Some Philip Roth Moments

Philip Roth is dead. I read many of his books over the years. Here, in no particular order, are some recollections of those encounters:

  1. I discover Portnoy’s Complaint in graduate school. This, I’m sure you will agree, is a strange time for someone to ‘find’ Roth, especially when you consider that the person doing the ‘finding’ is a thirty-something Indian man, undergoing a career change from being a systems analyst to a graduate student of philosophy. I found Portnoy’s Complaint hilarious, side-splittingly so; its depiction of an unabashed psychosexual insanity curiously sanity-inducing; the Jewish mother was someone I could recognize, and even love from afar. I did not think that I would find resonances with my life here, in this text, written by this person, in that time and place. But I did; it was one of the most American moments of my many years in America.
  2. I turned my girlfriend onto Portnoy’s Complaint; she went ahead to read Goodbye Columbus and told me she loved Roth so much that she would read anything and everything he wrote; I was possessed by jealousy for a few moments (fine, a little longer than that), but it soon passed. He could write.
  3. Roth could be very insightful; he could also be very tedious. The Human Stain was the most tedious of his works. It was too long by about two hundred pages. I recognized the attempt for the story-telling to be capacious in it, but it did not work.
  4. The women in Roth’s novel often made me uncomfortable; they fucked a lot, they had lots of good lines, but they seemed, not in a good way at all, to be figments entirely of Roth’s imagination. They seemed to be as he wanted women to be, desperately: sexually voracious, uncomplicated, roughly and strongly accepting of the stupidity and cruelty and blindness of the men in their lives because they saw past all of that to the hurt, the fear, the desperate desire to be alive in their own uncompromising way that was very often the hallmark of the Roth man. For Roth, their sexual appetites made them alive; more alive than those who claimed to speak for them or protect them from writers like Roth. For all that, they still seemed to hew close to cliche.
  5. Once, in my own classic ‘Jewish encounters in Brooklyn’ story I met a young man at my gym whose father also lifted weights here. The father was loud and profane and strong; he was a dirty old man who liked asking about other mens’ partners in ever-so slightly leering ways. His son was proud of him, perplexed by him. His father was not as observant as his mother; his mother was orthodox. The young man’s girfriend was a shiksa; his father liked her but wanted his son to date a Jewish woman so that it would make his mother happy. The young man loaned me a lot of his Roth collection; I finally read Goodbye Columbus thanks to him. We talked about tribalism; we talked about identity. He was half my age, but very thoughtful, and I don’t think it was accidental that the bridge between us was Roth’s writing.

Don’t Know What You Got Till It’s Gone: A Climbing Lesson

This past Saturday, after falling, for the proverbially umpteenth time, off a climbing route at The Cliffs in Long Island City, I walked off, wondering yet again, this time loudly enough for gym staff members to hear me, whether it was worse to have never climbed a route in the first place or to keep failing at a route that you have climbed once before. (In case you were wondering, this was a route I had climbed once but have not been able to top out on since then; clearly, the stars had aligned on the day I had climbed it for the first time.) A young man who works at the gym yelled back at me, “The second one!”

He was right. As Cinderella pointed out a long time ago, all the way back in the long-gone eighties, don’t know what you got till it’s gone. And things get worse when you set off in pursuit again of ‘it,’ all the while possessed by a peculiar sort of anxiety: What if the good news I had allowed myself to believe turns out to have just been a beguiling lie? What if the clouds had merely temporarily lifted, allowing for a glimpse of the promised land, and then closed again, cruelly tantalizing and mocking? As my note about the possibility of the stars aligning on the first ascent indicates, maybe my first ascent was just me ‘getting lucky,’ a ‘fluke’ of sorts that said nothing whatsoever my climbing ability or skills. These repeated failures were confirmation instead, of my true incompetence in climbing, my ‘I-don’t-belong-here’ status; they were exposures of this impostor who had dared venture out and up on these climbing walls with their frustratingly distant, slippery, and small holds.  I was a fool to have ever imagined I could be any good at this; shame on me for having let myself believe such a falsehood.

When climbing a route that has remained elusive, I sense a virtuous effort at play; I can easily ascribe nobility to my striving; I have never succeeded here, but I think I can, so I must keep trying; again and again and again. My perseverance and its accompanying failure acquires its own particular grace. But when I’m climbing a difficult route I have climbed before I am beset, quite easily, by the doubts and anxieties noted above.

A task that is potentially repeatable, and yet non-trivial–like a climb–thus allows us to inspect this interesting variant of anxiety and self-doubt. The positive counterpart to these worries is well-known: if you’ve done it once before, you can do it again. But we all know that not to be true; sometimes we grow slower, less adept, less skilled; we can’t always do it again.

