Arts  •  April 7, 2017

“Book of Pieces” by Robert Roth

The historical cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis always produces the remainder whose contributions were crucial but discarded and forgotten by the public consciousness. Those who happen to possess the criteria needed for the process of symbolization would be erected as the victory flag of every historical movement. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, was such a flag in the Civil Rights Movement. (Being Christian and a great orator were probably necessary criteria.) The rest, who raised these flags, were generally forgotten. What happened to them? You might wonder. “Book of Pieces” by Robert Roth provides a vignette into the lives of such activists and artists.

Although the “pieces” in his book are diverse and disparate in style and subject matter, there is an underlying commandment that ties them all together: “Thou shalt not hurt feelings.” This can be contrasted with Christopher Hitchens’ underlying commandment: “Thou shalt not defy reason.”

Here is a quote from Hitchens that sums up his political motivation: “If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, ‘I’m still waiting to hear what your point is.’” Roth, in contrast, would see this as “bullying.” He is most critical when people hurt the feelings of others. Many of his pieces are asking this rhetorical question to the targets of his criticism: Why do you treat people this way? They are sharp rebukes of their emotional blindness, from the way people are treated in hospice care, how old people are treated or perceived in the US, how the mainstream rejects the fringe, to the various insensitive and inconsiderate remarks he has heard in his life.

Perhaps we can frame their differences in this way: Roth is a champion of singularity whereas Hitchens is a champion of universality.

Each emotional experience is singular. It cannot be reduced by reason, and Roth resists and objects to such an attempt. Out of compassion, he relentlessly defends the singularity of each human experience. Hitchens too was motivated by compassion, yet saw reason as the only common denominator capable of objectively guaranteeing fairness and equality for all.

An interesting thought experiment would be to imagine what the world would look like if each side got everything he wanted. If everyone believed in Roth’s commandment, everyone will be absolutely unique with nothing in common to share. We won’t be able to work on anything together because, for the sake of unity, a collaboration will always force us to sacrifice our singularity to some degree. We won’t be building any bridges, forming any organizations, or having any common languages.

If everyone believed in Hitchens’ commandment, the world would be filled with clones like in Star Wars. Because the point of reason is to arrive at the one right answer, if we were to pursue Hithchens’ dream to its logical extreme, everyone would think, value, and even look the same. Both scenarios are equally frightening.

Of course, I’m exaggerating here in order to get my point across. I’m not suggesting that Roth and Hitchens actually dream of such a world. What I’m trying to illustrate here is that one should take a political position, not to defeat or dominate the other, but to act as a force to achieve a balance, much like how the three branches of the US government operate. But I’m not sure that Roth and Hitchens see it this way. To Roth, Emotion is a sacred cow, and to Hithchens, Reason was.

This isn’t to imply that one is more logically competent than the other, or that one is more compassionate than the other. The difference is which serves which. For Roth, reason serves Emotion. For Hitchens, emotion serves Reason. Roth is quite adept at using reason to formulate his arguments but he does so in order to protect Emotion. Hitchens knew how to leverage emotions in order to defend Reason.

We, humans, invented reason to collaborate. The larger the collaboration, the more reason is required. And, the trade-off is that the larger it is, the more dehumanizing each person would feel. This is why working for a large corporation is generally more alienating and dehumanizing than working for a small business is. Even for a small collaboration, we still have to sacrifice our singularity to some degree. Unfortunately, we cannot have cake and eat it too.

Roth expresses this sense of dehumanization in a striking way: “it can also be an opportunity to assert a poisonous sense of one’s own integrity.” The word “integrity” is generally used in a positive way. Here, he uses it in a most condemning way, as if integrity is an alien force that can poison us if we don’t resist it. And, indeed, this is true. To have integrity means to behave consistently, rationally, and/or reasonably. This is why politicians try hard to project a sense of integrity. Yet, to artists, integrity can indeed be poisonous as it can act as a destructive force for their singularity or individuality. If we all achieved absolute integrity, we would be Storm Troopers.

Even his unapologetic attitude towards his sexuality comes across as a political act of demanding that others accept him for who he is. In his critique of Sex and the City, he argues that nobody should be assumed as “self-evidently beautiful” and therefore that nobody should be assumed as sexually undesirable. In one essay, he details his relationship with his own penis. Many readers would find this “too much information” or “TMI”, but he is relentless. If you as a reader cannot accept him for what he is, he would not want you as a reader.

In many of his pieces, he faithfully, or even proudly, describes the contradictory forces within himself. In this process, he pushes the readers to find the same contradictory forces within themselves, and encourages them to accept those contradictions because they are fundamentally irreconcilable through reason. Trying to reconcile them through reason would only lead to alienation. He is willing to be irrational in order for us to feel OK about being irrational. He is quite courageous in this sense.

Yet, writing serves as a protective shield for his emotions. In various stories he recounts, we don’t come across him confronting anyone directly. He is mostly an observer or critic. For him, writing functions almost as a passive-aggressive outlet, or a fantasy, because a direct confrontation would be too much for him to bear. A fantasy is an expression of fear. We fantasize about what we are terrified of. Even though in his direct dealings with people, he is careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings, in writing, he allows himself to do so.

His relationship to the mainstream is full of dilemmas and contradictions too. Although he is dismissive and critical of the mainstream, he also craves their recognition. His own publication, And Then, where he rejects nobody, is almost a spiteful demonstration against the mainstream media like The New York Times. Yet, if he were ever published on the front page of the Times, he would probably be ecstatic.

But, again, I think he accepts all these contradictions. He refuses to feel ashamed of them, and nobody should. After all, these contradictions are what define our singularity.