“I object to having to attend chapel 40 times before I graduate in order to earn a degree, sir. I don’t see where the college has the right to force me to listen to a clergyman of whatever faith even once, or to listen to a Christian hymn invoking the Christian deity even once, given that I’m an atheist who is, to be truthful, deeply offended by the practices and beliefs of organized religion…I do not need the sermons of professional moralists to tell me how I should act. I certainly don’t need any God to tell me how. I am altogether capable of leading a moral existence without crediting beliefs that are impossible to substantiate and beyond credulity, that, to my mind, are nothing more than fairytales for children held by adults, and with no more foundation in fact than a belief in Santa Claus.”
Philip Roth, Indignation
I am witness to the entire lifecycle of Border’s bookstores. I patronized the original store in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I played piano once at a Border’s in the Chicago suburbs, when they were trying to create some sort of coffeehouse atmosphere. And now the chain is dead. By way of the final, everything-must-go sale, a copy of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel Indignation fell into my hands for a mere $3.99.
This slim, powerful book is, pardon the cliché, very hard to put down, partly because of all the gory and authentic detail, and especially if one has any degree of identification with Roth’s urban Jewish culture. It’s a book about how principle and religion conflict — and how principle wins, at horrible cost.
One of several subplots involves the central character Marcus Messner, who undoubtedly corresponds to one of Roth’s personas at one point in his life. The story begins, as Roth himself did, in gritty Newark, New Jersey, where the boy’s father and mother run the family kosher butcher shop.
Blood and guts
The elaborate descriptions of animal blood and guts have the same impact as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and no detail is spared. Every day the father’s apron is soiled with all manner of animal waste, flesh, and byproducts; blood is everywhere. We are told of chickens beheaded and then placed upside down so that their blood drains from a funnel-like device in a ghastly shower. Kosher ritual Jewish slaughter is described in detail. The animal must die instantly from a single slice to the throat, or it’s not kosher.
This is the atmosphere from which Marcus yearns to escape, especially since his father is becoming very, very over-protective of him. That’s why he leaves a local college to go to a WASP institution in Ohio, which he picked largely on the grounds of the beauty of the cover picture on the catalog. That’s the kind of world Marcus wanted to enter. He even bought himself an outfit from the College Shop, including white bucks.
What’s a lawyer?
And all he wanted to do was to get straight A’s and become a lawyer, even though he didn’t know quite what a lawyer is. It was certainly not a butcher. Butchery is a constant theme. All of the family’s sons were butchers. They all smoked. Marcus’ father coughed all the time. It was the early 1950’s, and people hadn’t yet learned the truth about the dangers of smoking.
What Marcus wants most of all is not to be drafted into the bloody, brutal Korean War. Again Roth supplies page-turning detail, including descriptions of how the Chinese troops would infiltrate American lines to signal their attack (with bugles!) and begin bayoneting and machine-gunning the cold, exhausted GIs in their sleep. It’s also noted that the Chinese held a decided edge in hand-to-hand combat. That’s horrible. What did the American military teach the GIs? Boxing?
As far as I’m concerned, every American death in that war – hell, every war death – is a life wasted. Imagine being 19 and 20 years old and dying in misery, shot or bayoneted to death in your sleep.
The Korean War was on a much smaller scale than World War II, but just as horrible, and the young man wants to avoid it at any cost. However, he has the misfortune to be at an (albeit moderately) Christian institution at which attendance at Chapel was required, 40 times during one’s four years there. At Brown, we had a similar requirement. The meetings were called convocations.
In Roth’s story, Chapel involved the singing of hymns, plus a Christian flavored uplifting talk, usually by a religious studies professor or sometimes an outside speaker.
Understandably, Marcus loathes this requirement and eventually locks horns with a major campus figure, a Men’s Dean who really believes in Christianity. There’s a long scene, including the excerpt at the top of this post, in which Marcus confronts the Dean with Bertrand Russell and his eloquent 1927 argument as to why he is not a Christian.
The Dean attacks Russell’s personal life (including his antiwar activities, which the Dean apparently does not agree with); Marcus recognizes the ad hominem technique and calls the Dean’s arguments worthless. He is a proud and articulate atheist. And that’s what gets him into trouble.
I do understand Marcus’ allergy to religion in any form. When my brother started saying Hebrew blessings at his son’s wedding, it’s as if my feet and legs carried me out of there before I knew what I was doing. I simply had to get away.
Like many other students, Marcus pays someone to sit in at Chapel for him, but his ruse is discovered.
Now Marcus’ hatred of religion has gotten him into in big trouble: “If he’d gone there the 40 times and signed his name the 40 times, he’d be alive today [the entire story is told from a posthumous perspective] and just retiring from practicing law. But he couldn’t! Couldn’t believe like a child in some stupid God! Couldn’t listen to their ass-kissing hymns! Couldn’t sit in their hallowed church! And the prayers, those shut eyed prayers – putrefied, primitive superstition! Our Folly, which art in Heaven!
“The disgrace of religion, the immaturity and ignorance and shame of it all! Lunatic piety about nothing!”
Marcus found out that you can’t fight City Hall. And if you’re going to cut off your nose to spite your face, which Marcus proceeds to do, you’d better be aware of how much blood you’re going to lose. The Dean doubles the requirement to 80 Chapel attendances, presumably to give the offender a chance to repent. A typical line of reasoning: if you don’t get religion, the solution is…more religion.
Marcus rejects the punishment, and for the second time in their relationship, tells the Dean, “Fuck you!”…and the next thing we know he is in Korea, dying from a bayonet attack that shreds his intestines and genitals, almost severs his leg…and very eerily resembles his father’s butchery. The very fate he tries to avoid befalls him, as it befalls so many others who choose to stand on principle, against organizations which wield all the power. As in Greek tragedy, his fatal flaw – in this case, indignation – does him in.
Religion and repression
But the subtext here is the repressive, evil inflexibility of religion. Marcus’s tirades seem to me to be Roth’s voice. The irony is that Marcus fully understands that what must be done may sometimes be repulsive. His father teaches him to slit the dead chicken’s anus so that he could reach in and pull its entrails out. He did this countless times. Yet he couldn’t go to Chapel 40 times. And he pays dearly for his stand.
Such is the strength of principle. Such is the oppressive power of religion.
The Dean was like a primitive chieftain in a suit and tie, defiantly maintaining the faith and punishing the faithless. If he’d had one iota of the open-mindedness he thinks his university provides (or the tolerance that many Christians think they have), he would’ve said, “Well, we are a place that tolerates valid ideas, even though they may go against the grain of the prevailing culture. If you submit to me a written statement of why you refuse to attend Chapel, I will exempt you.”
Or something like that. That would’ve been the enlightened way to respond. But religion has no room for differences. It was the fucking Dean and his bogus religion, along with the government’s loathsome war and conscription, that killed a young man who asked only to have the integrity to act according to his beliefs.
(PS: I don’t mean to paint the Jews as necessarily the good guys here. They come off rough and raucous, like all of Roth’s Jewish characters. And Jews often practice the same kind of repression, e.g., the practice of saying the prayer for the dead over people who leave the faith.)