Such anxieties and the variants I make note of here, are not easily conquered. They do, however, confirm the wisdom of the adage of staying in the moment: enjoy each moment (each success on each route) while it lasts; it might not be yours again.

On Getting Stopped For ‘Shoplifting’ In Barnes And Noble

Some fifteen or so years ago, shortly after beginning my professorial employment at Brooklyn College, I stopped in at a Barnes and Noble store at Fifth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan; then, and perhaps even now, for I’m no longer sure it still exists, this ‘branch’ was the largest B&N store in New York City, one with an extensive selection of college textbooks in a rear annex. That annex was my destination; I wanted to see if some texts I had placed on my syllabi for the current semester were available here by chance, and if so, I could direct some of my students here for their book procurements. My search was unsuccessful; later, I wandered through the main shelves, browsing the philosophy, history, and literature sections before heading for the exits, my tried and trusted backpack slung over my shoulder.

As I reached the doors, my path was blocked by a security guard who asked to inspect my backpack. I handed it over; it contained the usual mix of a spare sweatshirt, my phone, some keys, and a few books. I expected the search to be perfunctory; I had not purchased anything and had no cash receipts to show. It wasn’t.

The guard picked out one of my books–on ‘The Great Game‘–and asked me where I got it from. I replied, ‘That’s mine; I’ve borrowed it from a friend.’ The guard asked me if I had a receipt. I replied (now, a bit tersely), no, I did not; my friend had not supplied me with the receipt when I borrowed it from him. Before I could add anything to make clear to the guard the absurdity of this line of questioning, he had walked off with my backpack. I stared after him: precisely what the fuck was going on? Clearly, I was under suspicion of shoplifting that newish looking book.

The guard returned with his manager, who repeated the question of where I got the book from. My temper rising, I said it was mine, and had been in my backpack when I entered the store. He then asked me why I had so many books in my backpack. I replied, “Because I’m a college professor!” My voice had risen by this time. The guard, watching this exchange, was sniggering. My awareness of this was making my temper rise further, even as I suddenly became aware of the danger I was in.

Were I to lose my temper any more (my backpack was still being held by the guard, and I would have to snatch it off him to leave with it; I didn’t think he would just hand it over), the police might be called in to ‘calm down’ an excitable brown man in post-911 New York City; the situation that was developing would most likely see me handcuffed and marched off to the local precinct for ‘disturbing the peace.’ My eventual release would be of no relief.

My snappy reply seemed to have snapped the manager out of his stupor. He gestured to the guard to hand my backpack over. The guard, still smirking, handed it over. I took it and stormed out. I haven’t been back to Barnes and Noble–any store–ever since.

The New York Times’ Op-Ed Page Is An Intellectual Dark Web

The New York Times Op-Ed page has been an intellectual dark web for a long time. Few corners of the Internet can lay claim to both Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, two of the most widely ridiculed, mocked, and parodied ‘thought leaders’ ever to have deigned to grace us swine with their pearls of wisdom; so extensive and ubiquitous is the scorn sent their way and so, correspondingly, entirely self-unaware is this pair that they continue to write on as before, unaware that they are now parodying themselves. The Times’ Op-Ed page also includes Maureen Dowd, who slipped into irrelevance during the Bush years, and only makes periodic, pitiful attempts to show up on readers’ radars–sometimes by penning unhinged rants about clueless consumption of marijuana edibles in legal jurisdictions. Then there is Sophist-in-Chief-And-Apologist-For-Religion Ross Douthat, whose rambling, self-pitying pieces about the marginalization of conservative thought by remorseless liberals have also settled into their own familiar and head-scratching template: see, liberalism, you so mean, you just shot yourself in your own foot while you thought you was picking out distant conservative targets.

And then, we have Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens.

I must confess to knowing little about these two writers before they were promoted to their own space on one of the nation’s most prominent media platforms; the former apparently distinguished herself by attacking the academic freedom of Arab scholars to criticize Israel, the latter by cheerleading for the Iraq War. But their settling down into the boring, predictable output emanating from the New York Times Op-Ed page was rapid enough, and Weiss’ latest offering cements her own particular corner in that outpost: a paean to those intellectuals who have thrown their toys out of the pram because they are not being recognized–it remains entirely unclear by whom–for the intellectual revolutionaries they imagine themselves to be. Here they are: Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, Joe Rogan etc. They have giant book deals, extensive media presence and connections, YouTube channels and podcasts whose audience runs into the millions; indeed, you might even imagine them ‘thought leaders’ of a kind. Their ideas are, sadly enough, disappointingly familiar: sexism and racism and the wonders of the free market find scientific grounding here, as do dark imprecations about the conceptual connections between particular religions and social dysfunction, and so on. No matter: what really unites the intellectuals is that they imagine themselves iconoclasts and pioneers and brave outsiders. And those writing on them imagine themselves to be similar intellectual heroes: they are, after all, speaking up on behalf of the rebels and outsiders and outliers.

