The Aggrieved Conscience: Reading Philip Roth on Inauguration Week

We march inexorably on to the moment of Donald Trump’s inauguration, a mere three days from now. In the last couple of weeks the man has managed to significantly increase the prospect of war in the Taiwan Straits, celebrate the demise of the EU, critique Angela Merkel for allowing millions fleeing from war refuge in her country, insult universally respected Civil Rights leaders,  get into a public feud with the American intelligence establishment, censor journalist questions at a press conference, and do nothing to address concerns over the unconstitutional position his business empire places him the moment he takes office.

We are truly in a brave new world, in which every week liberals are going to have to worry over what new conflagration, what heinous civil rights violation, what outrageous international insult, Trump has now committed. In a recent interview, Trump celebrated Brexit and predicted the collapse of the EU in the wake of Angela Merkel’s open border policies. As Trump put it:

“I think she made one very catastrophic mistake and that was taking all of these illegals, you know taking all of the people from wherever they come from. And nobody even knows where they come from,” he said, repeating some of his favorite campaign rhetoric.

Trump has made it clear that the overriding theme of his presidency will be demonization of the outsider. His proto-fascist “America first” policy is all about demarcating who is and is not part of the national community. There are clear racial undertones to all of this: rejection of refugees and immigrants means fewer Brown, Black, and Asian bodies in the national community. It means strengthening the traditionally white power structure. It means a rejection of languages, cultures, and religions people don’t understand. Of course, Trump disguises this ugly vision by the use of more benign language:

“People, countries, want their own identity and the UK wanted its own identity,” Trump told representatives of the Times of London and the German publication Bild about the June Brexit vote. “But, I do believe this, if they hadn’t been forced to take in all of the refugees, so many, with all the problems that it … entails, I think that you wouldn’t have a Brexit.”

Scholars will debate for a long time to come how America could have gone so quickly from the wide breath of Obama’s liberalism to the nativist furies of Trump’s fascism. Yet this is not a history class, nor is it a bad dream we can all wake up from. This is really happening. The bully now holds all the cards, and the world holds its breath to see what he is going to do.

The baseline reality of Trump, if he goes through with his reactionary agenda, is that vulnerable populations will suffer. Their health insurance stripped, their water polluted, their voting rights restricted. That should be foremost in our minds. Yet there is also another form of violence that Trump brings, grounded in his very ethos: a rejection of the liberal humanist project itself. This is perhaps what is most unsettling about his presidency. For do we not strive to teach our students to be curious about the world? To be respectful of other cultures, languages, and religions? To try to understand the complex histories of non-Western peoples, who have suffered the strictures of colonialism, the indignities of occupation, and the devaluation of their cultures? Our baseline message to the young minds in our classrooms is: try to understand critically the violent forces that have created the world we see before us, for only by understanding them can we resist them.

Yet Trump stands as a rebuke to this post-colonial project. His success tells millions of children across the world- don’t respect difference, be afraid of it; don’t critique imperialism, embrace it, for the world really is a zero sum game; don’t go beyond your own tribe, but stay locked within it, and remain forever fearful of its miscegenation.

Was American really as racist, tribal, and reactionary as we always suspected it was? Has over fifty years of social progress since the Civil Rights Act meant nothing?

This is, no doubt, a most dispiriting time for progressives. Yet like all good historians we must remind ourselves that the sense of powerlessness we now feel is not actually novel. Writers, thinkers, and activists have been ruminating on America’s primal traumas for a good long while. One writer we can turn to solace in this moment is Philip Roth, who has never allowed his readers to forget the Republic’s original exclusions, those Black and Jewish populations who were barred from entry into the circuits of WASP power for generations.

In Roth’s 2007 novel Exit Ghost, the aged and celebrated writer Nathan Zuckerman returns to New York City after an 11 year absence. He has emerged out of a voluntary exile in the Berkshire mountains, where he has chosen to age gracefully amidst nature, books, and writing. At 71 years of age Zuckerman has endured multiple divorces, hurting anyone who had the unfortunate fate to love him. Because of treatment he had undergone while fighting colon cancer, he is now impotent and incontinent, a powerful mind trapped in a body he no longer controls. He seeks nothing now other than to face the end with an attenuated dignity, working for as long as possible on his novels, cutting out any and all distraction.

A medical procedure brings him back to Manhattan. In the past, he was the “famed writer” devouring all the pleasures of sex, love, and language the city had to offer. Yet now he looks upon a city he no longer recognizes, an anonymous being in search of his own lost time. He meets a young writerly couple, the Ivy-league educated Jamie and Billy, and through a variety of entanglements is thrust back into the cutthroat world of the New York literary scene.

