Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Training and Vision: Roth, DeLillo, Banks, Peck, and the Postmodern Aesthetics of Vocation

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Training and Vision: Roth, DeLillo, Banks, Peck, and the Postmodern Aesthetics of Vocation

Article excerpt

    What is hastily called deconstruction as such is never a technical
    set of discursive procedures, still less a new hermeneutic method
    operating on archives or utterances in the shelter of a given and
    stable institution; it is also, and at the least, the taking of a
    position, in work itself, toward the politico-institutional
    structures that constitute and regulate our practice, our
    competencies, and our performances.
    --Jacques Derrida ("Mochlos" 22-23)

    What distinguishes thought is that it is something quite different
    from the set of representations that underlies a certain behavior;
    it is also something quite different from the domain of attitudes
    that can determine this behavior.... Thought is freedom in relation
    to what one does.
    --Michel Foucault (388)

    In my life I have had, in total, a couple of months of these
    completely wonderful days as a writer, and that is enough.... You
    know, it's a choice to be occupied with literature, like everything
    else is a choice.
    --Philip Roth (qtd. in Krasnick)

In his afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of Portnoy's Complaint, Philip Roth provides no commentary on his celebrated novel, taking the opportunity instead to craft an ingenious fable about the origins of his literary career. While the brief essay at first appears to offer a realistic account of the trials of a poor young writer, discharged from the army and teaching freshman composition at the University of Chicago in 1956, it concludes with a gnomic leap into literary fancy. In the first mode, Roth describes himself as an ambitious young man who, determined to "manufacture a future" ("something more humanely exciting than a De Soto hardtop or a Westinghouse washer-dryer" [278]), discovers instead "just how little one has to do with calling the shots that determined the ways in which a life develops" (279). Confronted, as a veteran and as a grader of freshman papers, with the "counterpressure of the limitless Anti-You," the young Roth learns that "orderly expectations and a rational outlook are ... a fantasy"--a discovery that coincides with the aspiring writer's realization that his fledgling efforts "were not dazzling, they were derivative" (282). And although he is determined by sheer dint of will to turn himself into a great artist ("I looked in the mirror above the bathroom sink and said aloud to my reflection, 'All you have to do is sit down and work!'"), the effort proves unsuccessful.

But then, in the second mode, Roth describes a miraculous antidote to that painful education. At a local cafeteria, "where about as many working people as university people were dinnertime regulars" (283), the young writer discovers a typewritten sheet of some nineteen unrelated sentences. For example:

    The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glass. Dear
    Gabe, The drugs help me bend my fingers around a pen. Not to be
    rich, not to be famous, not to be mighty, not even to be happy, but
    to be civilized--that was the dream of his life.

And so on. The young writer takes the paper to be "the work of a neighborhood avant-gardist" (284). But it is only after considering the document for some time, Roth writes, that the younger version of himself discovered "what surely would have been obvious at the outset to anyone less well trained--or perhaps less poorly trained--in the art of thinking than I was back then":

    I saw that these sentences, as written, had nothing to do with one
    another. I saw that if ever a unifying principle were to be
    discernible in the paragraph it would have to be imposed from
    without rather than unearthed from within.
      What I eventually discovered was that these were the first lines
    of the books that it had fallen to me to
    write. (288; Roth's emphasis)

What the avant-gardist teaches the fiction writer, in short, is both the foolishness of the desire--a desire molded by the university as much as by the army--"to rationalize the irrational" (288) and the consequent opportunity to impose his individual purposes on "the workings of pure chance" (286). …

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