A more depressing display of intellectual cluelessness cannot be imagined; the essay’s astonishing photo-spread, which showcases the various profiled ‘intellectuals’ in the act of getting caught peeing in the bushes confirms this assessment. The ‘intellectuals’ profiled by Weiss are not on the margins; they are right at the center, and they aren’t keen to share the spotlight with anyone; an elementary examination of their cultural placement would reveal this fact rather quickly. It is hard to know how this pitch was first made by Weiss; it is equally hard to fathom the editorial reasoning that led to its approval and to the final finished form.

Before Weiss is alarmed by the scornful response to her piece, she should remember that she is not being ‘silenced,’ that her ‘essay’ was published at the New York Times, and that, despite the writerly incompetence on display, she is not being sacked. She’s right where she belongs: on the intellectual dark web.

Trump’s Legal Escape From ‘Stormy’ Weather

Rudy Giuliani’s supposedly unhinged and indisciplined rant on the Sean Hannity show opened up a legal path for Donald Trump to extricate himself from La Affaire Stormy Daniels with minimal legal jeopardy. By admitting that he recompensed Michael Cohen, and thus admitting knowledge of the contract, Trump makes the non-disclosure agreement with Stormy Daniels valid, and thus ensures she is still bound by its non-disclosure terms–even as he simultaneously denies ever  having had an affair with her. Moreover, even if his recompensing Cohen can be viewed as a violation of campaign finance laws, Trump may get off with merely a misdemeanor violation and not suffer a felony conviction.

Two ugly facts conspire to make such an escape for Trump possible: it has been assumed thus far that Trump would not ‘fess up to knowledge of the contract with Stormy Daniels because to do so would be to submit to the embarrassment of having to admit that he had an affair, or at least a sexual encounter with her, which he then sought to cover up with a pay-off and a non-disclosure agreement, but in point of fact, Trump and his team have realized that there is no embarrassment in simply denying any such ‘contact’ took place. They can call Stormy Daniels a liar and rely on their usual obfuscations to do the rest of the work; for the Republican base, the misogynistic assessment of her as ‘only a porn star’ is enough. The claim that a non-disclosure agreement was the best way to get a ‘hustler’ or a ‘shyster’ to ‘shut up’ will find favor with the Republican ‘base’ quite easily. So the ‘escape’ picture emerges: the non-disclosure agreement was made ‘legally’ to silence a nuisance; the president did speak falsely on occasion, but never under oath in a court of law; his conversations with reporters are like his other lie-ridden interactions with the media, that is, nothing distinctive. Moreover, we can rely on the legal system to deliver the lightest slap on the wrist possible to Trump when it comes to violations of campaign finance law; the rigorous conditions of ‘knowingly and willingly’ required for a felony violation will be hard to meet. The payments Trump made to Cohen can be ‘contextualized’ in some fashion to make them ever so more ‘appropriate’ and not transgressive of legality; they can be made to look less like flagrant violations of campaign finance law if dressed up with the right kinds of  language.

No matter what the political costs, Trump’s legal team has at least devised a scheme for reducing their client’s legal jeopardy; it ‘works’ in conjunction with a particular social setting in which he can also rely on his sentencing on any possible violations of campaign finance laws to be rather gentle. Embarrassment as a social force only works when the subject responds to it accordingly or sees it working as intended; in the current  media setting and in the current psycho-political mood no embarrassment is enough. All will be tolerated in the name of inducing liberal rage. Fuck your feelings indeed.

Academia As Pie-Eating Contest

Some wag once said that academia was a pie-eating contest in which the prize was more pie. The reason this evokes rueful chuckles from academics is that, like all good jokes, there is truth in this hyperbolic description. (The more gloomily inclined among us will recognize a deeper existential truth in here: life can all too easily feel like a treadmill.) You read, you write, you teach, you ‘conference’; if you are lucky, you get a job. Then you read and write and teach and ‘conference’ some more. If all goes well, you secure tenure and promotions. You’ve ‘made it.’ Then you continue reading and writing and teaching and conferencing–this last part can be especially pleasant if it involves travel to salubrious destinations. Some folks are considered ‘lucky’ if they can stop teaching and concentrate on reading and writing. (I’m leaving out, for the time being, all the gruesome administrative tasks that most academics find themselves saddled with.) This, I think, is where the bit about ‘more pie’ comes in.

