Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"That Butcher, Imagination": Arthur Koestler and the Bisociated Narration of Philip Roth's Indignation

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"That Butcher, Imagination": Arthur Koestler and the Bisociated Narration of Philip Roth's Indignation

Article excerpt

Philip Roth's Indignation (2008) presents a number of challenges for readers since narrator Marcus Messner has been butchered on a Korean battle field and is in a drug-induced reverie. What initially and misleadingly seems to progress from conventional retrospective narration to postmortem consciousness terminates, for Roth, in a narrative experiment that captures and projects the hallucinatory thoughts of an indignant young man as he lies dismembered on Massacre Hill.1 One must therefore reread the narrative to unravel, if possible, the sometimes outlandish complexity of what at first appears to be a logical flow of reminiscence. Thus begins the reader's sleuthing to relate the past and present dilemmas of Marcus Messner and to determine the consistency of a narrative voice that haphazardly, by necessity, reflects those varied fields of experience. At issue, as well, is the degree to which Roth could have created a narrator capable of articulating with authority ideas that might occur in the mind of somebody so completely beyond the perimeter of rational and contrived utterance. I propose that Arthur Koestler's Insight and Outlook (1949) and The Act of Creation (1964) develop ideas that help significantly to clarify Roth's narrative technique in Indignation.

The latter of these works by Koestler incorporates, and then significantly elaborates on, chapters from the former, while both volumes advance "an inclusive theory of ethics, esthetics, and creative thinking-to do for philosophy what Einstein attempted for physics in his 'unitary field theory.'"2 Helpful in clarifying the disoriented cognizance of Marcus Messner is Koestler's governing "concept of bisociation (dual association)." Koestler coined the term to describe "any mental occurrence simultaneously associated with two habitually incompatible contexts" (Insight 36-37).3 The resulting "synthesis between two fields, between hitherto unconnected aspects of the phenomenal world" (Insight 52), has been shown to figure significantly in Roth's short story "Eli, the Fanatic" (Duban, "Arthur Koestler") and may prove useful in apprehending otherwise evasive features of Marcus's imaginary post-mortem narration. Granted, Indignation is, as Roth has made clear in an interview, "about a decent, reasonable young man who gets thrust into a situation in which he's always having to defend his probity when he's done nothing wrong, and he feels a great sense of injustice in that" ("Interview: Part I"). Then there is Roth's claim that he wanted to capture the mores of college life in the 1950s, as well as the mood of the country during the Korean War ("Philip Roth interview: Part I 'Indignation'")-themes of intrinsic interest. Roth nonetheless admits to having waited for "the story to emerge" which he would then "plant [...] in that [...] historical moment" (Interview with Benjamin Taylor; cf. "Philip Roth on Writing"). He does so in such manner as to invite further attention to what scholarship has recognized as Roth's effort in Indignation "to push the envelope of narration" (Royal 130; cf. 136).4 What emerges is a sequence of trivial events terminating in tragedy, eerily advanced by a narrative voice aligned with philological and psychosomatic instances of bisociation documented by Koestler. Those occurrences, in turn, stand teasingly related to the name Marcus Messner, which, examined through a Koestlerian lens, evokes Roth's claim that the unfettered imagination of the creative writer is a "butcher" that "slits [... the] throat" of bare facts, "pulls forth the guts," and "then turns a dripping mass of eviscerated factuality back to the mind" ("That Butcher, Imagination").

Roth appears to be familiar with one of Koestler's most important chapters on bisociative thinking. Indeed, in his New York Review of Books essay about The Plot Against America (2004), Roth indirectly suggests as much by observing that Philip and Seldon, the children in the novel, "join the trivial to the tragic" ("Story behind Plot" 11). …

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