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Monday, August 29, 2005

Harmless History

Posted by Sean McCann on 08/29/05 at 03:59 PM

I think the first time The Plot against America came up here at the Valve was in a comment responding to Scott’s intriguing “Crypto-Communist Conflagration” post.  Scott’s point, if I understood it correctly, was that the genre of “alternative history” fiction, like some versions of marxisant cultural politics, manages both to repudiate and mimic the great man theory of history because it sometimes imagines that single consequential actions can utterly alter the course of events.  In response, Prof. Synecdoche pointed to Roth’s novel as an alternate history especially true to the form.  It has in Lindbergh a great man of a sort (and perhaps other, morally as opposed to historically, great men as well), and by leading the U.S. toward fascism, he dramatically reshapes the destiny of the nation. 

Except he doesn’t really.  (Warning: spoilers below fold.)

In dreaming up a Lindbergh administration, Roth imagines two years (November 1940-October 1942) of disastrous counterhistory.  The U.S. signs a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and recognizes the fascist regime; antisemitism is encouraged by the state and flourishes, culminating in a terrifying, national pogrom; a brutal, federal relocation plan, on the model of Stalin’s treatment of national minorities is created (though one ostensibly voluntary, in the American tradition); dissent is harassed and punished. 

But then, President Lindbergh mysteriously disappears Earhart-style.  And after a failed coup attempt by Lindbergh’s Vice President (the real-life populist and America First senator from Montana, Burton Wheeler), history returns more or less to the course we know.  Pearl Harbor is delayed by a year, to December ’42.  But the U.S. enters the war as in actual history, and the allies eventually defeat the Axis powers.  FDR regains the presidency in a 1944 landslide.  And, as a presidential candidate, RFK is assassinated in ‘68.  Presumably, everything after 1942 or so takes place in Roth’s parallel universe just as it has in actual history.  The only lasting effect of the Lindbergh administration noted by our narrator “Philip Roth” is the psychic one experienced by himself—and presumably by other victims of the wave of violent antisemitism.  Lindbergh robs the young narrator of his childhood security and creates the fear that, in the novel’s striking (and, I think, purposely melodramatic) opening line, “presides over these memories.”

It would be too much to say that, like poetry, Lindbergh makes nothing happen.  In the world imagined by Roth he makes an awful lot of awful things happen, and by taking relatively few concrete steps.  If you’re the president, it seems, slight encouragement and a few policy innovations are enough to sew sow chaos and create misery.  But, on the other hand, The Plot Against America seems to be a bad alternate history by Scott’s terms since the long term consequences of a two year Lindbergh regime appear to be small.  Roth is curiously interested, in other words, in seeing Lindbergh’s prominence as both terrible and ephemeral.

Why so?  I think there are several, related reasons.

The most prominent of these seems to me inextricable from the book’s most impressive achievement—which is not quite the darker fantasy that makes a homegrown American fascism seem utterly convincing.  To my mind, the most impressive and moving aspect of the book is the way it flawlessly brings together the retrospective view of a mature narrator with the experiences and attitudes of a boy between the ages of seven and nine.  We see everything in this novel through the narrator’s fully sympathetic identification with the widened eyes of his childish self.  Hence, the opening line.  It captures not just the atmosphere of fear, which Roth surely wants to show us is infectious and awful, but the intensely sensitive awareness of the sheltered child.  Like almost every character in the novel, too, we’re encouraged to share the adult narrator’s experience and to become intoxicated by fear and to become aware of the security we may take for granted.

One of the wonderful effects of this method is the way it allows Roth to render virtuoso depictions of the quotidian stuff of childhood and to endow it with pathos because it’s all shadowed by doom.  In recent years, of course, Roth has been doing a lot of this kind of thing—giving us intensely nostalgic memories of his Weequahic childhood that are preserved from bathos mainly by Roth’s formal sophistication and by his newly classical diction.  Here, Roth ramps things up in a manner consistent with his narrator’s emotional state.  It’s not merely that the sixties will destroy the lower middle-class idyll of the white ethnic, as in American Pastoral.  Now, it’s political terror that enables Roth to relish the banal details of the forgotten everyday and to rescue them from kitsch.  There’s one amazing set-piece after the next in this novel, but I think my favorite touch was a long passage in which the narrator recalls locking himself in a neighbor’s bathroom and recounts his growing fear along with the patient steps the neighbor, Mrs. Wishnow, takes in negotiating him out.  (I’d quote it in its entirety, but this trivial event goes on for a gripping three pages.) It’s an utterly commonplace childhood event that is both comic and moving, but given gravity only by the imagined political context and by our knowledge that Mrs. Wishnow is doomed.  As a child, of course, the young Roth can understand almost nothing of this.  He has the complete self-absorption and dependence of the young.  One of the great things about the book is the way Roth the narrator gets us to share that condition.