If the reading and writing is going well–that is, if you are getting published in the ‘right’ places–you can count on more publishing opportunities: invitations to contribute to edited collections; proposals are read with more alacrity; journal acceptances magically become easier. Moreover, if there is one feeling an academic is extremely familiar with, it is the horrifying sensation of realizing that the moment a written work is ‘done’ another ‘must’ be commenced. Even those who have moved on beyond the supposed ‘publish or perish’ phase of tenure and promotion acquisition sense the ‘what have you done for us lately’ question directed at them. If you have ‘produced,’ you must keep ‘producing.’ Or run the risk of being condemned as ‘useless’ or sinking into a slough of self-loathing. Small wonder that most academics continue to feel unaccomplished even as they rack up impressive publication and research records.

Writing is hard, good quality research is hard. So whatever relief one might feel on having ‘turned in’ some substantial piece of written work, it is all too easily replaced by the sinking feeling that this whole grinding, excruciating, process must be repeated if one has a ‘rep to protect.’ A good piece of writing is a very tough act to follow and the academic might be excused for feeling some resentment at being expected to ‘perform’ all over again. (The suspicion arises that it might have been better to not have ‘performed’ in the first place.) The unfinished creative task is always a terrifying space; anxiety and self-doubt lurk among its environs and must be confronted time and again as we traverse it. Weariness is experienced all too often, all too easily. Why not just lay down the pen and call it a day? What if you have no more to say? Whence the expectation that a ‘seeker of knowledge’ must continue to seek his entire life?

Note: Similar considerations apply, I’m sure, in some variant or the other , to all other professions,

Of Children’s Pencil Boxes And Ersatz Smartphones

It’s a simple enough object: a pencil box that looks like a smartphone. The box’s lid looks like a smartphone screen decked out with app icons, the ones that all of us smartphone users are used to: the phone, the messages, the various entertainments, the calculator, and so on. Pencil boxes have been decorated and adorned in many ways over the years; this happens to be the latest one that our civilization has devised for it. (My school days pencil box was covered with various geometrical shapes; presumably the manufacturers assumed that I would be spending my class days constructing the figures that lay within the box: a pencil, ruler, compass, divider, and a protractor.) But it is not just the decoration of the pencil box that approximates the smartphone’s look and feel; it is also sized similarly, thus rendering the simulation ever more realistic. Especially if you are only a child, who has not used a real smartphone but has merely seen others using them around it. Of course, the more you play with this ersatz phone the more you realize just how removed its functionality is from the real thing; it makes you want the real thing even more. Which is what it is supposed to do; to the children who play with it.

My daughter is the proud owner of once such pencil box. I’m her disgruntled father. A year or so ago, she, by exerting that unique species of emotional pressure that only a four-year old can, managed to convince her mother to buy the smartphone-pencil box for her. But she had been relentlessly enticed herself: over the course of a few mornings, by a glittering array of such temptations placed directly in her path when she walked into her pre-school’s lobby. A vendor of these ‘toys’ had struck a deal with the pre-school; presumably they would sell their goods to the children, relying on them to badger their parents; proceeds would be shared with the school. My daughter had, of course, seen both my wife and I using our smartphones; she had often reached out to them and we had, with varying measures of success, resisted her advances. But not on this occasion; my wife succumbed, and my daughter had her way.

I’ve been a parent for some five years now, and so I’ve become accustomed to the scale and reach of the child-industrial complex, that giant consumer good industry dedicated to selling you stuff for your children. Still, something about the utter cynicism of this particular maneuver, the unholy alliance struck between the vendor and the school (a private one with a few seats reserved for children in New York City’s free pre-K program), stood out for me. Addiction to smartphones and social media is not a minor problem for today’s children, and one of the hardest decisions a (privileged) parent has to make these day is to decide when to let their child have access to these. To see a school allow a vendor to sell such products was astonishing to say the very least. But the commodified logic of this world will brook no interference with its plans to sell to all and sundry.

I’m sad to say that I did not do too much beyond my initial reaction of irritation (I could have, for instance, had a word with the school’s principal); I was worn out by too many parenting discussions and besides, some other childcare crisis had already presented itself for resolution. So I moved on. My daughter still has the pencil box and I’m still holding out the hope that she will grow tired of it in the right way: by finding something literary or artistic or musical that will hold her attention in more fulfilling ways.