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  • Shrike as the Modernist Anti-Hero in Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts

In a discussion of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts in American Apocalypses, Douglas Robinson challenges the conventional alignment of Miss Lonelyhearts with Christ and Shrike with Satan, pointing out that such a thematic reduction overlooks the evidence that West more often aligns his antagonists the other way by presenting Lonelyhearts as a restless Satan wandering through chaos and Shrike as the Christ figure whose rhetoric becomes "his image of order, his rock, which guarantees his invulnerability throughout the novel" (126). Although Robinson does not elaborate on this concept, a close textual study of the novella will show that his reversal of traditional roles is viable, especially in the character of Shrike, who exposes the hypocrisy and irrationality of Lonelyhearts' religious mania with an unrelenting nihilism that identifies him as the modernist antihero.

A general note on the nature of heroism in modern fiction seems appropriate here. In Radical Innocence Ihab Hassan asserts that, because part of the make-up of the hero in American fiction of the past was his ability to mediate between the Self and the World, the restlessness and rebellion in the heroic soul remained quiescent, and the hero's struggles affirmed the harmony of the inner life of man and the external world of God, nature, and society. Today, however, that harmony is rapidly disappearing:

The World, in our time, seems to have either vanished or become a rigid and intractable mass. The anarchy of nihilism and the terror of statism delimit the extremes between which there seems to be no viable mean. Mediation between Self and World appears no longer possible—there is only surrender or recoil. In his modern recoil, the hero has become an anti-hero.

(327)

In West's novella, one of Lonelyhearts' newspaper associates alludes to this breakdown of mediation between Self and World: "The trouble with him, the trouble with all of us, is that we have no outer life, only an inner one, and that by necessity" (15). Man's inner life, or Self, has become so alienated from society that his outer life, or World, no longer exists in any meaningful way. In Hassan's view, however, the estranged antihero reacts to the modernist dilemma by recoiling from nihilism, whereas in Lonelyhearts, Shrike embraces it as his system of order.

Lonelyhearts' response to the modernist predicament is the fever of religious hysteria, and because it leads not to redemption through Christian love but to violence and death, he fails in his messianic role and ironically becomes the agent of chaos. On the other hand, Shrike's impious modernist response, because it enables him to function and thrive in a world where the good, the true, and the beautiful do not exist, becomes the source of a virtually unassailable stability. An unabashed voluptuary, a debauchee, and a dead-pan but otherwise very lively satyr, Shrike resolutely refuses to allow his pagan pleasures to be displaced by [End Page 218] Lonelyhearts' dreary Christian asceticism. To that end, he undertakes his own mock apologia in Delehanty's bar, prefacing his drunken declamation by disclosing that he can walk on his own water and inquiring whether his audience has heard of "Shrike's Passion in the Luncheonette or the Agony in the Soda Fountain" (7). What follows could be referred to as his Sermon in the Speakeasy:

Under the skin of men is a wondrous jungle where veins like lush tropical growths hang along over-ripe organs and weed-like entrails writhe in squirming tangles of red and yellow. In this jungle . . . lives a bird called the soul. The Catholic hunts this bird with bread and wine, the Hebrew with a golden ruler, the Protestant on leaden feet with leaden words, the Buddhist with gestures, the Negro with blood. I spit on them all. Phooh! And I call upon you to spit. Phooh!

(7-8)

Shrike does not intend his discourse to be spiritually uplifting but sexually titillating, because it is engendered by his lechery for his latest conquest, Miss Farkis. His grandiloquent utterance is punctuated by periodic nuzzling and rump-patting designed to result not in faith...

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