love to his life.
The line gave me long pause, both because of the unexpected play of substituting the rhyming “life” for “making love to his wife,” but also for the more arresting matter of Roth capturing the heart of a certain mood and ardor that one would wish for all humans to share: a sense of being enraptured, enchanted, inexhaustibly taken by the sheer wonder of existence, the gift of incarnate life, the surge of joy and hope and expectancy that sometimes feels like it is shooting right up through your head and connecting you to all that is bright and beautiful. The almost inchoate sense of being surpassingly happy merely that things are, and that we possess the life force to appreciate it.
Making love to life.
The sexual image of “making love” denotes a corporality and embodiedness to the experience, but this is of course metaphorical; Roth is suggesting a state here that combines or sweeps up physical vitality into a transcendent state of mind, an ecstasy of the here and now. Tossing seeds randomly over your shoulder doesn’t quite fit the conventions of an erotic experience, but here it is something more encompassing.
The converse of this life-love are the beaten down, staggering, morally compromised lives that Roth winds up sketching in this perhaps darkest of modern American novels. In American Pastoral, everyone eventually falls and is soiled by circumstance, rapacious politics, bad faith, crushed hopes and failed relationships.
Roth’s characters tend to go off the rails for many and varied reasons but with one common deficiency: their almost complete lack of community and deep friendship.
Blown about by forces of malformed personality, culture, and familial oppression, none of the characters in American Pastoral are candidates for grace or humble acceptance of their plight. Whatever core of character and moral vision they possessed has crumbled, and they tend to lapse into rage and reaction rather than reflection.
In the face of often appalling human weakness, which I would posit is a non-theist’s version of original sin, do we have any choice in how to respond, or are we driven instead by blind reaction, like a man beset by a swarm of bees?
Roth tends toward the latter view, though he is admittedly inclined to sketch extremes of behavior in order to enhance the drama and get at deeper truths of the human condition that aren’t necessarily manifest in the average daily life. He even more pointedly saddles his male characters with all manner of struggle and shortcoming. Many of them see and expect the worst of each other (including themselves), and that’s exactly what they get.
Others mean well but lapse into self-delusion or one fateful compromise after another, so that the life they would otherwise want to make love to seems ever more unattractive as a mate.
Reflecting in a semi-riotous and deadpan way as only Roth can in a recent interview published in the New York Times Book Review, he said of his male characters:
My intention is to present my fictional men not as they should be but vexed as men are. The drama issues from the assailability of vital, tenacious men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise—unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.
Whew! Dark as it is, I think that is one of my very favorite lists of all time. “Illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying”—no small matters, those!
To make love to one’s life in the face of all that, striding over one’s land playfully evoking Johnny Appleseed in the blush of full physical vigor, is easy for most people at age 26, more difficult at 46, 66 and 86, as the slings and arrows of mature existence and its attendant infirmities and pain steadily advance against our firewalls of hope and contentment.
Yet pictures of grace are everywhere around us, in the kindness and basic decency of both friends and strangers, the pulling together humans constantly exhibit to help a struggling friend, or merely when we see others accept with equanimity and even humor the indignities and infirmities life sometimes sends their way.
It can be hard out there in the various communities of home, neighborhood and workplace where we hang our hats of everyday life. Bodies fail, jobs are lost, loved ones die, fortunes are pilfered, homes and their privacy are invaded. Often, we want nothing so much as to retreat to a darkened room, burying ourselves in pillows and silence. It is both the most simple and most difficult thing to admit weakness or vulnerability at such a time, to allow that we are not—and don’t particularly want to be—up to the task of coping alone with the forces buffeting us.
Roth’s characters tend to go off the rails for many and varied reasons but with one common deficiency: their almost complete lack of community and deep friendship. In community, whether of friends or family, church or neighborhood, the sharp angles and elbows of contentious life are rounded off, and we more readily accept the wholeness of our experience, in both sickness and health, individual identity and interdependence.
Roth’s dark despairing characters stand in contrast to many older friends in my church community and elsewhere, some now gone, whose eyes, even in the midst of physical decline, remain ever alight with a playfulness and depth missing in Roth’s frequent painting of the human condition as crushed and beyond hope.
