Philip Roth’s recent books have dealt with death, dying and the “massacre” of growing old. They include The Dying Animal, recently made into the movie Elegy, Everyman and Exit Ghost. His latest, Indignation, is the tale of a young college student. How odd I thought. Why is Philip writing about the experiences of a young man growing up, yes, in Newark who tries to emerge from his, yes, Jewish family, by heading off, yes, against his father’s wishes, to a second rate college far from home? While I bought the book and had read a few reviews, I wasn’t at all certain I would get past page 10. How wrong I was!
As usual Roth writes forcefully, energetically and makes this rather mundane and oft repeated tale, far more than interesting. However, it took me a while to figure out what he was getting at. It was only when I reviewed the passages I made note of that the theme of Indignation made itself known to me.
The majority in my collection revealed that once again Roth is confronting the never ending battle between feelings and conscience, between doing what you’d like and doing what is right, between what in olden times used to be called the id and the superego. These are battles that are not confined to the young. How often have I confronted this conflict! How often everyone has and that surely includes the aging but no less vigorous Philip Roth. Here are a few of the sentences that I copied from this rather slim volume.
That’s what I learned from my father and what I loved learning from him: that you do what you have to do.
I was always working on myself. I was always pursuing a goal.
Is that what eternity is for, to much over a lifetime’s minutiae?
Or is it something long buried that has come to the surface?
…endure what is and make it work.
…a conscience that can be your enemy
…other people’s weakness can destroy you just as much as their strength can. Weak people are not harmless. Their weakness can be their strength.
You be greater than your feelings.
Feelings can be life’s biggest problem. Feelings can play the most terrible tricks.
…who deserts a goddess because his mother tells him to?
…rectitude tyrannizing my life.
The urge to be heard, and nobody to hear me!
To provoke no response no matter how painstaking the attempt to unravel and to be revealed. All minds gone except my own. No response. Profoundly sad.
…the incomprehensible way one’s most banal incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.