17 January 2012

Of Huts and Shacks

I am often enthralled by the insight into human behavior that Roth possesses. In I Married a Communist, a book I will talk about further and in the future, the young Zuckerman assumes the role of Sylphid’s date at a dinner party thrown by her mother, Eve Frame and her husband, Ira Ringold. The latter is the communist she married, and the book she writes is entitled I Married a Communist, but that is not Zuckerman’s book. This irony alone is remarkable, and reminds me of the complex structure of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: the title refers to both the final notebook and the novel itself  that contains all of the notebooks. Sylphid is Eve’s daughter by her second marriage and “the only way Sylphid could begin to feel at ease in her skin was by hating her mother and playing the harp.” Sylphid’s motives derive from her hate, but all of Eve’s actions must conform to Sylphid’s hatred.
Zuckerman is intrigued by Sylphid’s behavior, and says, “I’d had no idea how very tame and inhibited I was, how eager to please, until I saw how eager Sylphid was to antagonize, no idea how much freedom there was to enjoy once egoism unleashed itself from the restraint of social fear.” The OED says that egoism, in metaphysics, is the belief on the part of the individual that there is no proof that anything exists outside the mind. Zuckerman’s fear derives from the idea that everything exists outside the mind and is prepared to judge it. In ethics, egoism regards self-interest as the foundation of morality. For Zuckerman ethics is adhering to the behavioral norms set by others, or disregarding those norms at the cost of great guilt. Egoism, is opposed to ‘egotism,’ the latter a mere boastfulness or selfishness, a refusal to acknowledge anything outside of the self.
Freedom exists not in egotism; that is a kind of trap, I suppose, because here behavior is shut off and determined. Freedom exists in egoism, a belief that the world is my creation to do with as I wish; a belief that what is good for me is morally correct. The world remains open to my imagination. Sylphid’s egoism attracts Zuckerman because he has for his life been trapped in a morality organized by others, primarily his parents, their culture, and their dreams for him. And Sylphid’s egoism is placed in contrast to that of the ideal communist, Ira, who rails against the oppressor, advocates for social and political change, and spends his life, until he is blacklisted at the Red hearings, impersonating to the point of becoming Abraham Lincoln, the great Emancipator. For Ira, morality entails care for the worker, the poor and needy, or, in good Jewish terms, care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our midst. But Ira lives in the magnificent domicile of Eve Frame on 11th Street, and one gets the sense that his vocal advocacy derives in some part from his sense of privilege. Johnny O’Day would never approve.
You see, once engaged in the world we are beset by contradictions. Ira’s shack, to which he retreats when he feels too battered, like Zuckerman’s shack to which in his sixties he has now retreated, is “the place where you are stripped back to essentials, to which you return,even if it happens not be where you came fromto decontaminate and absolve yourself of the striving. The place where you disrobe, molt it all, the uniforms you’ve worn and the costumes you’ve gotten into, where you shed your batteredness and your resentment, your appeasement of the world and your defiance of the world, your manipulation of the world and its manhandling of you.  . .” I think this hut is my Walden, and it is also the theme of the first movement of the Symphony. This hut is where Ira retreats from Eve, from Sylphid . . . from the world.
The subtlety of Roth’s thinking attracts me, draws me into the book and I can reside there; the world is there but I am not in the world. The psychology is so interesting that I do not want to depart from the pages, and I have little trouble in my sleeplessness returning to Zuckerman’s narration.


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