The novel takes place in 2004 and is rendered in the first person by Zuckerman. He takes mordant joy describing the distress his young friends feel over the re-election of George W. Bush. He watches the results with them on election night, which begins with unbridled optimism and ends in uncomprehending anger:

“Oh, the world is so dim,” Jamie exclaimed with tears in her eyes. “Last time it seemed like a fluke. There was Florida. There was Nader. But this I don’t understand! I can’t believe it! It’s incredible! I’m going to go out and get an abortion. I don’t care if I’m pregnant or not. Get an abortion while you can!” (85)

Zuckerman has sworn off an interest in politics, refusing in his old age to perform the aggrieved liberal conscience, a role he played dutifully for 40 years as doyen of the New York literary scene. Canceling all magazine subscriptions, foregoing the daily ritual of the New York Times, he has chosen to focus on nothing but his writing . His young friends, meanwhile, are caught in the tremors of liberal outrage:

“Each of their cell phones started ringing then- the cruelly disappointed friends calling, many of them in tears as well. The first time, as Jamie said, it seemed like a fluke, but this was their idealism’s second staggering electoral shock and the dawning of the hard realization that they could not will this country back into being the Roosevelt stronghold it had been some forty years before they were born. For all their sharpness and articulateness and savoir-faire…they’d had no idea who the great mass of Americans were, nor had they seen so clearly before that it was not those educated like themselves who would determine the country’s fate but the scores of millions unlike them and unknown to them who had given Bush a second chance, in Billy’s words, “to wreck a very great thing.” (86-87)

With Trump’s inauguration looming, could a more searing description of how the progressive world feels right now be offered?

For all of our carefully crafted insights, for all of the energy we threw into our mobilizing, volunteering, teaching, and writing, were we not also as blindsided by Trump’s rise? Did we too not also misunderstand “the great mass of Americans” who would vote for a candidate who bragged about ethnic cleansing, who talked openly of deportation squads, who normalized racism in our political discourse? We had our own crystalline fantasy: that it would be the meritocracy that would determine the path forward for our country, rather than the “the score of millions unlike us and unknown to us” in the hinterlands.

Zuckerman’s answer to his own country’s ignorance is to no longer give it the time of day:

“I’d hardly held myself aloof from the antagonisms of partisan politics, but now, having lived enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century, I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of child- the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult. At least not so long as I holed up in my cabin, where I could manage to remain in America without America’s ever again being absorbed in me. Aside from writing books and studying once again, for a final go-round, the first great writers I read, all the rest that once mattered most no longer mattered at all, and I dispelled a good half, if not more, of a lifetime’s allegiance and pursuits. After 9/11 I pulled the plug on the contradictions. Otherwise, I told myself, you’ll become the exemplary letter-to-the-editor madman, the village grouch, manifesting the syndrome in all its seething ridiculousness: ranting and raving while you read the paper, and at night, on the phone with friends, roaring indignantly about the pernicious profitability for which a wounded nation’s authentic patriotism was about to be exploited by an imbecilic king…the despising without remission that constitutes being a conscientious citizen in the reign of George W. Bush was not for one who had developed a strong interest in surviving as reasonably serene…”(70).

Do we not in the era of Trump risk becoming the seething madman Zuckerman predicts, ranting and raving every time we talk politics, roaring on Facebook or on our blogs about the perniciousness of Trump’s oligarchy ? Does our “despising without remission” not risk draining us of all intellectual and personal energies?

Can scholarship about the historical past, can the bourgeois flimsiness of prose fiction, can the long nights spent pouring over manuscripts no one will read, be worth our attention any more? How can we live in disinterested scholarly isolation, or in the routine 9-5, as fascism whirls around us? The post-offices delivered mail on time in Nazi Germany too.

Of course there is the temptation to follow Zuckerman’s example and just turn everything off. Close our doors and throw ourselves into the edifying work of reading the literary masters, of tracking the dynamic changes in humanity’s civilizations, of nurturing ourselves on the arts until the reality we cannot shape around us recedes.

But Zuckerman is wrong in one respect. The work of even the most disengaged humanists can never be disconnected from politics. Not only because, in this digitally wired age, it is impossible (save physically retreating to a cabin in the Berkshire woods) to actually leave the heat of the daily news cycle. But also because even the most tremulous close-reading of a poem, the most fragile interpretation of dense prose, the sketchiest annotations of a historical manuscript, is a testament to the empathy that is so clearly absent in Trump. It is an attempt at going beyond one’s self, to listen rather than to bark angrily at others.

After Trump, everyone is an activist, even our poets.

Yet everyone come to “activism” restrained by our own professions, talents, and energies. For those of us lucky enough to be teachers, everyday we are faced with young minds that are still open to being challenged on their ideas. Yet we remember that out students are but a minority of a minority, the very definition of privilege itself. How do we reach the “scores of millions” unlike us, the ones outside of the systems of knowledge all together- and what would we tell them if we could talk to them? What could we tell them to disabuse themselves of their racisms, prejudices, and fears?

No easy answers there. Shaping the social world beyond one’s self is a slow, arduous process, with no guarantee of success. Can a novel change the world? A translation? A petition? A street protest? No. But they are means of engagement, no matter how futile. Has not Roth’s entire corpus enhanced our understanding of human suffering, a sensitivity which strengthens our political resolve?

Zuckerman, perhaps, has earned his rest, but we must remain in the fight, even if our tools are weak, indirect, and ignored. For let no one ever accuse us of normalizing Trump, of living in serene contemplation while the world around us burned.

The aggrieved conscience must be nurtured, even if it renders us mad.

Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.

Watercolor Visual by J.C. Phillips, All Rights Reserved:

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