Sunday, December 6, 2009

Existialism (or lack thereof) in Roth

Aaah. At long last, something I know and understand: fiction. But of course, as per usual, a disclaimer: I’ve read other works from Phillip Roth in previous English classes, but by no means does that mean I possess some special insight into the meaning behind his words. I’ve analyzed his texts for their literary merit, not for their existentialist attitudes. But as before, I shall stride forward with accustomed blindness in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, I may stumble upon something spectacular.

In Roth’s “The Human Stain,” he employs the example of a man and woman having sex and states that the woman is neither having sex for the sake of having sex nor to attain physical pleasure, but rather because “it’s the right thing to do” (374). On this point, I’m completely and utterly confused. What qualifies having sex with one’s husband as intrinsically “right”? According to what principles? Does Roth attempt to claim that in any given situation, the expected or natural action that could occur in that situation is undeniably the “right” thing to do (but even on that premise, what distinguishes having sex as more “right” than sleeping or watching TV?), or is Roth simply being misogynistic? Quite honestly, I’m not entirely sure. My inner English major wants to gloss over the whole incident by claiming that Roth simply forgot to include the phrase “you think that” before “it’s the right thing to do” (that extra phrase would align this section of the metaphor with its later counterpart where he purports that if a man imagines in his mind that he’s with another woman, he is, in effect, with that other woman. Hence, one’s thoughts and convictions are what dictate the viability or “rightness” of a situation rather than what one actually does and who one does that action with).

However, the fact of the matter is that he did not include that phrase and though my inner English major may rally and protest, such an omission does raise an interesting and necessary question for this class: what, if anything, can be said to be undoubtedly “right” in existentialism? Throughout the semester, we’ve examined differing perspectives on how to live one’s life as put forth by various philosophers, but we’ve never established any baseline, any constructs that could act as general parameters for the field of existentialism. Even the claim by Jean-Paul Sartre – who’s commonly referred to as the father of existentialism – that “existentialism is a humanism” has been picked apart and argued against by his pupils and colleagues. If that’s the case, then perhaps it can be said that the number one rule in existentialism is that there are no rules, that there are no hard baselines against which to judge the viability of any action or situation. And that’s all well and good, but viewing the aforementioned excerpt from Roth through that premise begs the question: what qualifies Roth’s text as existentialist?

1 comment:

  1. I think Roth is invoking the attitude of Heideigger's Da-Sein. It is not that he believes, or his characters rather, believe that it is inherently right to have sex with one's husband/wife. It is just what the "They" tell us is the right thing to do. I.e., when you are married you have sex with your spouse. The woman (I think she is a janitor?) telling the story of the husband and wife, is completely against the idea of this being the "right" thing to do. Her argument, and the argument of Existentialism, is that we need to make our own meaning in life. This means that we cannot fall prey to the "They." Just because "They" say that you are supposed to have sex with your spouse, that it is the "right" thing to do, doesn't mean that it has to be the case. I think this is what Roth is getting at. This is what makes his text Existentialist.


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