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John Donne
Edmund Spenser
Philip Roth
Cynthia Ozick
Henry James

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The Theatre of the Self

part 3

It is the emotional urgency of his father’s appeal, then, that is a major cause for Nathan’s conscious search for a selfhood in keeping with his calling. But the preceding discussion also suggests, I think, how inextricably the two themes of Nathan’s selfhood and of the nature and responsibilities of art are intertwined. Although Nathan does not really respond to his father’s specifically literary objections to his story, he will have to answer them satisfactorily if he is to justify his future career. And this need is made especially urgent because it is exactly from his chosen profession, from the sacred demands of artisthood, that he intends to derive a new identity to pit against the demands made on him as a son. It is for this that, in search of an authority to match his father’s “moral mentor,” he ends up in the Lonoff household, prostrate at “the high altar of art” (The Ghost Writer 3).

Nathan would fain, like a true modernist – a “Nathan Dedalus,” as the title of chapter two has it – be able to renounce friends, father and family to dedicate himself wholly to his sacred task. But this proves to be more difficult for him than Joyce earlier in the century described it to be for that other Dedalus. Uprootedness, however traumatic, also was a cause of joy to modernism. It cannot be so for Nathan, however. As I have already suggested, he is too much tied to his father and family to easily soar away from them. This is perhaps most evident in the passages of nostalgic remembrance of childhood days spent happily in the same park where Nathan is now having his quarrel with his father. It is not that he wants to remain in “the park that used to be our paradise” (The Ghost Writer 69) – on the contrary, he is anxious to get to his mountain resort, the quasi-Olympus of Quahsay colony, as soon as possible. But he is aware of what he is giving up. For Stephen Dedalus, history was simply a nightmare from which he wanted to escape; for him, as for Joyce, exile was a consciously desired necessity. For Nathan, the escape from his personal, familial history is only the necessary, and regrettable, corollary of his dedication to art; for him exile is a painful imposition. Hence the forcefully elegiac quality of the entire trilogy.

To rationalize and validate his choice, Nathan visits Lonoff. But Quahsay Colony proves not to be a modern Olympus, as Paris is promised to become for Stephen Dedalus at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. If judge Wapter does not receive the reader’s sympathy, E.I. Lonoff’s literary priestliness is partially discredited in the course of the novel as well. More than that, doubts are cast on the validity of Nathan’s conviction that art should have an absolute priority in his life. This does not mean that his father is right, but only that Nathan is partially wrong himself, not so much in the cause he defends (his freedom to write stories) as in the line of defence he takes. As the chapter title “Nathan Dedalus” and various other references to modernists and proto-modernists like Joyce, Mann, Flaubert and James indicate, he is full of a modernist artistic high-mindedness, the solemnity of which Roth takes some trouble to ridicule. Thorough demythologizers as the modernists were, they still kept one final piety in reverence: the religion of art. Roth, for his part, does not shy from mocking the seriousness of literature as well. In making high-mindedness Zuckerman’s eternal banana peel, he is actually good-heartedly mocking the solemnities of literary modernism. In fact, the older Zuckerman who writes down the account of his younger self’s visit to Lonoff is himself aware that his earlier high-mindedness has proved his stumbling block: “it wasn’t just that I wanted to convince Lonoff of my pure and incorruptible spirit – my problem was that I wanted to believe it myself” (The Ghost Writer 22).

One notion derived from modernist lore (although it dates back to Romanticism, if not further) is that of the artist’s sacrifice of his personal life on the altar of art, and his consequent estrangement from “life” as lived by “ordinary people.” This idea of authors’ bookishness versus other people’s real experience is also reflected in Victor Zuckerman’s words, when he accuses Nathan of a lack of experience: “from a lifetime of experience I happen to know what ordinary people will think when they read something like this story. And you don’t. You can’t. You have been sheltered from it all your life” (The Ghost Writer 66). The artist’s unworldliness is, like the mimesis debate, a traditional theme. In some way an artist’s life is supposed to be at odds with his art – the two stand in a tensed relation, if not downright opposition. This finds expression in such scenarios as that of the Faust myth – an artist’s life is “eaten away” by his art. Applying the crazy arithmetic of Balzac’s peau de chagrin, each work of genius shortens one’s life by a fixed number of years; the greater the genius, the shorter and more miserable the life – Mozart and van Gogh would be the prime examples.

