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On the Moral Brink


by Philip Roth
Houghton Mifflin, 280 pp., $26.00
Nancy Crampton
Philip Roth in New York City with an old map of Newark, 2007

Between 1894 and 1952 the United States suffered a series of epidemic outbreaks of poliomyelitis. The worst of these, in 1916, claimed six thousand lives. For another forty years polio would remain a substantial threat to public health. The development of a vaccine changed all that: by 1994 the disease had been eradicated not only in the United States but in the whole Western Hemisphere.

Polio has been around for millennia as a contagious viral disease. Before the twentieth century it was an endemic infection of early childhood, causing fever, headaches, and nausea, no worse. In only a tiny minority of cases did it assume full-blown form and attack the nervous system, leading to paralysis or even death.

The mutation of polio into a serious disease can be blamed on improved standards of hygiene. The polio virus is passed on via human feces (the virus breeds in the small intestine). A regime of hand-washing, regular baths, and clean underwear cuts down transmission. The catch is that clean habits rob communities of resistance to the virus; and when nonresistant older children and adults contract the disease, it tends to take an extreme form. Thus the very measures that subdued diseases like cholera, typhus, tuberculosis, and diphtheria made poliomyelitis a threat to life.

The paradox that while strict hygiene lessens the risk to individuals, it weakens resistance and turns the disease lethal, was not widely grasped in the heyday of polio. In afflicted communities, eruptions of polio would trigger parallel and no less morbid eruptions of anxiety, despair, and misdirected rage.

The psychopathology of populations under attack by diseases whose transmission is ill understood was explored by Daniel Defoe in his Journal of the Plague Year, which pretends to be the journal of a survivor of the bubonic plague that decimated London in 1665. Defoe records all the moves typical of plague communities: superstitious attention to signs and symptoms; vulnerability to rumor; the stigmatization and isolation (quarantining) of suspect families and groups; the scapegoating of the poor and the homeless; the extermination of whole classes of suddenly abhorred animals (dogs, cats, pigs); the fragmenting of the city into healthy and sick zones, with aggressive policing of boundaries; flight from the diseased center, never mind that contagion might thereby be spread far and wide; and rampant mistrust of all by all, amounting to a general collapse of social bonds.

Albert Camus knew Defoe’s Journal: in his novel The Plague (La Peste), written during the war years, he quotes from it and generally imitates the matter-of-fact tone of Defoe’s narrator toward the catastrophe unfolding around him. Nominally about an outbreak of bubonic plague in an Algerian city, The Plague also invites a reading as being about what the French called “the brown plague” of the German occupation, and more generally as about the ease with which a community can be infected by a bacillus-like ideology. It concludes with a sober warning:

The plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good;…it can bide its time for decades, slumbering in furniture and linen;…it waits patiently in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, handkerchiefs, old papers;…perhaps the day will come when, for the affliction and instruction of humankind, the plague will rouse up its rats again and send them out to die in a happy city.

In a 2008 interview, Philip Roth mentioned that he had been rereading The Plague. Now he has published Nemesis, set in Newark in the polio summer of 1944 (19,000 cases nationwide), thereby placing himself in a line of writers who have used the plague condition to explore the resolve of human beings and the durability of their institutions under attack by an invisible, inscrutable, and deadly force. In this respect—as Defoe, Camus, and Roth are aware—the plague condition is simply a heightened state of the condition of being mortal.

Eugene “Bucky” Cantor is a physical education instructor at a public school. Because of poor eyesight he has been exempted from the draft. He is ashamed of his good fortune and tries to pay for it by giving the children in his charge every care and attention. In return the children adore him, particularly the boys.

Bucky is twenty-three years old, levelheaded, dutiful, and scrupulously honest. Though not an intellectual, he thinks about things. He is a Jew, but an indifferent practitioner of his religion.

Polio breaks out in Newark and is soon sweeping through the Jewish section. Amid the general panic Bucky stays calm. Convinced that what children need in time of crisis is stability, he organizes a sports program for the boys and continues to run it against the doubts of the community, even when some of the boys begin to sicken and die. To set an example of human solidarity in the face of the plague, he openly shakes hands with the local simpleton, who is shunned by the boys as a carrier. (“Smell him!… He has shit all over him!… He’s the one who’s carrying the polio!”) In private Bucky rails against the “lunatic cruelty” of a God who kills innocent children.
Bucky has a girlfriend, Marcia, also a teacher, who is away helping run a summer camp in the mountains of Pennsylvania. Marcia puts pressure on Bucky to flee the infected city and join her in her haven. He resists. On the home front as much as in Normandy or the Pacific, he feels, these are extraordinary times calling for extraordinary sacrifice. Nonetheless, one day his principles inexplicably collapse. Yes, he says, he will come to her; he will abandon his boys and save himself. “How could he have done what he’d just done?” he asks himself the moment he hangs up. He has no answer.

