Nemesis is the last novel written by Philip Roth, unless he changes his mind and writes another. Also in my opinion it is one of the best novels ever written, Roth’s second greatest novel (after American Pastoral) and a very personality shaping read. I have read many books but few have affected me the same way as Nemesis.
Now all anti-vaxxers should read this novel because:
1) Did I mention it’s great and everyone should read it,
2) It shows with an unequal force the horror of a world without a vaccine, that is, the polio vaccine.
Nemesis explores the effect of a 1944 polio epidemic on a closely knit, family-oriented Newark Jewish community of Weequahic neighborhood. The children are threatened with maiming, paralysis, lifelong disability, and death.
At the center of Nemesis is a vigorous, dutiful, 23-year-old teacher and playground director Bucky Cantor, a javelin thrower and weightlifter, who is devoted to his charges. Bucky feels guilty because his weak eyes have excluded him from serving in the war alongside his close friends and contemporaries. Focusing on Cantor’s dilemmas as polio begins to ravage his playground, Roth examines some of the central themes of pestilence: fear, panic, anger, guilt, bewilderment, suffering, and pain. Cantor also faces a spiritual crisis, asking himself why God would allow innocent children to die of polio.
With the inevitability of a Greek drama, polio eventually reaches the summer camp. One camper dies, several become ill, and Cantor himself is stricken. Cantor blames himself for having brought polio to the camp.
I think this novel revived a lot of trauma in me, and made my fear of death worse, but I don’t care, it was worth it. It is an extremely painful novel to read, extremely bleak and with death shown in its most merciless and horrifying face, and an extremely anti-religious book where the hero doesn’t become an atheist but decides that God – and by extension the entire universe – is cruel and evil.
It’s not an uplifting novel at all. But it is moving, and it is forceful, and it will make you think and see some darker aspects of our existence with more clarity.
But the point is that we now have a very easy and safe way to prevent polio. Vaccination. Polio is eradicated in the Western hemisphere and also in Iran, thanks to our mandatory vaccination program I wholeheartedly support (and here I argue why mandatory vaccination for children is not an infringement of liberty), but it’s still a problem in Afghanistan. I hope my neighbors soon manage to eradicate this horrifying disease as well. And I hope it doesn’t return to the USA as a result of the anti-vax movement.
Polio is indeed very horrifying. It leaves people paralyzed and kills them in very soul-crushing ways. And it primarily targets children although no one is safe.
In this New Yorker article, which also mentions Nemesis, we are told how polio was defeated. It was defeated because the politicians were rational enough to trust science.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House in April, 1955, when Jonas E. Salk’s new polio vaccine was pronounced safe, effective, and potent. Eisenhower never doubted it; he never said, “I’m not a scientist, and so …” Rather, he was someone who talked with scientists, understood what they were saying, and supported those who wanted to bring sense and order to a nationwide inoculation program that was greeted with enormous relief, but also, quite naturally, some apprehension.
Although Eisenhower funded the program, it didn’t get off smoothly, there was a “ghastly mistake” where live polio was used and a small epidemic was ensued, but thankfully this mistake did not deter Eisenhower and his opposition reacted responsibly as well, and the program was never in danger of being stopped.
So – happy ending: polio is dead. But will it return in a sucky sequel directed by Jen McCarthy and irresponsible politicians like Chris Christie and Rand Paul to wreak more havoc?
Nemesis, of course, is not ultimately about polio. Nemesis is a novel about death, loss, grief, and absolute despair. Like two other masterpieces, The Plague by Albert Camus and Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Roth uses the epidemic to have a situation of absolute despair. and while Camus and Willis go beyond despair in their masterpieces, Roth is content to talk about absolute despair.
So, ask yourself this question – why the great writer chooses a polio epidemic to use as the backdrop to his novel about absolute despair?
Maybe an anti-vaxxer would read this novel and then comprehend the true horrors of epidemics and would see that their ableist irrational fear of autism is not a good reason to make sure Nemesis could be set in 2010s instead of 1950s.