Philip Roth Quote of the Day: Getting People Wrong

A reader of My Start-Up Life sends me this Philip Roth quote from American Pastoral. It's excellent and gets to some of the topics discussed on this blog about litmus tests, sizing people up, first impressions, etc.

You get them [people] wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you're with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we are alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.

3 comments on “Philip Roth Quote of the Day: Getting People Wrong
  • Hey,

    This quote is really interesting and resonates with the lecture I listened to yesterday. Professor Eidenstadt of Pomona–I know, I know, I’m sorry–discussed the philosophies of Levitas and Strauss, how they compared/contrasted, and also their general theories of Judaism as a “politics”. I was wondering about that grammar structure–anyway! So Levitas had this interesting theory that our ethic system is basically how we deal with “the other” (the individual other, not the plural other, i.e. society) and how we interpret them, try to tell what they are thinking, keep ourselves kosher, etc. Well I am oversimplifying incredibly, I apologize to anyone who knows anything or attended the lecture and now has to read this, but I’ll drop by later.

    p.s. I noticed that you liked Ender’s Game. I did too! Very self-absorbed but… who isn’t… have you read the His Dark Materials trilogy? That got my children’s-fantasy-book engine going aswell.

  • What’s so bad about being judgmental is that we first form an impression and go on to validate it, until we establish an irrefutable theory that supports our argument or get beaten by another powerful, opposite influence that overturns it. The right thing I guess will be to take a slow discerning process of iteration of smaller events, interactions and observations. Get it right, then negate it until we strike up some mean, this way or that. Do not just go by perceptions. Not for nothing would they say perception is reality – which increasingly looks truistic quite.

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