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John Donne
Edmund Spenser
Philip Roth
Cynthia Ozick
Henry James

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The Theatre of the Self

part 9

Another way in which the notion of the self as performance plays a role in this novel is in its reiteration of Zuckerman’s tendency to describe his brother Henry’s marital plight in terms of theatrical “miscasting.” In Zuckerman Unbound, Henry tried to assert the validity of certain values beyond play-acting: the roles of father and son have a concrete reality too, he claimed, and cannot be reduced to roles pure and simple. He said he had a real duty toward his son, just as Nathan should have felt a real duty to his father. Henry repudiates Nathan’s entire definition of his life – and by implication, of life in general – as play-acting. Yet The Counterlife blithely continues the metaphor, and talks of Henry’s affair with his assistant Wendy as his “drop of theatrical existence” (The Counterlife 21). The day when he interviews her and starts to toy with the idea of seducing her “was just one of those days when he felt like a movie star, acting out some grandiose whatever-it-was” (The Counterlife 35). And of course their actual liaison starts with a “pretend-game”: “‘Look,’ he said, ‘let’s pretend. You’re the assistant and I’m the dentist.’ ‘But I am the assistant,’ Wendy said. ‘I know,’ he replied, ‘and I’m the dentist – but pretend anyway’” (The Counterlife 38).

In the first chapter of The Counterlife, one does not find Henry protesting against these descriptions yet. In the second chapter, however, where Henry does not die on the operation table but flies to Israel to start a new life as a born-again religious Jew in a settlement in Judea, the same sibling rivalry as in Zuckerman Unbound becomes manifest. Only this time the stakes are different. This time Henry has decided to “rewrite” his life, to change roles and start anew. Zuckerman is understandably astonished at what he calls “the part you seem to have assigned yourself in the tribal epic” (The Counterlife 113; my emphasis). But Henry himself forcefully denies any theatricality in his new-found role. Like his “guru,” the extremist Jewish settler Mordecai Lippman, he stresses the reality of the settlement, and the way he assumes it grapples directly with history, how it is rooted in the world of action, the reality that Henry believes his brother to shield himself from with his fiction, his novels and his view of life as a nonstop theatre show. Lippman, too, puts the antithesis in terms of play-acting versus taking real action, of fiction versus reality: “I am not someone sitting in a cosy cinema; I am not someone playing a role in a Hollywood movie; I am not an American-Jewish novelist who steps back and from a distance appropriates the reality for his literary purposes. No! I am somebody who meets the enemy’s real violence with my real violence, and I don’t worry about the approval of Time magazine” (The Counterlife 132).

Yet although Zuckerman is numbed by Lippman’s disputatious verbosity, is “outclassed,” this particular formulation will of course not pass muster. If Lippman is not theatrical, who is? Indeed, Zuckerman himself involuntarily speaks of Lippman’s “playing it a bit broader at his performance to give me a taste of what had confounded my brother” (The Counterlife 134; my emphasis). And moreover, Zuckerman knows all too well that there is only a thin line between acting (as “taking action”) and play-acting.

The falseness of this opposition between action and acting, between performance and real deeds is symbolized most powerfully in one non-symbolic leitmotiv in chapters two and three: the gun carried by Henry when he takes a little ride in a jeep with Nathan. This gun faintly echoes another episode of Zuckerman Unbound. At the end of that novel, after Henry’s accusations about how Nathan has killed their father, Zuckerman is driven home in a rented limousine, and he has the armed driver he hired for his protection show him his gun. In that novel, the gun had been something of a symbol of le vrai, while at the same time signifying the unreality of Zuckerman’s exaggerated fear of assassination.

In The Counterlife it is altogether more complex. Zuckerman does not feel at ease with Henry’s carrying a gun, and says: “I was totally obsessed by that gun” (The Counterlife 117). Here, the gun is at once an expression of the immediate and vehement reality of the violence in the Middle East, as well as of the theatricality of it. Zuckerman’s mind

remained on his pistol, and on Chekhov’s famous dictum that a pistol hanging on the wall in Act One must eventually go off in Act Three. I wondered what act we were in, not to mention which play – domestic tragedy, historical epic, or just straight farce? I wasn’t sure whether the pistol was strictly necessary or whether he was simply displaying, as drastically as he could, the distance he’d traveled from the powerless nice Jew that he’d been in America, this pistol his astounding symbol of the whole complex of choices with which he was ridding himself of that shame. ...
    ... What if who he shoots is me? What if that was to be Act Three’s awful surprise, the Zuckerman differences ending in blood, as though our family were Agamemnon’s?
(The Counterlife 112)

The pistol enhances Zuckerman’s feeling of being trapped not so much in History (which Henry evokes to justify his choice for Israel over America) as in a play – or rather: in history as play.

