Sophomoric Nihilism, Subservience or what?: classic incongruity between Self and World in Philip Roth’s Indignation


This book is notable to me for one, chief reason: it was the first book I was able to finish in just a day in quite a long time (not exactly sure though, if it was the first of ALL time). Given a type of schedule that usually snatches away hours to read books (much more, say a few things about them), I felt excited and fulfilled with this “feat.”

The copy I read was bought by my girlfriend in yet another eventually thrilling purchase from the month-long sale of National Book Store. I was actually hesitant at first in letting her buy the book. To me then, Phillip Roth was just someone a bit overrated than the likes of James Patterson and the Grisham guy which makes him look like a better, smarter writer. To give credit to my girlfriends’ tastes and perhaps book instincts, I was proven wrong, at least with this case at hand.

Roth’s Indignation was an interesting and riveting read: Marcus Messner is an outstanding, intelligent, albeit significantly socially troubled youth who eventually finds himself in Winesbrug, a conservative college in Cleveland after spending his first year in the local college in his hometown Newark, New Jersey. In Winesburg, he met pranksters and latent lunatics, the suspiciously righteous, Jewish fraternity kids, tacitly domineering Deans and school Presidents, and most importantly, one woman who will mainly cause his descalating journey from likely class valedictorian to the Korean War as a Private solider and then death.

At times, I saw Holden Caulfield in Marcus. Perhaps he was the less reckless, seemingly more mature version who, while admirably and staunchly brandishing his protective intellectualisms still fails to use this academic exquisiteness in achieving a more amicable relationship with others. Where Holden was saved and was able to confront the difficulties from his environment and eventually assimilate back to it, Marcus was ruined by crucial indecision and ambivalence in the face of a much rigorous environment. To begin, Marcus had to transfer from the local college to Winesburg to escape his suddenly paranoid father who tremendously fears for his security. While this looked sound at first given the unsoundness of the opposing element, we cannot discredit the fact that this initially betokens Marcus’ escapism which would be used against him in the future and which we could largely depend on in judging his character.

Marcus’ character manifested itself to be problematic, as all characters are, as he fumbled with his relations and interactions with his roommates, Dean Caudwell and most vitally, Olivia Newton, the Blowjob Queen whose recurring sexual engagements with him befuddled him and pushed his life towards its eventual direction.

The Dean would speculate he impregnated her, significantly contributing to her eventual mental breakdown. His mother once met Olivia, and noticing the scar on her wrist (Olivia once attempted to kill herself), she asked her son to stop having connections with her. It was Olivia who had been the strongest driving force in the superficial loss of Marcus. When she appeared to have turned on Marcus’ emotions and offset his reason and theoretical focus, the best he can do was to write her “sweet letters,” and the worst, be tactless when talking to her. As all flames go, they waned; as all of us in the overlapping worlds of fact and fiction, from heroes and foxy wenches to fat kids and drug addicts, there are always triumph and tribulations, all momentary; and true to Marcus’ father’s wisdom in the novel, our “most banal, most incidental, even comical choices (can) achieve the most disproportionate result.” And in the certainty of death always being the terminal of a series of results, there are mainly two ways by which we accost such given: either we mope too much and dramatize, or we bask and celebrate, however trifling, however comparable to a crude product or a sham.

 

“History is not the background; history is the stage”

Arguably the highlight of the novel was the White Panty Raid executed by the boys of Winesburg one snowy night on the female dormitories. What causally and innocently begun as a light fighting and rollicking among the boys on the thickening snow turned out to be a smart prelude to an unruly but otherwise defined hijacking of the females’ spaces. The boys are definite in their raid: they must nab all the white panties in the dormitories. In a rowdy act, and one which I interpret as instigated merely by the boys’ rebelliousness against a fettering institution that is their school; all the fake innocence, all the unbearable reticence and forced obsequiousness were attempted to get rid of through the symbol of the white panties. Hard to say they succeeded; to begin, was success a key motivation of this entire act? They have done something and that was it; in the days to come, they will be rebuked, some will be expelled, and all will hear the nerve-wracking sermon of the university President.  I quote him in his ceremonious speech, “Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear.”

Here, the President was invoking the Korean War, and using it as the stepping stone for his tirade against his ill-behaving students which has flown to the news with their rambunctious white panty raid. Against the intensity, the graveness of the things at stake and the dedication of those who are in the war which he imprecated, the university President was able to show how petty and immature and playful was the act committed by most of the male students of Winesburg. Facing the wrath and rebellion, however tasteless its form is, of the students against rectitude posed by the pastoral college, against the societal pressures and norms and prescriptions, the president had to compare their undertakings to the undertakings forwarded and risked in the war where a lot of their fellowmen are involved. Hence, he was downplaying the concerns of the Winesburg students: an indignation over the detrimentally limiting imposition of rectitude, exasperation at the prescriptions and unremitting expectations of an external body. The moral supremacy that was aimed to be instilled at Winesburg (the weekly chapel attendance is just one proof) already took its toll on the students and like the Chinese vehement in defending themselves against the Japanese conquerors, “indignation fills the hearts of all” of them and as they “refuse to be bondslaves,” they built a new Great Wall.

This novel by Roth, at several moments, felt like chili powder in my tongue. It piqued me, kept me sensing, licking at the experience. The descriptions are quick but not hollow; the revelations of character’s states of minds and emotions were ornamental and capturing: “Have I been living all these years with a time bomb,” Marcus’ mother on his father. And the dialogues are puissant and moving and often straight to the gut. For instance, after listening to Marcus recite some Bertrand Russell, the Dean showed here not only just how unimpressed he was, but how he can puke at where Marcus was coming from: “There are always one or two intellectually precocious youngsters in every campus, self-appointed members of an elite intelligentsia who need to elevate themselves and feel superior to their fellow students, even to their professors and so pass through the phase of finding an agitator or iconoclast to admire on the order of a Russell or Nietzsche or Schopenhauer” (106).

True, the Dean has a point, but this point arrives with force perhaps because it was already normalized by an environment collusive to this kind of thinking. More importantly, this little speech by the Dean reflects the self-serving rationalizations of someone in authority not wanting to look powerless and too stupefied with supposed subordinates.

What these currency is telling is that history is just composed of civil or international strife, economic plunges and cultural revolutions, usually displacing, effacing the individuals who want to get blown, who think of killing the veins in their wrists and themselves, who get tired of the repetition of abiding and nodding and get out of the box and shake everything, including themselves, in a world that has gone rancidly silent and static.

This is perhaps the incongruity between the macro and the micro once again, the universe and the particularly human, the group and the individual. My humanistic, angst-ridden way of ending this is through this: the individual shall persist and keep asserting in the face of Systems and Religions and Doctrines and Causes divesting her of her self, her individuality.

Roth in comic colors. Taken from: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/bn-review/interview.asp?pid=18889
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