Knowing and Not Knowing the Global American Berserk

by Mark Chmiel

Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997

…the angry, rebarbative  spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were  fugitive—initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into  everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk. [86]


History is a nightmare I am trying to protect my family from.  No, I don’t even know history, I don’t even know about Vietnam, superficially, yes, as long as it doesn’t trouble me.”  But it troubled Seymour Levov’s teen-age daughter Merry to the point where she became an activist and a terrorist, blowing up a post office and country store, killing a doctor.  This act– “A bomb tells the whole fucking story”—changes the cozy and bourgeois life of Swede and Dawn Levov forever.  They both go on to have affairs, Dawn has a face-lift and wants to forget, naturally, it’s hard waking up to the thought that you gave birth to a murderer; Swede cannot forget, and this book is Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman’s imaginative and sympathetic rendering/account of what their lives must have been like.  Early on, then, Zuckerman as character fades away and is replaced by a strong narrator, omniscient and wondering still, how could the Swede—all-American, fortune-blessed—end up this way. Hence the last lines of the book:

Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life!

And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs? 

And what is America?  This Jewish couple  had it made (Podhoretz’s Making It) and then their kids in the 60s go crazy.  Why?  Why? Is the big question in the book. How could sweet Merry, who had every advantage, coming from such good parents, become this monster?  But then, Merry wasn’t so wrong, was she? I couldn’t help but think as I read Roth of the siege of Fallujah.  Here’s what Chomsky recently had to say about it in an interview:

But what was dramatic about Fallujah was that it was not kept secret. So you could see on the front page of the New York Times, a big picture of the first major…step in the offensive, namely the capture of the Fallujah general hospital. And there’s a picture of people lying on the ground, soldier guarding them, and then there’s a story that tells that patients and doctors were taken from — patients were taken from their beds, patients and doctors were forced to lie on the floor and manacled, under guard, and the picture described it.

The president of the United States is subject to death penalty under US law for that crime – alone. I mean that’s a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions, Geneva Conventions say explicitly and unambiguously that hospitals must be protected, hospitals and medical staff and patients must be protected by all combatants in any conflict. You couldn’t have a more grave breach of the Geneva Conventions than that. 

There’s a War Crimes Act in the United States passed by a Republican Congress in 1996, which says that grave breaches of the Geneva Convention are subject to the death penalty. And that doesn’t mean the soldier that committed them, that means the commanders. They weren’t thinking about the United States of course, but take it literally, that’s what it means.

And then they went onto explain why they carried out this war crime in the general hospital. New York Times explained calmly that it was done because the US command described the Fallujah general hospital as a propaganda outlet for the guerrillas because they were reporting casualties. I  don’t know if the Nazis produced things like that. Of course the Times said it was “inflated” casualties – how do we know it was inflated? …

Nobody will be allowed into Fallujah until they undergo retinal scans and fingerprinting and they’re going to be marked and identified, do everything except put chips in them, maybe they’ll get to that next time, organize them into work gangs, in which they’ll be compelled under the order to rebuild what the US has destroyed. Try and find a counterpart to that. And that’s just one war crime, one part of the general atrocities.

In fact, you could argue that it’s insignificant. By the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, which the US initiated and carried out, it concluded that the supreme international crime is invasion, aggression, and that supreme crime includes within it all the evil that follows. So therefore the doubling of malnutrition rates, the maybe 100,000 casualties, the grave war crimes in Fallujah, they’re all footnotes, they’re footnotes to the supreme international crime. 

And that crime is taken pretty seriously. In Nuremberg they did not try soldiers, and they didn’t try company commanders, they tried the – the people who were on trial and hanged – were the top command. Like the German Foreign Minister was hanged. Because of participation in the supreme international crime which encompasses all the evil that follows. Do we hear anything about that? 

So, a little historical comparison:  the Levovs of Old Rimrock are just going along, business is still good, even Swede is against the war, how magnanimous and liberal (and his father naturally hates Nixon) … and we’re going along, good teaching at SLU, fine students, and Fallujah is destroyed—at least Andrew Wimmer gets worked up about this, he is troubled, exercised, crazed sometimes at what the US will do—but it’s not going to trouble us at Thanksgiving, our great American pastoral, or Christmas, our perfect American consumer frenzy, no, we compartmentalize it, just as we do the tsunami in Asia, 110,000+ dead.  

Now, let’s hear from the monster, the crazed daughter Merry, before she commits an immoral and stupid act:

Merry:  “Oh, I know your responsibility is not to the war—that’s why I have to go to New York. B-b-b-because people there do feel responsible. They feel responsible when America is b-blowing little b-babies to b-b-b-bits. B-but you don’t, and neither does Mother. You don’t care enough to let it upset a single day of yours. You don’t care enough to make you spend another night somewhere. You don’t stay up at night worrying about it. You don’t really care, Daddy, one way or the other.” [107]

Merry:  “No, I think extreme is to continue going on with life as usual when this kind of craziness is going on, when people are b-being exploited left, right and center, and you can just go on and get into your suit and tie every day and go to work. As if nothing is happening. That is extreme. That is extreme s-s-s-stupidity, that is what that is.” [111]

Swede and Rita Cohen: “She’s my daughter. Somebody is dead. My daughter is being accused of murder.”

“You’re really stuck on that, aren’t you? Do you know how many Vietnamese have been killed in the few minutes we’ve had the luxury to talk about whether or not Dawnie loves her daughter? It’s all relative, Swede. Death is all relative.”  [138-139]

Zuckerman wonders  about how this evil could seep into such all-American lives (“Three generations. All of the growing. The working. The saving. The success. Three generations in raptures over America. Three generations of becoming one with a people. And now with the fourth it had all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world.”  [237] While he imagines the thoughts of Merry and Rita, he dismisses them, makes them sound like irrational, immature, lunatic ranters, incapable of being taken seriously. Wake up, Nate:  you  and the Levovs are the kind of people who were shocked that anyone could dare wish us harm on 9.11.2001, because we are America the beautiful, good, righteous, and true.

But then maybe Roth is just using full-fledged irony here; Zuckerman isn’t his mouth-piece, because I recall in an interview Roth was debunking the whole notion of US innocence, what with our original sins of genocide and slavery.   He knows his history, but perhaps his Zuckerman doesn’t, or he’s forgotten, focusing his life on his writing since The Ghost Writer,  or getting involved with or extricated from any number of desirable, difficult women.

For a minute I imagine that Zuckerman could take a look at, not the indigenous American berserk, but the external one we impose all over the planet, as with Vietnam then and Fallujah now, the berserk that is a war crime, product of systematic U.S. policy, that so many devoted suburban American intellectuals and pundits labor mightily to insure the rest of us don’t recognize these as crimes.  No, let us be distracted with our indigenous berserk of  what Zuckerman observes: “It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn’t wait to dispose their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup.” [329]

Sure, everybody is at the mercy of something.  Ask the people of Fallujah, the victims of America the merciless.

— 30 December 2004