16 December 2011

The Horror, the horror . . .

I have been thinking about Lionel Trilling’s essay “The Fate of Pleasure.” It is an historical study that defines the status of pleasure in Western culture over the years; in the essay Trilling argues that there has been a qualitative shift from the seeking of pleasure as a good to a state to be avoided, and that this shift has occurred not only because the pursuit of pleasure is associated with much that is exploitative or vulgar or mean, but because this ‘specious good’a term that refers to those things from which this physical pleasure might be derived“clog and hamper the movement of the individual spirit toward freedom, because they prevent the attainment of ‘more life.’” Pleasure is a trap.
To destroy this ‘specious good’ is the work of a great deal of modern literature, art and even music—and certainly of the work of Philip Roth and especially so in Portnoy’s Complaint. Trilling writes, years before Alex Portnoy disturbed the planet, “Whenever in modern literature we find violence, whether of represented act or of expression, and an insistence upon the sordid and the disgusting, and an insult offered to the prevailing morality of habit of life, we may assume we are in the presence of the intention to destroy specious good, that we are being confronted by that spirituality, or the aspiration toward it, which subsists upon violence against the specious good.” This intention to subvert and destroy our pleasure asserts our moral sense.
I get it, I think. It reminds me of the movie, The Aristocrats, in which a series of reputable comedians try to outdo each other in obscenely retelling an already distasteful joke. Screening the film I remember being appalled but sitting fascinated; at the time I was a grown up man who thought he has become used to such things. I had seen John Waters’ Pink Flamingoes, and I had sat through too much of Pulp Fiction. It is Kurtz's realization in Conrad's Heart of Darkness of the horror, the horror . . .
How do you destroy this specious good except by the disgustingly bad? By specious good Trilling must mean what is falsely good—that which is most identified with bourgeois culture of acquisition and false show, of that which obscures our spiritual selves. Roth’s Zuckerman understands this specious good; it is what he imagines destroys Swede Levov whose Paradise blows up when he discovers that “we are all in the power of something demented.” As his brother Jerry says to him, “Seymour, your kid blows your norm to kingdom come . . . and you still think you know what life is . . .” I think that this belief in the specious good is what draws us to Anne’s statement in her diary when she declares that she still believes in the goodness of people, at the very moment that the Nazis are killing millions of very innocent men, women and children no different than the occupants of the Attic, and not long before Anne herself will be sent to Bergen-Belsen and where she will die alone of typhoid or malaria or hunger or terror. Our saints and martyrs become so when they renounce the specious good. I am thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.” This grace is the product of willed ignorance and represents our attachment to the specious good.
American Pastoral blows up the self-satisfied myths of American history and exposes the falsity in the American promise to escape from history altogether. The novel exposes how our faith in the specious good gives the power over us to something demented. I think this is the saddest book I have ever read, and one of the most beautiful books written in and of the United States. It stands on any shelf as necessarily as Melville’s Moby Dick


Post a Comment

<< Home