Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies


Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies


Article excerpt

I am called upon to dig into the urn to search in the ashes of death for the germ cell which once gave rise to a living creature.

-J. G. Herder, "Essay on a History of Lyrical Poetry"

The reader of Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997) might initially find its title misleading or ironic, insofar as the book is not really concerned with the "conventions" of pastoral literature or with transposition of the genre to American soil,1 but rather with the bursting or "detonation" of the order and totality those conventions would imply. The book is less about transposition than displacement, specifically of the hero, Seymour "The Swede" Levov, into his daughter's world, an America that is radically threatening to the one he knows. The narrator Nathan Zuckerman figures this experience as an "initiation" conducted by the daughter Meredith "Merry" Levov, terrorist and murderer of four, who brings her father

into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede's castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral-into the indigenous American berserk. (Pastoral 86)

The Swede is not merely displaced but brought into displacement; and once displaced into the American berserk, he can never be "placed back" into the American pastoral.

Among the many problems raised in American Pastoral is the question of origins: by what process did Merry become the "Rimrock Bomber"? Is there somewhere in the past a cause of the disaster around which a coherent narrative might be organized? Critics have found no shortage of answers, the most common of these focusing on the Swede's rejection of his Jewish heritage and conformity to mainstream norms, a commitment to assimilation that fatally obscures his true character . Making the Swede bear all responsibility for what transpires would seem reasonable enough, even if Zuckerman intimates at one point that the Swede's sense of responsibility for others was so great as to be "unnatural" (88). In any event, it is indeed hard to imagine how the decision to leave one tradition behind and to join another would not have some effect on one's life. Yet when such a choice is called upon to explain something as unpredictable as another person's recourse to terrorist activity, then one might also wonder if the matter is not in fact more complicated.

In the following pages I focus attention on the limits of causal explanations in American Pastoral. The Swede himself, of course, arrives at the conclusion that there is no cause, that every causal system invoked to put the disaster into a narrative can be put back into question. To this I would add that to reinscribe causality where it is absent is to rehearse the very quest undertaken by the Swede, who scans the wreckage of the past, against all odds, for the moment which signaled "some failure of his responsibility." If such a pursuit appears as utopian as, say, the search for the origins of poetry, which involves nothing less than locating a germ cell among the ashes of death (Herder 82), it may be because both hold out the hope of making sense of a past that can never be recovered without mediation.2 When the Swede thinks to himself that Jerry's answers come too easily (Jerry being the brother who "escapes the bewilderment by ranting") and concedes that "reasons" are a literary fantasy (Pastoral 281), he could just as well be speaking of those critics who explain away a predicament that resists explanation. The aim of this essay is to restore something of the urgency to the Swede's "self-examination" and to the indeterminacy of his own answers; it is, in a sense, an attempt to tarry with the negative. The essay argues that once the belief in an absent causality is taken seriously, once the question of origins is thought to be ultimately unanswerable, the implications for any attempt to narrate or explain the Swede's experience can no longer be ignored. …

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