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John Donne
Edmund Spenser
Philip Roth
Henry James

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The Theatre of the Self

part 7

Thus, Zuckerman’s crisis is essentially one of sincerity. As we have seen, this is manifested at his father’s deathbed in the fact that he does not know what to do, does not know what is expected of him – when what is “expected” of him is, of course, simply that he be himself and talk “straight from the heart.” When he counters his doubts about his choice of subject matter with the objection that “the oration on mandel bread was Essie being Essie, and this, however foolish, was himself being himself” (Zuckerman Unbound 266), he is being naive. Roth spends about a thousand pages on the question of what Zuckerman’s self might really be, so it cannot be this simple. Henry’s accusations are too plausible not to cast a shadow over this too: “The origin of the universe! When all he was waiting to hear was ‘I love you!’ ‘Dad, I love you’ – that was all that was required!” (Zuckerman Unbound 288). That there are moments when the novelist’s literary indirection are inappropriate is one lesson Zuckerman is taught here. Not all occasions in real life require “know-how” to carry them off successfully. Essie, certainly, does not “know” what she is doing, any more than anyone else does on such an occasion: there is no standard appropriate “act.” In this respect, Zuckerman’s uncertainty also becomes a little less alien: if nobody really knows what to do in the face of someone’s death, most everyone probably insecurely wonders if perhaps someone else does know what to do.

The crisis started in Zuckerman Unbound extends into, and deteriorates in the course of the next novel, The Anatomy Lesson, in which four years after his father’s death, Zuckerman still has not written another book. He suffers from a prolonged writer’s block and a mysterious neck pain, conceivably psychological results of the paternal curse. Zuckerman has begun to realize that there is a cruel, an inhuman side to his profession that he has always denied or deliberately ignored. For instance, there is a Polish refugee who takes up with Zuckerman and does her best to get him emotionally (as opposed to merely sexually and literarily) involved in her situation. But, we read,

[a] writer on the wane, Zuckerman did his best to remain unfazed. Mustn’t confuse pleasure with work. He was there to listen. Listening was the only treatment he could give. ... Monstrous that all the world’s suffering is good to me inasmuch as it’s grist to my mill – that all I can do, when confronted with anyone’s story, is to wish to turn it into material, but if that’s the way one is possessed, that is the way one is possessed. There’s a demonic side to this business that the Nobel Prize committee doesn’t talk much about.
(The Anatomy Lesson 391)

As the “demonic side” of the writer’s trade starts to weigh heavier on Zuckerman’s conscience, he is increasingly led to idealize the medical profession. Eventually, he even decides to embark on a second career. After all, doctors “talk in earnest to fifty needy people every day. From morning to night, bombarded by stories, and none of their own devising. Stories intended to lead to a definite, useful, authoritative conclusion” (The Anatomy Lesson 373). So Zuckerman decides to enrol in Chicago medical college.

But although the medical profession is the dominant metaphor as well as a major theme of The Anatomy Lesson, the theatrical motif is not entirely absent either. In fact, it again occurs here in connection with the death of a parent. At his mother’s funeral, Zuckerman experiences a very similar sentiment of alienation to the one felt at his father’s deathbed: “He didn’t feel like a son who’d just witnessed his mother’s burial, but like an actor’s understudy, the one they use in rehearsals to see how the costumes look under the lights” (The Anatomy Lesson 466). And when on the morning of the funeral he waters the plants in his dead mother’s apartment, we read:

All this sentiment. He wondered if it was only to compensate for the damage that he was reputed to have done her with the portrait of the mother in Carnovsky, if that was the origin of these tender memories softening him up while he watered her plants. He wondered if watering the plants wasn’t itself willed, artificial, a bit of heart-pleasing Broadway business as contrived as his crying over her favorite kitsch show tune. Is this what writing has done? All that self-conscious self-mining – and now I can’t even be allowed to take purely the stock of my own mother’s death. Not even when I’m in tears am I sure what gives.
(The Anatomy Lesson 332)

The difference with the Zuckerman of Zuckerman Unbound is perhaps that here he asks the crucial question himself – “Is this what writing has done?” – instead of having it put to him by his brother. His belief in the legitimacy of his craft is shaken; he believes that the accusations are true, that his novelistic ventriloquizing has made him insincere.

What Zuckerman forgets is, of course, that artists do not have a corner on play-acting. What Roth seems to be arguing in Zuckerman Bound and especially in its sequel, The Counterlife, is (somewhat in the spirit of Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life) that everybody’s life consists mostly of a certain amount of play-acting. Zuckerman loses sight of the fact that the medical profession he idealizes is itself not entirely devoid of self-doubt and the ambiguities and insincerities of play-acting. What he still has to learn is not only that there is no escaping theatricality for him, but that his problem is not just a matter simply of sincerity versus play-acting.

