Psychoanalysis may be passing from the scene of American intellectual life as a reliable index to human behavior, but not before making a permanent contribution to our common understanding of how fiction is to be read. Among the ideas to survive the demise of the system are ambivalence, overdetermination and the belief that all expressions of human desire save the most basic and biological express a collision, rather than a harmony, of motives. Certainly, without such concepts at hand we are disarmed before anything as complex as contemporary literature, and without doubt we are disarmed before a writer as nimble and as mercurial as Philip Roth, who has made of ambivalence not only an art but a theory of art, producing out of his arguments with himself a literature as richly conceived and intricately designed as any in America. No longer “case histories,” however, as they once seemed to be, his books have lately evolved into theaters of uncertainty in which characters perform dramatic charades of ambivalence that in the past might have been interpreted as “acting out.” The Counterlife (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987) is the most recent and most impressive of Roth’s late theatrical novels, all the more impressive, I’d like to say, for possessing at once a theatrical lightness and a historical gravity. An elegant novel, it performs an elaborate counterpoint between the inertia of history and the agility of the imagination, and would appear to be evidence, if such were needed, that it is possible for a novel to contradict itself repeatedly and turn out all the more convincing for its contradictions.
KeywordsEurope Bromide Tuberculosis Brittle Ghost
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