Not surprisingly, the constitutive idea of this part of the novel is that Israel can be viewed as one gigantic theatre – and consequently, Jewish identity as in essence histrionic, confirming Roth’s remark about “a kind of Jewish sensibility” quoted earlier. Thus we read that Zuckerman feels that in Israel he “had a walk-on role – as Diaspora straight man – in some local production of Jewish street theater” (The Counterlife 105). Subsequently, theatrical metaphors keep cropping up in the account of Zuckerman’s trip to Israel. The description of the Wailing Wall is a clear example:

The Wall was symmetrically framed by a pair of minarets jutting up from the holy Arab compound just beyond, and by the two mosque domes there, the grand one of gold and a smaller one of silver, placed as though subtly to unbalance the picturesque composition. Even the full moon, hoisted to an unobtrusive height so as to avoid the suggestion of superfluous kitsch, seemed, beside those domes silhouetting the sky, decorative ingenuity in a very minor mode. This gorgeous Oriental nighttime backdrop made of the Wailing Wall square an enormous outdoor theater, the stage for some lavish, epic, operatic production whose extras one could watch walking casually about, a handful already got up in their religious costumes and the rest, unbearded, still in street clothes.
(The Counterlife 88)

In the same scene, when Zuckerman does not give a shnorrer quite enough money, the old man does not waste his time on the “cheap American” but shows him, “rather like a curtain dropping when the act is over, the back of his extensive black coat” (The Counterlife 89). And a description of the landscape in Judea, rather than looking at it for its own sake, emphasizes its symbolic overtones, especially the antithesis of the pastoral idyll of England to “this unfinished, other-terrestrial landscape, attesting theatrically at sunset to Timeless Significance” (The Counterlife 117). It is more like a décor, a film set or a stage decoration, than a real place.

To top this off, Roth adds the burlesque chapter three to the account of Zuckerman’s voyage, in which Jimmy Ben-Joseph’s spectacular coup de théâtre parodically underlines this sense of Israel’s theatricality. On the plane back to London, Zuckerman recognizes in Jimmy “a character a little like one of those young Americans the Europeans can’t believe in, who without the backing of any government, on behalf of no political order old or new, energized instead by comic-book scenarios cooked up in horny solitude, assassinate pop stars and presidents” (The Counterlife 172). For rather confused political reasons, Jimmy says that he will force Zuckerman to help him hijack the plane. As long as he has not seen Jimmy’s gun, however, Zuckerman does not take his “performance” quite seriously:

“You were made for the stage, Jim – a real ham.”
    “I was an actor. I told you. At Lafayette. But the stage, no, the stage inhibited me. Couldn’t project. Without the stage, that’s what I love.”
(The Counterlife 174)

But then Jimmy shows him his weaponry, a grenade and a gun: “It was the pistol, Henry’s first-act pistol. This then must be the third act in which it is fired. ‘Forget Remembering’ is the title of the play and the assassin is the self-appointed son who learned all he knows at my great feet. Farce is the genre, climaxing in blood” (The Counterlife 175). And the next thing he knows Jimmy’s coup is brought to a mercifully quick end by two Mossad agents, who remind Zuckerman of the stage as well: the one is only a “silent sidekick” to the other, whom Zuckerman refers to as “the hustler” because “[h]is bright, sporty clothes, the tinted glasses, the tough-guy American English all suggested to me an old-time Broadway con artist” (The Counterlife 177).

The Mossad agent is not quite as harmless as a “hustler,” however: he proposes to use a circumcision knife to “work on” Jimmy’s body to extort information: “in the lavatory, you and me squeezed up in there, alone with the secret parts of your body” (The Counterlife 181), he says to him. The knife’s glinting steel both echoes the pistol’s barrel and foreshadows the act of circumcision that concludes the book. In the novel’s concluding pages, the impossibility of a completely autonomous, a‑cultural and a‑historical existence is urged. The “Christendom” chapter tries to show that historicity encroaches even on the age-old lovers’ dream of a quiet, paradisiacal, secluded existence. There is no escape, it argues, from either reality or culture. In fact, the two are largely the same – reality is mostly human-made, a constructed reality.28 The search for authenticity, for something pre- or extracultural, is itself a cultural myth. The fate of culturedness is finally accepted and even celebrated in a kind of “ode to circumcision,” circumcision being where the pastoral stops:

Circumcision is startling all right, particularly when performed by a garlicked old man upon the glory of a newborn body, but then maybe that’s what the Jews had in mind and what makes the act seem quintessentially Jewish and the mark of their reality. ... Quite convincingly, circumcision gives the lie to the womb-dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory, the appealing idyll of living “naturally,” unencumbered by man-made ritual. To be born is to lose all that. The heavy hand of human values falls upon you right at the start, marking your genitals as its own. Inasmuch as one invents one’s meanings, along with impersonating one’s selves, this is the meaning I propose for that rite.
(The Counterlife 327‑8)

The interlocking of images serves to highlight the oversimplicity in thinking of fiction and action, of play-acting and “real acts” as completely discrete entities. Like the gun, the knife hurts, the blood that is shed is real. But there is also a highly theatrical side to carrying a gun, whether you do it to make a political statement, to scare off Arabs, or to impress your relatives. Conversely, circumcision is a highly ritualized act, but has, for all its “theatricality”, very real consequences: the act of acculturation, as the final pages of The Counterlife assert, to a large extent determines one’s life, determines the reality one lives.