The myth is pre-eminently applied to, and also very popular amongst, romantic decadents, who allegedly scale the furthest extremes of experience and pay for it by an early death. Another, quite distinct variant, the Flaubertian whine, has grown equally compelling to certain authors. It tells of inexpressible, torturous toil that goes largely unappreciated and produces little more than frustration and, well, just a few masterpieces into the bargain, but at the expense of lived life – so much so, in fact that it may cause the artist to sigh, about an ordinary happy family’s children he has seen playing in the garden, that at least “ils sont dans le vrai.”7 This conception of the artist as workaholic may be less heroic, but the sacrifice is, of course, nothing the smaller for that. The Flaubertian whine is clearly echoed in the Lonovian groan. It causes Nathan to exclaim about Lonoff: “a man, his destiny, and his work – all one. What a terrible triumph!” (The Ghost Writer 53). The rigour of this solution appeals to Nathan; it would seem to liberate him from the need to answer any more annoying questions from family and friends, from le vrai.

That Roth, however, is not going to treat these traditional views on the conflict between life and art entirely seriously is signalled right at the very start of The Ghost Writer. In Yeats’ poem “The Choice”, the problem is clearly outlined:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if he take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity and empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.8

At the start of The Ghost Writer there's a send up of these stereotypes by means of an ironic allusion to them. When Lonoff “proceeds to undo Nathan further by asking him to hear something about his life,” we are told how Nathan made the same choice Yeats would doubtless have made. But the circumstances are rather different: selling subscriptions door-to-door, he is warned by his overseer, “Mammon’s Moses” McElroy,

not to fool with the housewives we found alone at home in their curlers. ... “Either get laid,” he coldly advised us, “or sell Silver Screen. Take your pick.” ... Since no housewife ever indicated a desire to invite me into the hallway to so much as rest my feet – and I was vigilantly on the lookout for lasciviousness flaring up in any woman of any age who seemed even half willing to listen to me from behind her screen door – I of necessity chose perfection in the work rather than the life, and by the end of each long day of canvassing had ten to twenty dollars in commissions to my credit and an unblemished future still before me.
(The Ghost Writer 6‑7; my emphasis)

This sets the tone for Zuckerman’s further comic blunderings. Unlike modernist artist-heroes, Zuckerman is not presented in The Ghost Writer as a righteous defender of sacred art, but rather as an uncertain, over-eager young man stumblingly making his first steps on the path of art. And his father is quite right: he is inexperienced, and this does lead him into trouble.

In The Ghost Writer there is one episode which highlights particularly well the way in which his excessive faith in art as the highest value may lead him into trouble. This is the account of the break-up of his relationship with Betsy, the ballet dancer. Betsy is an artist as well; indeed, her art is everything to her, “a point of view no less beguiling to me than the large painted gypsy-girl eyes and the small unpainted she-monkey face, and those elegant, charming tableaux she could achieve, even when engaged in something so aesthetically unpromising as, half asleep in the middle of the night, taking a lonely pee in my bathroom” (The Ghost Writer 24‑25). Her devotion to her art thus establishes her as a foil to Lonoff, another instance of the enslaved artist whose life is “a cross, as she described it, between the life of a boxer and the life of a nun” (The Ghost Writer 26).

What is particularly revealing in Nathan’s account, however, is Betsy’s supposed aestheticizing of even such trivial everyday events as “taking a lonely pee in my bathroom.” Of course, the aesthetics of this resides entirely in the eye of the beholder rather than in the girl’s conscious intention. It is Nathan, not Betsy, who aestheticizes things; this telltale description is an indication that he has the precise relation of life to art somewhat out of focus. He perceives Betsy not so much as a human being but as a piece of art. He displays this tendency earlier in the novel, too, when he catches his first glimpse of Amy Bellette: “Where had I seen that severe dark beauty before? Where but in a portrait by Velázquez? ... that face, whose strong bones looked to me to have been worked into alignment by a less guileless sculptor than nature ...” (The Ghost Writer 12‑3). In his youthful enthusiasm, Nathan wants to translate the entire world into art, but this makes him sometimes pay too little attention to reality. If his father risks propagating escapism, Nathan crushes some of reality’s bones himself, too. After all, after first seeing Amy, he goes on to fantasize elaborately about her position in the Lonoff household, and supposing her Lonoff’s daughter, dreams of marrying her. Then, when he knows she is one of his ex-students rather than his daughter, he thinks of her as Anne Frank miraculously escaped from the camps and hopes to marry her in that guise. None of his versions have much to do with reality. And as for his affair with Betsy – when we learn how it stranded because of Nathan’s (seemingly compulsive) adultery, he does not come across as America’s most adult young lover either.

