One-dimensional man

I’ve been reading American Pastoral by Philip Roth, in my opinion by far the leading American candidate to win the Nobel Prize for literature and I believe even the most likely to win it this coming year. It’s easy to see why. He has that quality which is irresistible for prize committees, a sociologist’s view of personality. Charitably, I believe that this is the philosophical root of the obvious artificiality of his dialogue. There is no subtext in his dialogue, because his characters seem to lack interiority. They say whatever they think, and their thoughts seem wholly turned to their environment. He doesn’t heed Robert De Niro’s admonition: “It’s important not to indicate. People don’t try to show their feelings, they try to hide them.” All his characters do is indicate; there are no barriers between the mind and speech, between speech and the interlocutor. There is no autonomy for the affections.

In short, Roth’s characters seem mere instruments of their circumstances and surroundings. He has admitted as much in an interview with Die Welt: “History gallops into you in your living room like a crazy horse. You are completely helpless…In principle, one must be happy for every moment that history leaves us in peace.” His novels then are inherently political, which is also catnip for the Nobel committee. But it seems to me that one of the goals of art, and of life, is to create a moral and intellectual independence, to develop one’s personality so as not to be merely the sum of one’s circumstances. The notion of individuals as mere exemplars of the social trends that define them is an awfully pallid portrayal of humanity.

p.s. Not related, but in this discussion Dalrymple makes two excellent points that I have tried to make in a roundabout way in the past:

  1. “While in possession of transcendental religious and philosophical truth, however, it has not escaped notice that the Muslim world has fallen behind the rest of the world. Japan, China, India are fast catching up or overtaking the West: they have been able to meet the Western challenge. No Muslim country has managed more than a kind of parasitic prosperity, dependent on oil – the industry which no Muslim did anything to discover or develop. Even their wealth, then, is a reminder of the dependence. The whole of the Arab world, minus the oil, is economically less significant to the rest of the world than one Finnish telephone company.   The fact that Islamic civilisation was once exquisite, and in advance of most others, is in this context a disadvantage. It means that Muslims tend to think in terms of recovery of glory, rather than anything new. In Muslim bookshops, you can find books about the scholars and scientists who led the world 600 years ago or more – who are a perfectly legitimate subject of enquiry of course – but after that there is a hiatus. If there had been no Muslims for the last 300 or 400 years, the world would have lost no technical or scientific advance.”

  2. “The London bombings may have caused at long last people to examine their fatuous multiculturalist pieties, which I believe are fundamentally derived from the restaurant model: today we eat Hungarian, tomorrow Mexican, the day after Lebanese, and so forth. Clearly, this is possible and very enjoyable, but there are more important and deeper things in life than a variety of cuisines. Perhaps people will begin to see that some values are simply not compatible with others, and will now be prepared to stand up for those that we believe in.”

I have long contended that the main problem with devotion to Islam is not that Islam is in itself a bad doctrine but that in a Muslim context everything must be judged with reference to the words of Mohammed and the lives of the first four caliphs. It’s very fashionable and politically correct these days to talk about how advanced Muslim civilisation was during the Middle Ages, but Dalrymple points out that using this as a normative ideal reinforces the dangerous psychological tendency to think in terms of recovery of a past glory rather than creation of a better future. The belief that all righteousness is lodged in the authority of a single document and at a single point in the past is fundamentally at odds with the very notion of “modernity” and with open-mindedness. And as for point #2, I was saying to my brother just the other day that it is possible to have a successful multiethnic and even multicultural society, but what cannot work is a multi-ethical society. Clearly everyone is not going to agree on all moral values, but there has to be one basic ethical standard in society. Without that the conflicts will be interminable and insuperable, and perhaps worse than that the tacit sanctioning of moral wrongs.

3 Responses to “One-dimensional man”

  1. In Lehmann's Terms Says:

    The Dalrymple Meme

    A recurrent meme running through recent posts of several of my fellow AnCaps (shonk comments here, mock does the same here and here) suggests that we’ve all independently taken to reading Ted Dalrymple at about the same time. Perhaps there’s

  2. Curt Says:

    Now if only he’d go back to using his real name, Anthony Daniels, rather than “Dalrymple,” which sounds like a vaguely ridiculous Dickensian aristocrat’s name.

  3. mock savvy » literary theory Says:

    […] ity. I can’t say that I agree with this hypothesis. As Curt as selling waves has pointed out so poignantly w/r/t Philip Roth’s historical determinism in America […]

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