30 March 2013

Disasters All

Again I return to Philip Roth. Would he were living next door rather than down on the shelves in my basement!
I consider these passages now from The Human Stain, the final volume of the American trilogy that began with American Pastoral and here concluded. Zuckerman is imagining Coleman and Faunia alone in Coleman’s house one lovely summer evening, “each of them protecting the other against everyone elseeach of them, to the other, comprising everyone else. There they dance, as likely as not unclothed, beyond the ordeal of the world, in an unearthly paradise of earthbound lust where their coupling is the drama into which they decant all the angry disappointment of their lives.” There they dance, naked, both savior and destroyer of each other. At this point of the narration Zuckerman knows that both Coleman and Faunia are dead, and he asks, “Who are they now?” And he responds: that in death they are the essence of singularity. Nothing affects them and they can affect nothing. They are beyond care and caring.
“Who are these drastically unalike people, so incongruously allied at seventy-one and thirty-four? They are the disasters to which they are enjoined.” That description stops my breathing. One meaning for the word ‘enjoin’ is “to join together.” In a related sense ‘enjoin’ can also mean “to attach oneself to.” Given the relationship that exists between Coleman and Faunia these definitions make sense: the relationship between Coleman and Faunia represents for each an attachment to something in the world that is actual and real. In the world filled with lies, deceptions and ignorances, to make anything more of their relationship is to render it false. “He’d said to her, ‘This is more than sex,’ and flatly she replied, ‘No, it’s not. You just forgot what sex is. This is sex. All by itself. Don’t fuck it up by pretending it’s something else.’” Coleman was looking for some transcendent meaning to their relationship and Faunia would know it only for its immediacy and physical reality.
I can accept this definition, of ‘enjoin’; however, the OED notes that this meaning of the word ‘enjoin’ is obsolete. I do not suspect that Roth had carelessly chosen the word ‘enjoined,’ because in this context its use is not customary. He must have searched for the perfect word.
The second definition for the word ‘enjoin’ is “to impose (a penalty, task-duty or obligation.” In contemporary terms the OED suggests that this definition of ‘enjoin’ means “to prescribe authoritatively and with emphasis (an action, a course of conduct, state of feeling, etc.).” In this sense of ‘enjoin,’ the relationship between Faunia and Coleman is somehow prescribed, mandated, authorized: but who, I wonder, has issued the order? And for what reason?
And a third definition of enjoin means “to prohibit, forbid a thing; to prohibit a person from a person or thing.” In this instance, the relationship of Coleman and Faunia is one comprised of two disastersand Zuckerman wonders what life isn’t in the end a disastera relationship to which they are forbidden but in which they engage nevertheless. Forbidden, I suspect because two disasters joined can lead to no good. That engagement will lead to their violent deaths. Why are lives disasters? And Zuckerman answers: “Because we don’t know, do? How what happens the way it does? What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs.” Any attempt, Zuckerman says, to assume knowledge renders experience banal and is mere platitude: like the statement ‘everything will be alright,” when in fact we just don’t know. “What we know is that, in an unclichéd way, nobody knows anything. You can’t know anything. The things you know you don’t know. Intention? Motive? Consequence? Meaning? All that we don’t know is astonishing. Even more astonishing is what passes for knowing.”
And so I look out this morning at what I don’t know and understand completely how I can only be a disaster because I act with very, very limited knowledge, and even what I believe I know is suspect. In our relationships we are the disasters to which we are enjoined.
Zuckerman, of course, has opted out, and that is one answer.


Anonymous Zuckerwoman said...

I find the visceral part of me responding to your post...especially the last paragraph. I want to understand how you can perceive yourself as a disaster yet still continue in this world! I haven't yet figured out how to do so.

31 March, 2013 21:19  

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