Nemesis is an artfully constructed, suspenseful novel with a cunning twist toward the end. Generally, a reviewer will try not to spoil the impact of a book by giving away its proper secrets. But I see no way of exploring Nemesis further without breaking this rule. The secret is that Bucky Cantor carries the polio virus. More specifically, he is that statistically rare creature, a healthy infected carrier. The boys in Bucky’s care who sickened and died may well have been infected by him; the man whose hand he shook may be doomed. Furthermore, when Bucky flees the plague-ridden city he will be bearing the plague into an idyllic retreat where a party of innocents believe they are safe.

The rest of the tale of Bucky is quickly told. Shortly after his arrival at the camp, polio erupts there. Bucky has himself tested and the terrible truth emerges. He himself then succumbs. After treatment he is discharged from the hospital a cripple. Marcia still wants to marry him but he refuses, preferring bitter isolation. Marcia speaks:

You’re always holding yourself accountable when you’re not. Either it’s terrible God who is accountable, or it’s terrible Bucky Cantor who is accountable, when in fact, accountability belongs to neither. Your attitude toward God—it’s juvenile, it’s just plain silly.”

Look [Bucky replies], your God is not to my liking, so don’t bring Him into the picture. He’s too mean for me. He spends too much time killing children.”

And that is nonsense too! Just because you got polio doesn’t give you the right to say ridiculous things. You have no idea what God is! No one does or can!

God is not accountable because God is above accountability, above mere human reckoning. Marcia echoes the God of the Book of Job, and the scorn expressed there for the puniness of the human intellect. (“Canst thou by searching find out God?”) But Roth’s novel evokes a Greek context more explicitly than it does a biblical one. The title Nemesis frames the interrogation of cosmic justice in Greek terms; and the plot pivots on the same dramatic irony as in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex: a leader in the fight against the plague is unbeknown to himself a bringer of the plague.

What exactly is Nemesis (or nemesis, the abstract noun)? Nemesis (the noun) exactly translates the Latin word indignatio, from which we get English “indignation”; and Indignation happens to be the title of a book Roth published in 2008 (the plot thickens), a book that, together with Everyman (2006), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis, belongs to a subgroup of his oeuvre that Roth calls “Nemeses: Short Novels.”

Indignatio and nemesis are words of complex meaning: they refer to both unbefitting (unjust) actions and feelings of (just) anger at such actions. Behind nemesis (via the verb nemo, to distribute) lies the idea of fortune, good or bad, and how fortune is dealt out in the universe. Nemesis (the goddess, the cosmic force) sees to it that those who prosper beyond what is fitting are humbled. Thus Oedipus, conqueror of the Sphinx and great king, leaves Thebes a blind beggar. Thus Bucky Cantor, admired athlete—the most lyrical pages of Nemesis celebrate his prowess as a javelin thrower—ends up a cripple behind a desk in the post office.

Since he wittingly did no wrong, Oedipus is not a criminal. Nevertheless, his actions—parricide, incest—pollute him and pollute whatever he touches. He must leave the city. “No man but I can bear my evil doom,” he says (David Grene’s translation). Bucky has likewise committed no crime. Yet even more literally than Oedipus, he is polluted. He too accepts his guilt and, in his own manner, takes the lonely road of exile.

At the core of the Oedipus fable, and of the archaic Greek worldview enshrined in it, lies a question foreign to the modern, post-tragic imagination. How does the logic of justice work when vast universal forces intersect the trajectories of individual human lives? In particular, what is to be learned from the fate of a man who unwittingly carried out the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, a man who did not see until he was blind?

To respond that for one man to unwittingly (“by accident”) kill his own father and then unwittingly (“by chance”) marry his own mother is so statistically rare a sequence of events—even rarer than bearing the plague while seeming healthy—that it can hold no general lesson, or, to put it another way, that the laws of the universe are probabilistic in nature, not to be disconfirmed by a single aberrant individual case—to respond in this way would to Sophocles seem like evading the question. Such a man lived: his name was Oedipus. He experienced such a fate. How should his fate be understood?

Nemesis is not openly named by Sophocles, for which he doubtless had his reasons. Nevertheless, nemesis pervades Greek tragedy as a feared force presiding over human affairs, a force that redistributes fortune downward toward the middle or middling, and is in that sense mean, mean-minded: unkind, ungenerous, unrelenting. At one time all of Thebes envied Oedipus, says the chorus at the end of the play, yet look at him now! Greek tradition is full of cautionary tales of mortals who provoke the envy (nemesis) of the gods by being too beautiful or too happy or too fortunate, and are then made to suffer for it. The chorus, as an embodiment of received Theban opinion, is all too ready to package the story of Oedipus along these lines.

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