To the extent there’s a political message in the novel, I think it’s consistent with the book’s almost complete confinement to the child’s perspective.  The point, in other words, isn’t so much that fascism is brewing in the heartland but that when they are afraid people become childish and yearn for authoritative leadership.  One interesting touch is that our narrator sometimes expands his hostility to Lindbergh to a general wariness of democratic leadership.  On a trip to Washington, D.C. (another childhood ritual recast in the light of terror), young Philip has a sublime encounter with the Lincoln monument: “What ordinarily passed for great just paled away, and there was no defense, for either an adult or a child, against the solemn atmosphere of that hyperbole” (63).  Similarly, the novel begins with an adulatory memory of FDR who “not only calmed our anxiety but bestowed on our family a historical significance, authoritatively merging our lives with his as well as with that of his entire nation. . . .  [His] voice alone conveyed mastery over the tumult of human affairs” (28)

This is a textbook example of what (in the book I’m working on) I call presidentialism.  The interesting thing about it here is that the experience is set up to be falsified.  The assurance and the sense of national belonging FDR conveys is illusory.  The means of creating it is strikingly akin to the theatrical gestures of Lindbergh’s demagoguery. 

Roth substantiates his fear of demagoguery by contrasting presidential leadership to paternal guidance (another classic feature of the literature of presidentialism, by the way).  The whole novel is a love song to his parents—a way of resurrecting them from their graves, Roth wrote in the NYTimes Book review.  But, although Roth gives some fine moments to Bess Roth, it’s Herman Roth who is the clear hero of the novel, his ordinary care for his family rising in the moment of crisis to supreme grandeur.  (Merely to put it this way is to see how closely Roth skirts kitsch and how amazingly he avoids it.  This is the material of cheap thrillers: ordinary man become hero in defense of family.)

Throughout we’re asked to see Lindbergh and Herman Roth in comparison.  Lindbergh crosses the nation in the Spirit of St. Louis, for example, fabricating an image of heroism and the impression that he tends paternally to a grateful people.  In the novel’s climactic chapter, Herman Roth crosses half the U.S. at the height of Roth’s imagined pogrom in an epic automobile journey, doing so out of genuine paternal care for the orphaned son of Mrs. Wishnow.  The point, of course, is to contrast an authentic mundane heroism, motivated by familial and local care, to a false image of national democracy. 

Among the qualities shared by these two images of heroism is that they are both largely theatrical.  As is often said about the presidency, Lindbergh’s powers are imagined to lie mainly in his ability to shape public opinion through example, style, rhetoric, etc.  But Herman Roth’s heroism is likewise displayed largely in his commitment to maintaining a decent life for his family and in his effort to do so through the conscious projection of calm reassurance—just like his hero FDR, in other words.  Herman is but one of the many bravura performers that crowd not just this novel but the whole Roth oeuvre.  Here, even more than elsewhere, Roth imagines theatrical self-invention as a consequence of anti-semitism.  People whose lives are limited by usually unspoken prejudice are compelled to respond, he tells us, with outsize acts of self-assertion.  But it’s hard to avoid the sense that Roth is just fascinated by performance and invention in general (just as, I think, he sometimes suggests that the sense of homelessness experienced by the victims of anti-semitism is something we all, could we tolerate the awareness, would share). 

One way we see that fascination with performance is, of course, simply in the fact that Plot is an alternative history—and thus a bravura literary performance to match Herman Roth’s theatrical one.  Because it is one of Philip Roth’s “Philip Roth” novels, that performance is especially evident.  Like all of the “Philip Roth” novels, in other words, Plot asks us to take note of the fact that it is (in this case, an increasingly outlandish) fabrication.  In effect, it doesn’t just say, “Let’s imagine that history had turned out differently,” but something like: “Watch me as I imagine an alternative history.” Likewise, it doesn’t just say, “Revere my father along with me as I rediscover virtues in him I’d forgotten,” but rather, “take note of the way in which I need to invent an extraordinary fantasy so that I can fully grasp the pathos of his ordinary heroism.”

There’s much to be said about this, of course, but for now let me just throw out the suggestion that the underlying contrast is between the poetry of the president and the poetry of the novelist.  One is false and manipulative and conceals its invention, the other is reverent and authentic and displays its fictiveness.  Interestingly, for all the ways Roth’s recent fiction appears to depart from his scandalous past, this is a tale that, along with the filial piety, Roth has been recounting for a long time.  His famous 1961 essay “Writing American Fiction”—the one where he worried about “actuality . . . continually outdoing our talents”--makes heavy weather out of the horror created in the young writer by the Kennedy-Nixon debates.  They are an occasion for “professional envy” and for the conviction that he does not share the country created by pop cultural manipulation.  The upshot is not just a sense of estrangement, but of passivity.  Quoting Benjamin DeMott, Roth bemoans the way mass-mediated reality creates the sense that “events and individuals are unreal, and that power to alter the course of the age, of my life and your life, is actually vested nowhere.” In response, the young writer naturally turns to the powers of fiction:  “I found myself beginning to wish I had invented [the phenomenon of the presidential debate].  But then, of course, one need not have been a fiction writer to wish that someone had invented it, and that it was not real and with us.”