I love Philip Roth’s ways with language and his insight into the darkness roiling and beckoning just beneath the surface of life. Religious literalists name those roiling waters the Devil, Jungians the Shadow with whom we must make friends rather than enemies.
Whatever its source, Roth shows us it is as real as the nose on our faces. Its task is to attempt, at the first sign of threat, to drag us deeply down into false protections of retreat, where we crouch and clench in a panicked attempt for survival.
But to behold gentler souls, choosing to respond differently to that darkness, in the full glint of mature whimsy, is to see life still being made love to. When we forsake solo flailing and fear and are instead committed to others, in a community of lovers bound by the kind of intentionality and fearlessness absent from a Rothian universe of ultimate, unflagging isolation, our tight grasping for a desperate illusory control of life softens.
In community, acceptance and interdependence represent choices made by those for whom hope is a way of being and love is a state of mind and body, led most assuredly by the fathomless goodness of our very human, sometimes bruised, but always faithful hearts.
If you have half an hour to listen to The Man himself, this 2011 interview is well worth the time. Particularly endearing is his recollection of being “overcome” when first confronting literature in a serious way in his college days. He repeats the phrase, “I was overcome” two more times, leaving no doubt of the vocation that was even then descending upon him with such force.
Much appreciation to the photographers:
Rotating banner photos top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Pollinating bee photo near top of page courtesy of JE Norton, Salt Lake City, Utah, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at http://www.flickr.com/photos/jenorton/
Landscape and tunnel photos courtesy of Claudio Audisio, Allesandria, Italy, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at http://www.flickr.com/photos/audisio/
Spring is definitely the best time to make love to your life, to rejoice now that winter’s long struggle has temporarily faded. Just ask the birds!
Brilliant and beautiful my friend. I might have to now go searching for that box of paperbacks stored deep in the bowels of the garage.
lovely paragraph: a sense of being enraptured, enchanted, inexhaustibly taken by the sheer wonder of existence, the gift of incarnate life, the surge of joy and hope and expectancy that sometimes feels like it is shooting right up through your head and connecting you to all that is bright and beautiful. The almost inchoate sense of being surpassingly happy merely that things are, and that we possess the life force to appreciate it. — to say it is to skip and get entangled, its rhythm matches its object. lovely.
Lovely. I’m so glad to have been introduced to your writing.
Andrew, I found your essay on Roth, as did the others, both poignant and veracious. If my memory serves me well, which I’m not sure of at this rather late time in my life, he once wrote (I’m paraphrasing him, of course) that we should dedicate our reading of books only those that bite or sting us.
Love that line, Robert, hadn’t come across it, thank you, though I wonder where sheer beauty, which books, including many of Roth’s, also contain, might fit within the “bite or sting” schema…
Thanks for the editing. Hey, I have a 300 page book you’re welcome to edit! By the way, there are those books that have value for their sheer beauty and don’t necessarily fall into “bite or sting” schema. A few years ago, I remember my dad and I were working on a list of novels with picturesque opening paragraphs. Two come to mind. E.M. Forster’s “Passage to India” and Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country.” Although the books themselves deal with “biting and stinging” themes (racism, colonialism, sexual assault, murder), the beginnings are exquisitively written, almost poetic, without a hint of the serious themes these books entail.
“Passage to India”–Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest…
“Cry the Beloved Country”–There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles
into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is no mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensberg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the
mountains of Ingeli and East Griqualand…
The final paragraph of “The Great Gatsby” isn’t too shabby, either.
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world,I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic
rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
I always enjoy reading your words. You’re a gifted writer.
Thank you, Robert, for all of that. Would probably make for a lovely volume to compile, say, “The 50 Best Opening Paragraphs in Literature.” (Followed, of course, by a sequel of Final Paragraphs, with little parlor games and betting pools on which books would qualify for both lists…)
Might be an ordeal to secure publishing rights, but what publisher wouldn’t want their book appearing in such a volume? It’s hard selling E.M. Forster from the back lists!
Thank you for re-posting this piece today. It is very welcome as I balance a surprisingly deep sadness over Roth’s passing with gratitude for his many brilliant works that gave me so many new windows into new worlds.
That we should all work so hard to bring reflection and meaning to this world we share, and would that we all pay closer attention when our fellow travelers share that work: a laudable goal.