Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Place of the “Aesthetic” in Zuckerman Unbound: Roth’s Conversation with Kierkegaard

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Place of the “Aesthetic” in Zuckerman Unbound: Roth’s Conversation with Kierkegaard

Article excerpt

Philip Roth's frequent references to other writers create links that expand the themes of each novel. The intertextual relationships are part of a larger history, which begins to be a universe in itself within its own aesthetic world.

One of these aesthetic worlds, which will be the focus of this article, is established through Roth's conversation with Kierkegaard in his novel Zuckerman Unbound (1981).1

In his introduction to Crisis in the Life of an Actress and Other Essays on Drama Kierkegaard's translator, Stephen Crites, reminds us of the meaning of the word "aesthetic" in ancient Greek, which will also be a useful starting point for us as we go deeper into Kierkegaard's and Roth's explorations of the term. Aesthetic, "in its most comprehensive sense, is derived from the Greek verb ... which means literally 'perceive,' 'apprehend by the senses,' 'learn,' 'understand,' 'observe'" (Kierkegaard, Crisis 21). The definition guides us to see how, according to Kierkegaard, in each novel we experience what is apprehended by the senses and what is perceived most of the time by the characters so that this experience can be transferred to the readers. In addition, novels have atmosphere, musicality, and rhythm, and this is why, in Kierkegaard's reading of literature, all novels can be considered "aesthetic." The importance of such moods, perceptions, and constant observations will later explain why Kierkegaard defines some of his own writings as aesthetic- even if "aesthetic" in his world has multiple significations that are still debated among Kierkegaard scholars today.2

The idea of a larger aesthetic world made by the connections between the authors and their works and the works to which they allude can be linked to what Ross Posnock calls Roth's cosmopolitanism. Posnock explains this epithet when he writes that, as the "Greek for 'world citizen' [it] is rarely a neutral term and often pejorative because it usually involves a refusal to revere local or national authority and a desire to uphold multiple affiliations" (6). In his view, Roth is better understood in an international context (3), and he points out: "The main effort of [Philip Roth's Rude Truth] is to construct these overlapping frames of reference, using them as a resource for literary criticism of the fiction, and making vivid Roth's creative engagement with a rich lineage of intellectual history" (3). Posnock argues that this cosmopolitanism evades fixed identities (4), a point with which I would agree.

Taking the lead from Posnock, this essay considers the "overlapping frames of reference" in a careful reading of one connection, the conversation that Roth undertakes with Kierkegaard in Zuckerman Unbound. In so doing, it will reveal "the rich lineage of intellectual history" carried forward by Kierkegaard and continued by Roth. One of the main focuses of Kierkegaard's work is how singularity is created and how one can live with oneself by oneself.3 To achieve this purpose, according to the Danish philosopher, one has to be free of a fixed mind, a state of being that Roth seems to achieve via his very conversation with Kierkegaard.

However, Roth's aesthetic bounds can also be seen in his books in terms of what Pia Masiero, in Philip Roth and the Zuckerman Books, calls a storyworld. Here she explores the possibilities of reading that Roth's novels offer to readers. Consequently, this article focuses on this storyworld and pays particular attention to the effect of reading on the reader. This ambitious and ambivalent story, which is created both by the readers and by Zuckerman, is also an aesthetic world within itself.

As Masiero describes the playful relationship that Roth has with Zuckerman, "Roth projects onto his favorite alter ego the burdens and pleasure of authorship; that is, of the actual making of fictional worlds to be engaged in and apprehended by an audience" (11). Later, she explains that Zuckerman typically "mirror[s] his being-crucially-an author whose work revolves around the deft blurring of boundaries between what is imagined and what is real through a careful handling of the order and presentation of the events. …

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