Zuckerman’s emotional problems at his relatives’ funerals – his father’s in Zuckerman Unbound, his mother’s in The Anatomy Lesson, and his brother’s in The Counterlife – are a case in point. Of course it is not simply a case of professional deformity, of “writerly detachment” run wild. The problem of sincerity, of how to “know how to” feel at relatives’ deaths, is not peculiar to Zuckerman, or indeed to artists in general. Because it is hard not to think of the standard clichés, everybody easily feels insecure, either hollow or fake – whereas any actual “originality” (Zuckerman’s decision to relate the Big Bang theory at his father’s deathbed would be a case in point) is easily construed as a pretence, a show. Put differently, death is so ungraspable that the only human thing is not to know how to react, with what emotions to respond to it. In a religious community there are fixed rituals to channel the grief, but to a thoroughly secular mind like Zuckerman’s such means are not available. Zuckerman’s feeling of not acting appropriately, of not having the proper thoughts and emotions, is not predominantly a sign of his disaffection from his family or the callousness of the writer’s trade, but a sign of his modernity.26

In order to come to grips with this “modernity,” however, Zuckerman needs in some way to transcend the reductive antithetical mode of thinking that simply opposes sincerity to play-acting. Perhaps it is for this reason that Roth wrote, as a sequel to Zuckerman Bound, The Counterlife, a novel in which the imagination, man’s ability to create fictions, is finally celebrated, with far less reserve than ever, instead of being anxiously questioned. Zuckerman’s doubts about the sincerity of his sentiments at the funerals of his parents is echoed in its first chapter, at the funeral of his brother, for whom he has failed to write an appropriate, non-literary eulogy: “Entering the synagogue with Carol and the kids, he thought, ‘This profession even fucks up grief’” (The Counterlife 18). In this way, The Counterlife takes the position of the earlier novels as its point of departure. But it soon moves on to quite another position, summed up by the following remark of Zuckerman to his brother: “Look, I’m all for authenticity, but it can’t begin to hold a candle to the human gift for playacting. That may be the only authentic thing that we ever do” (The Counterlife 142). This does not so much resolve the earlier problems of sincerity and authority that the conflict with his family created, but dismantles them by seeing them not as problems but as simple facts of life.

This is also precisely the way in which problems that originally seem to be exclusively artistic, with little relation to “ordinary people’s” problems, prove in fact to be quite general issues. As the quotation indicates, it is not just the artist’s gift, but the generally human gift for play-acting that The Counterlife celebrates. We may get an inkling of what Roth is alluding to from this slightly ironical passage from an interview:

It’s amazing what lies people can sustain behind the mask of their real faces. Think of the art of the adulterer: under tremendous pressure and against enormous odds, ordinary husbands and wives, who would freeze with self-consciousness up on a stage, yet in the theater of the home, alone before the audience of the betrayed spouse, they act out roles of innocence and fidelity with flawless dramatic skill. Great, great performances, conceived with genius down to the smallest particulars, impeccably meticulous naturalistic acting, and all done by rank amateurs. People beautifully pretending to be “themselves.” Make-believe can take the subtlest forms, you know. Why should a novelist, a pretender by profession, be any less deft or more reliable than a stolid unimaginative suburban accountant cheating on his wife?
(Reading Myself and Others 144‑5)

Close verbal parallels to this passage are found in the ghost-interview with Maria at the end of chapter four of The Counterlife: “After reading ‘Christendom’ twice I went upstairs, and when my husband came home, I began to wonder which was real, the woman in the book or the one I was pretending to be upstairs; I was not myself just as much as Maria in the book was not myself” (The Counterlife 251). In contrast with Zuckerman Bound, however, it is the joyful aspects of the comedy of adultery that are stressed in The Counterlife, both in the account of Henry’s adulterous affair with his assistant and in the account of Zuckerman’s cuckolding an Englishman in New York. The attitude toward play and play-acting is altogether less judgemental in The Counterlife – there is a greater sense of licence, of possibilities. Even the author himself promiscuously indulges in the unconventional freedom of giving his characters several different lives within the covers of one book.

To see exactly in what ways Roth “celebrates” play-acting in The Counterlife, I will discuss below first the role it plays in the account of Zuckerman’s marriage to the English Maria; and second the novel’s reiteration of the theme of Henry’s anger at Zuckerman, and Zuckerman’s perception of Henry as an actor. This last issue will finally lead to what is a new element in the Zuckerman novels, exclusive to The Counterlife, viz. the political and ethnic dimension of the question of identity and play-acting. By including the episode of Henry’s flight to Israel in the second and third chapters, Roth now incorporates larger dimensions of the issue of the definition of selfhood in his novel more explicitly than ever before. Inasmuch as some kind of conclusion is reached in Zuckerman’s quest for selfhood, it is now more than ever not only as a man, an American, and a novelist that Zuckerman defines himself, but also very crucially as a Jew. And in connection with the various aspects of ethnic self-definition I hope to show not only what role the notion of play-acting has in it, but also how Roth’s novelistic meditation on that problem involves on the one hand transcending the simple antithesis of authenticity versus theatricality, and on the other hand a consideration of the role played by difference in the creation of meaning, and hence of selfhood.

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26: That this is also close to Roth’s own views becomes clear from the following passage from his autobiographical Patrimony: “I find that while visiting a grave one has thoughts that are more or less anybody’s thoughts and, leaving aside the matter of eloquence, don’t differ much from Hamlet’s contemplating the skull of Yorick. There seems little to be thought or said that isn’t a variant of ‘he hath borne me on his back a thousand times.’ At a cemetery you are generally reminded of just how narrow and banal your thinking is on this subject (Patrimony 20-1).” The quotation shows how Patrimony is a sincere book exactly by admitting to the impossibility of the common idea of sincerity. (Back.)

More about Roth:
Roths 'Late Years'
Over Exit Ghost

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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