27 November 2011


In Roth’s American Pastoral, Zuckerman twice in the opening chapter offers an hypothesis about the motive for Swede Levov’s request for a meeting with the famous author. Given the intimations in the letter Swede sends, Zuckerman believes that the Swede, who the writer believed had lived a charmed life, intends to reveal some hidden secret, some ‘shock’ that he had in his life experienced. “I was wrong,” Zuckerman announces. At dinner nothing at all is revealed, and the conversation remains on a mundane, superficial level to which Zuckerman can barely attend and to which he can contribute little if anything. Thus, having probed about for some entry into the Swede and his motives, Zuckerman concludes that, in fact, there is no substratum to Swede Levov. The Swede is all surface. “There’s nothing here but what you’re looking at. He’s all about being looked at. He always was . . . You’re craving depths that don’t exist. This guy is the embodiment of nothing.” As far as Zuckerman is aware, there is no substratum to Swede Levov. And after this assertion, the chapter closes: Zuckerman writes, “I was wrong. Never more mistaken about anyone in my life.” The novel, of course, explores the depths of Zuckerman’s wrong judgment.
I am intrigued by Zuckerman’s admission twice that “I was wrong.” I wondered why Roth would have his character twice announce this error, the first time when he expected revelation from his conversation with Swede Levov, and the second time in not thinking there was anything in Swede to reveal.  Nothing exists between these two possibilities. That is, between the double assertions there is nothing to be known: wrong when we expect something and wrong when we don’t expect anything. Since both presumptions are based in what we think we know, then whatever we know is wrong. “You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again.” The fact is we are always wrong.
Zuckerman doesn’t know what to do with this realization. In a scathing indictment of his own profession he offers an alternative scenario of the writer who closes himself off in a soundless cell and invents people out of words and believes that these inventions are more real than the real people “we mangle in ignorance every day.” Pretending reality does not create it. And Zuckerman acknowledges that “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we now we’re alive: we’re wrong.” That would be scann’d.
I guess when we are wrong, which is always, we have something else we can learn learn, even though to learn does not mean that we will then know anything and not be wrong. Of our knowledge of others we will always be wrong and wrong again. But this stance, perhaps, is a way for us to keep on keeping on. Of course, we are assured of nothing, neither in this awareness can we take comfort, but at least in the acknowledgment of our ignorance we may remain curious and become compassionate.
I think another answer comes in the third volume of Roth’s American trilogy, The Human Stain. Zuckerman there asserts a certain knowledge of the relationship maintained between Coleman and Faunia. And Zuckerman writes, “How do I know she knew? I don’t . . . I can’t know. Now that they’re dead, nobody can know. For better or worse, I can only do what everyone does who thinks that they know. I imagine. I am forced to imagine. It happens to be what I do for a living. It is my job. It’s now all I do.”  We imagine and we take our imaginations for knowledge of reality. We live in the world But we do not know: Nobody knows. Zuckerman, at least, remains painfully aware what it is that he doesn’t know and mindful of how he manages that basic and fatal ignorance. “I am forced to imagine. It is my job.” This is the stuff of tragedy, after all, isn’t it? Oedipus does not know but asserts certainty. George Bush asserted certainty but did not know. Nobody knows. We suffer these days from an ignorance of imagination and a failure to understand how all that we know derives from it. We assert what we know, but we are always wrong. 


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