Also, whereas the knife is here the symbol of man’s entrance into civilization the very minute he is born, in the hijack scene it seemed to represent the summit of “civilized” savagery: political torture. At the same time, as the chilling reference to “the secret parts of your body” indicates, the agent’s words were a parody on declarations of love, the knife savagely phallic, the proposed torture a travesty of sexual intercourse – a counter-mating.

By setting up such ironic dichotomies, Roth succeeds in collapsing or questioning conventional categories of thinking – in this instance, especially, the antithesis savagery/culture. Savage though he is, the torturer is yet the agent of a highly developed society, revealing how easily “civilization” may collapse back into “savagery.”29 The knife itself is merely a neutral object: the uses it is put to determine its “meaning.” This is the essential point that the passage, indeed, the whole novel wants to make. The “heavy hand of human values” Roth knows to be inescapable, and even necessary. But no passive acceptance of those values is in question: they are, after all, human, which is to say fallible, and subject to questioning, challenging, change. Value and meaning have to be created, not passively received, they have to be acted out, performed as though life were indeed a play, and all the world a stage. It is only by creating meaning, by writing their own love story, that Maria and Zuckerman can succeed. The self is inscribed in cultural contexts, but is not determined by it. It has still to be constructed, by a positive act of will – and constructed in the awareness of its relativity, its instability, its constructedness. What Roth proposes is that if meaning is negotiated, is not stable, not God-given and predetermined, one has a duty actively to participate in its creation. This is why play-acting is far from insincere, harmful and undesirable, but, on the contrary, constructive, comforting, and mandatory.

This does not mean that anything goes. Thus, Henry’s decision to return to his roots in chapter two is fundamentally insincere because the whole idea of roots, of the authentic is, if not entirely fake, at least far more ambiguous than Henry is willing to allow. It is not his play-acting that is wrong, but his refusal to acknowledge that he is acting a role, his naive belief that his aliyah makes him more real, more purely authentic than an assimilated American Jew. He is one of those who are “[s]o in earnest ... that they don’t even recognize that being in earnest is the act” (The Counterlife 323).

The “heavy hand of human values” does mean is that the self is defined by way of differences, is relative. Just as the meanings of a word arise only from its interplay with other words, so the self can exist only from its interplay with other selves. The novel’s central question is: how can the self define itself as of itself, rather than merely in relation to its opposites? Its persistent answer is: it cannot. This becomes evident from the way the question of the Jewish identity is treated in the novel.

The longing for a less relative definition, for a more autonomous sense of self is evident in Henry’s wish to be “directly and unstrainedly” Jewish in Judea. But it is also one of the drives behind Jimmy Ben-Joseph’s crazy, confused pamphlet “forget remembering!”:

israel needs no hitlers for the right to be israel!
jews need no nazis to be the remarkable jewish people!
zionism without auschwitz!
judaism without victims!
the past is past!
we live!
(The Counterlife 169)

This pamphlet, in turn, seems to be strangely echoed in Zuckerman’s claim at the end of the novel that in England he finds himself to be “[a] Jew without Jews, without Judaism, without Zionism, without Jewishness, without a temple or an army or even a pistol, a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple” (The Counterlife 328).

But the entire force of the novel’s argument goes against the conclusion that anything like such an intrinsic, non-relational sense of identity is possible. A far more characteristic attitude towards the question of Jewish identity is found in the following passage from the letter Zuckerman writes to Henry on the plane back from Israel: “‘What is a Jew in the first place?’ It’s a question that’s always had to be answered: the sound Jew’ was not made like a rock in the world – some human voice once said ‘Djoo,’ pointed to somebody, and that was the beginning of what hasn’t stopped since” (The Counterlife 149). Exactly like “the sound ‘Jew,’” one’s selfhood is not “made like a rock in the world.” The idea owes something to current notions about the nature of language and meaning in which difference (binary opposition) plays a major role. It is far from Zuckerman (or Roth) of course to suggest that Jewish identity depends on the definitions of Gentiles, or even of anti-Semites30 – but something of that relation does haunt the definition of self in all cases: you are defined by summing up all the things you are not.31 Anti-Semitism is one extreme, and particularly harmful example of how one is usually defined (and, of course, misdefined) by the outside world and by one’s relation to it.