That the break-up was in yet another way related to “the art of fiction” becomes clear when Nathan talks of the mistake of having confessed his adulterous adventures to Betsy: “Bold honesty, of course, produced far more terrible results than if I had only confessed to seducing the wily seductress and left it at that; nobody had asked me about anybody else. But carried away by the idea that if I were a perfidious brute, I at least would be a truthful perfidious brute, I was crueler than was either necessary or intended” (The Ghost Writer 27). A few pages further on still, Nathan’s dilemma simply becomes a parody on the debate about truth versus fiction:

The hatred for me I had inspired [in Betsy] by telling the whole truth had me particularly confused. If only I had lied, I thought – if only I had said that the friend who had intimated I might not be trustworthy [a colleague of Betsy’s to whom Nathan has made love] was a troublemaking bitch, jealous of Betsy’s success and not a little crazy, none of this would be happening. But then, if I had lied to her, I would have lied to her. Except that what I would have said about the friend would in essence have been true! I didn’t get it.
(The Ghost Writer 31)

Nathan’s perplexity betrays his naivety both as a lover and – insofar as it is a bewilderment at the nature of fiction – as a young writer.9 Sometimes he is too rigidly honest, and thus unintentionally cruel (the way his father feels him to be in “Higher Education”). At other times he is too easily swayed by the persuasive power of fiction, too naive a reader – as ludicrously appears when he is almost moved to tears by the sentimentality of the account he himself gives the Lonoffs of the affair, telling “only the charming part”:

I portrayed [Betsy] in such uxorious detail that, along with the unnerving sense that I might be laying it on a little thick for this old married couple, I wound up in wonder at the idiot I had been to relinquish her love. Describing all her sterling qualities, I had, in fact, brought myself nearly to the point of grief, as though instead of wailing with pain and telling me to leave and never come back, the unhappy dancer had died in my arms on our wedding day.
(The Ghost Writer 27)

Clearly, Nathan does not fully grasp the subtlest complexities of fiction and storytelling yet.

In this way Roth proceeds to compromise (but at the same time to underline the importance of) the writer’s craft by showing how it is related to its everyday equivalent, the lie. And Roth being the domestic writer he is, the lies frequently involve adulterous affairs. Starting from the commonplace that fiction is “all lies,” and therefore to be disapproved of, he literalizes the idea and looks into the complex relations between fiction writing in the novelist’s study and in the marital bedroom – between stories in books, and lies in everyday life. The subject of fidelity in marital life thus functions as a running commentary on the theme of the nature of fiction and fiction-writing.

What Nathan can be blamed for specifically is a particular brand of escapism. Refusing to be too partial to Nathan in the conflict over his story, Roth has him commit the same “sin” his father showed signs of. In his purported flight from reality into art, Nathan risks being blind to the reality of his responsibilities. This, I think, is the significance of the account of the affair with Betsy. Art will provide a way of life, but it cannot provide the total salvation Nathan undoubtedly hopes for – there is no total escape from le vrai.10 There are limits to a man’s possibilities for change.

Lonoff seems to be aware of this. He certainly does not give in to the unreality of his daydream of a life in Italy with Amy Bellette as his young and adoring lover. Yet the story of his marital life stands in useful counterpoint to the glimpses we get of Zuckerman’s love life. During the dinner conversation in chapter one, for instance, Hope’s final outburst of anger sparks Nathan’s memory of Betsy’s similar rage. The better to compromise the sanctum of art, Roth has taken care to embroil Lonoff in an equally messy marital predicament. To be sure, judgement of it can never be conclusive. The portraits of Hope Lonoff and her husband are so finely, so subtly drawn that it remains undecidable to the end whether Hope is just a hysteric, driven to frenzy by an unjustified jealousy (unjustified because although Lonoff is in love with Amy, he does not act on it), or whether she is hounded and suppressed, raising her voice to no avail. This ambiguity is similar to the later depiction of Nathan’s quarrel with his brother Henry in Zuckerman Unbound and The Counterlife: there too, as I will argue below, it never becomes quite clear how many of the accusations levelled at Nathan by his brother are justified, and how many are rooted only in fraternal envy.

Henry’s case is of further relevance, moreover, because although Henry’s reproaches to his brother are naturally different from Hope’s to her husband, they do have something in common. This mainly concerns the assumption of authority by the two writers. Henry’s charge is that Nathan, in using the family as material for his fiction, has pretended to an authority he does not possess. The same can be said – is said, in effect, by Hope to Lonoff. The Lonoffs’ marital quarrels seem to centre around ways of narrating. This is brought out most clearly when Hope tries to tell the “story” of Amy Bellette. Lonoff corrects her in a trivial detail, and she gets upset: “I think I can talk about this without help. I’m only relating the facts, and calmly enough, I had thought. Because the story was in a magazine, and not in an anthology, doesn’t mean that I have lost control of myself. Furthermore, Amy is not the subject, not by any means” (The Ghost Writer 30). And she goes on to define the subject of her story as being Lonoff himself. Lonoff seems to find that Hope exactly cannot “talk about this without his help.” She breaks out in a rage and shouts “[t]ell her to accept that job, tell her to stay! She should!” (The Ghost Writer 32). The double meaning of the word “tell” hints at what is really at stake: the relation of narration to authority. Lonoff continually corrects his wife, in a way that sometimes sounds tyrannous.