As in so much of the literature of Roth’s contemporaries, the fabulations of the writer are here contrasted to manipulative public fictions that less inventive audiences swallow wholesale.  Four decades later, Roth tells a markedly similar tale.  It fits with the striking, double-sided theory of history he advances midway through the novel:

As Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was was what we schoolchildren studied as ‘History,’ harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.  The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

This, too, is a theory Roth has recounted elsewhere.  As I hope to explain in a follow-up post, there is something profoundly dubious and unsatisfying about the understanding of history it suggests: a series of unpredictable disasters naturalized in retrospect into harmless stories.  And it leads to an interesting set of ethical complications—most importantly, the widely shared suggestion that to the extent we share in public fantasies we render ourselves the childish subjects of demagogic leaders, a peril avoided only by the truly creative.  (In this particular novel that understanding operates through the contrast between the narrator and his brother Sandy, whose mimetic gifts as an illustrator do not encourage him to perceive the evils of the Lindbergh administration.)

But there’s no doubt that it creates an extraordinarily powerful novel here.  The implication, I think, is that alternative histories are fictions needed to remind us of the hazards of history and the responsibilities of autonomous judgment.  In a world whose default state is demagogic manipulation, only the outlandish can accomplish that goal. 

I hope to take all this up further in a post that will compare Roth’s literary theories to those of some of his contemporaries, but I’ve maundered on far too long already. 


"He has the complete self-absorption and dependence of the young.” Isn’t that really Roth’s own complete self-absorption and dependence that you’re seeing?  How many people could write a novel in which the entry of the U.S. into WW II is delayed and nothing happens as a result?  Does Roth mention, for instance, that there are no Holocaust survivors in his alternate history?

I haven’t read Roth’s book, and I’ve been trying to hold off on commenting on these posts as a result (other than making an extended recommendation for Norman Spinrad’s _The Iron Dream_ over on Scott’s blog).  But really, this seems like a novelistic version of Godwin’s Law.  When you bring Nazis in, there should be consequences.  They aren’t just an excuse for you to make vague comparisons with present-day politics or to indulge yourself in yet another reworking of your adolescent memories.  History implies events that affect large groups of people; reducing it to the personal history of the author is a trivialization.

Compare this with, say, the best alternate history novel yet written, Philip K. Dick’s _The Man in the High Castle_.  The use of multiple narrative characters to make it clear that this isn’t a personal story, the intrusion of an explicit device (the I Ching) that bridges both fatalistic and random theories of history, the authorial acknowledgement of the falsity of the fictional world coupled with an understanding of how bad historical events might really have become—having Roth use the same material as a “love song to his parents” may avoid kitsch (I’ll take your word for it) but still seems unavoidably petty, as if his parents aren’t interesting enough without strangely ineffectual Nazis lurking in the background.

By on 08/29/05 at 07:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Isn’t that really Roth’s own complete self-absorption and dependence that you’re seeing?

To be honest, Rich, I don’t really know.  One of the things I was trying to say, but probably didn’t put clearly enough, is that I do suspect that Roth has a theory of history (expressed pretty directly in the block quote above) to go along with his theory of fiction and that, yes, it’s a shallow one.  But I don’t know how much to make of that judgment for a couple of reasons.  Roth’s intimidating intelligence and subtlety would be one.  Another is the unlikely thought that good art made out of narcissism is still good art. And Roth is certainly a virtuoso of narcissism.  But also, I think it’s certainly the case here, as in other Roth novels, that we’re asked to take note of the narrator’s (and perhaps writer’s) self-absorption and emotional hunger.  More generally, the trivialization of history, and of other people’s suffering, is most definitely a subject of the novel. But that does mean that almost anything out of the range of the narrator’s immediate personal concern (even though he writes as an adult of advanced age) appears mainly via indirection--especially, e.g., what’s happening in Europe and Asia.  One of the interesting touches of the novel, in fact, is the way it shows that both great leaders and world historical events can create a sense of connection between individuals and a larger world (all of the children in the book follow public events and are aware of war in Europe) that nevertheless remains narrowly personal. 

Even within the range of purely personal concern, I think one of Roth’s main subjects is his inability to get clear about his parents.  (They fuck you up.) And in this light I think he wants us to note the lengths he must go to in order to see the heroism of the everyday--and perhaps to be aware of the way that almost inevitably becomes narcissistic.  It’s as if, in something like Portnoy he can have one kind of judgment of his parents, but that’s distorted by anger, etc., and that here he can have another, but it’s distorted by sentimentality--even though both are themselves (I think) strikingly vivid and not the false pictures of kitsch.  In other words, I think he wants to separate our awareness of kitsch from our awareness of partiality. 

But then again this might all be overcomplication.  There’s no doubt though that he tells a ripping good yarn.  I haven’t read PKD’s High Castle, but on your recommendation certainly will.

By on 08/30/05 at 07:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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