Also, Zuckerman’s claim about feeling like “a Jew clearly without a home, just the object itself, like a glass or an apple” is somewhat misleading, especially if quoted out of context. It actually occurs in a passage in which he contends that “England’s made a Jew of me in only eight weeks” (The Counterlife 328), by which he means that he has become more assertively, more militantly Jewish because of England’s latent anti-Semitism – which is to say through opposition, in relation to the outside world. His short visit to his brother in Israel, on the other hand, and his meeting with extremist colonists in Judea, made him feel more militantly defensive than ever about his “renegade” identity as a successful American novelist married to an English shikse. As he puts it himself, he is “[a] Jew among Gentiles and a Gentile among Jews” (The Counterlife 328). Thus, it is exactly through opposition that Zuckerman defines himself. As he said earlier: “I suppose it can be said that I do sometimes desire, or even require, a certain role to be rather clearly played that other people aren’t always interested enough to want to perform” (The Counterlife 323).

This oppositional stance is characteristic of Zuckerman’s regained confidence. It is not so much that he has reconciled the demands of life and art, of authenticity and fiction, or of play-acting and sincerity, but rather that he has transcended these simple oppositions. It is not that Roth (or Zuckerman) totally surrenders the ideals of sincerity to irresponsible play-acting. He merely asserts that it is only through play-acting that sincerity may be attained, just as it is through fiction (“lies”) that a novelist may sometimes express a deeper truth. This is not simply a postmodern surrender to a facile, irresponsible relativism, something of which Roth has been accused particularly on the occasion of The Counterlife. Readers who find unbearable the idea of meaning created rather than given, a world constructed rather than simply existing, sincerity being acted out rather than simply found as a hidden essence – those readers seem only to want to escape what is inescapable, much like Maria, at the end of The Counterlife, wishing to escape from the book. Zuckerman’s answer to Maria – the novel’s concluding words – may be read as a reply to those critics, too: “To escape into what, Marietta? It may be as you say that this is no life, but use you enchanting, enrapturing brains: this life is as close to life as you, and I, and our child can ever hope to come” (The Counterlife 328).

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28: Such a wide-spread notion by now as almost to have become a commonplace. The book which most helped to spread the insight is, I take it, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971 [1966]). One often meets the idea in some form or other in postmodern literature and literature about postmodern literature (Brian McHale for instance quotes Berger and Luckmann’s book in his Postmodernist Fiction [London: Routledge, 1987]). Obviously, it leads to misunderstandings; there are limits to the “constructedness” of “reality”: little construction goes into a volcanic eruption. The standard criticism of postmodernism is that it is too rigid in applying the notion of constructedness to the extent of denying the existence of some form of objective reality. Clearly, Roth shows himself aware enough of the actuality of the violence in Israel to be immune to such claims. Let me briefly give an example: in a letter to Zuckerman, the Israeli Shuki Elchanan writes: “remember, if you take as your subject [Lippman’s] diatribe – or mine – you will be playing with an argument for which people die. Young people do die here for what we are arguing about. My brother died for it, my son can die for it – and may yet – not to speak of other people’s children” (The Counterlife 162). Some readers might regard this as an all-too-clever trick, facilely trying to prevent similar accusations to be levelled at The Counterlife itself. But it is not just precautionary cleverness: Roth himself had taken care, quite a bit before introducing Lippman himself, to remind his reader of this very fact, by having Zuckerman drive in a taxi whose driver’s son has been killed (99), and by giving the horrible details of the death of Shuki’s brother (88), firmly putting the entire argument “dans le vrai” from the start. (Back.)

29: The use of the circumcision knife as torture instrument also cynically parodies the search for “authenticity”: it used, after all, to get the “truth” out. Cf. also: “‘We’re going to ask you to give an account of yourself,’ the Broadway hustler said to me. ‘An account that we can believe’” (The Counterlife 178). Not truth, but credibility is what counts. The scene plays with many of the Zuckerman novels’ central themes. (Back.)

30: My interpretation is even somewhat tendentious: the “someone” who points his finger may have been a Jew too. That would, however, have implications for the rest of my discussion which I choose to disregard here; let us just say that the text is more richly suggestive than I can here do justice to. (Back.)

31: Cf. “Jews are people who are not what anti-Semites say they are. That was once a statement out of which a man might begin to construct an identity for himself; now it does not work so well, for it is difficult to act counter to the ways people expect you to act when fewer and fewer people define you by such expectations” (“Writing about Jews,” Reading Myself and Others 221). (Back.)

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

MA thesis
Vrije Universiteit
January 1994

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part 6
part 7
part 8
part 9