When Hope says that “[b]ecause you happen to be a writer doesn’t mean you have to deny yourself the ordinary human pleasure of being praised and applauded,” Lonoff replies: “Ordinary pleasures have nothing to do with it. Ordinary human pleasures be damned. The young man wants to be an artist” (The Ghost Writer 29). What Hope represents is exactly the voice of the “ordinary human pleasures” that E.I. Lonoff has meticulously purged from his life, the voice he has stifled, and is stifling still. As a tyrannical narrator, he not only refuses to console his wife with a more pleasing fiction about himself and his marriage, but in doing so effectively condemns her to silence, not tolerating the existence of any rival fictions to compete with his own. His own view of his life and marriage is marked by an honesty that is the honesty, in the first place, of “true mimesis,” of the conscientious artist – the same honesty that got Nathan in trouble with Betsy. It surfaces most bleakly, for instance, in sayings like “I long ago gave up illusions about myself and experience” (The Ghost Writer 24). Talking about Lonoff’s work, Nathan speaks of its “celebrated blend of sympathy and pitilessness” (The Ghost Writer 10). This will stand as a description of Lonoff’s attitude towards his marriage, too. Only, in that case it is rather less admirable.

As I said, this is only one possible interpretation of the Lonoffs’ marriage, and therefore necessarily one-sided. But that Lonoff is not an easy man to live with, that he is stultified, inclined to pomposity and pedantry, seems undeniable. He does not only sacrifice himself on the altar of art, he also sacrifices his marriage on it, he makes the human sacrifice of Hope.11 In this way, his moral authority is questioned as much as judge Wapter’s, making the rabbinical posture with which he seems to administer Nathan’s “rites of confirmation” at the end of the novel both fitting and ironic.

In this way Nathan’s alternative to his father’s plea is subtly discredited. It is not that his desire to make a career as an artist is in itself illegitimate. But the highway of art proves not to be without obstacles itself – obstacles, moreover, of a pre-eminently moral nature. The relation of art to morality is both more complex and more important than the youthful Nathan Zuckerman expects it to be. And what is more, literature does not provide him with a sense of selfhood as easily as he had hoped. Lonoff is not only a questionable moral role model where marriage is concerned – he also provides little comfort for the young author in search of a self. For after all, what use is a role model who, in the course of a quarrel with his wife, declares that “my ‘self’, as you like to call it, happens not to exist in the everyday sense of the word” (The Ghost Writer 30)?

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7: The anecdote is mentioned in Zuckerman Unbound (226); Thomas Mann also recounts it in his preface to the American translation of Kafka’s The Castle – this may well be the place where Roth has it from. Mann says it was Kafka’s favourite anecdote, which casts an interesting new light on Roth’s use of it. (Back.)

8: Quoted in Cynthia Ozick, “The Riddle of the Ordinary,” Art and Ardor (New York: Dutton, 1983) 203-4. (Back.)

9: Although for clarity’s sake I want to stress the “narrative” aspects of this episode here, of course it is also a fact that there is no nice way to tell a dirty story. Ultimately, Nathan’s cruelty does not reside in his confession so much as in the act of committing adultery. (Back.)

10: In this respect Roth’s own views are rather different in tone from Zuckerman’s frantic dilemmas. Alain Fienkelkraut asked him in an interview, “Do you share the ideal of the writer as hermit, a self-ordained monk who must remain secluded from life for the sake of art?” and Roth’s answer is entirely characteristic: “Art is life too, you know. Solitude is life, meditation is life, pretending is life, supposition is life, contemplation is life, language is life. Is there less life in turning sentences around than in manufacturing automobiles? Is there less life in reading To the Lighthouse than in milking a cow or throwing a hand grenade? The isolation of a literary vocation – the isolation that involves far more than sitting alone in a room for most of one’s waking existence – has as much to do with life as accumulating sensations, or multinational corporations, out in the great hurly-burly” (“Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur” in Reading Myself and Others, 128). (Back.)

11: This is somewhat similar to Anne Frank’s fictionalized sacrifice of her father for the sake of her fame in chapter three. Cf. Derek Rubin, “Philip Roth and Nathan Zuckerman: Offences of the imagination,” (Dutch Quarterly Review, 13.i [1983]: 50): “What if, in reality, our having made a ‘saint’ of Anne Frank was, indeed, the cause of her having to relinquish her father?” I draw a slightly different moral from the dilemma, but the essential point remains the same, I think. (Back.)

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

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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