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.

Israel And A Jewish Solution To The Palestinian Problem

When I was eight years old, my mother told me the story of the Jews. We were on a month-long vacation, the mother of all road-trips; our destinations included the mountains and the valleys of Kashmir and the Garhwal. One day, after a long and tiring drive through innumerable twisting roads, we had reached our long-sought destination for the day, a charming forest bungalow, and after we had eaten dinner and settled in for the night, she drew my brother and me close to her and told us their tale.

It was a story that haunted and inspired me: a story of suffering and perseverance, of persecution and survival, of endurance and persistence in the face of adversity. It was a tale of dispersal and flight, of resistance, of the preservation of the things most precious to the Jewish identity. She told us of the Holocaust, of the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps, and then, she told us of Israel, and its creation as a safe haven, finally, for an eternally persecuted people. She told us of a land reclaimed from the desert, made fertile and populated by a people who saw within its borders a chance to make their lives anew, away from the death and destruction that had been visited them during mankind’s most horrible conflict. She told us of their continued fight for survival through the wars that followed; their continued and enduring resilience. She told us of their learning and culture; she told us of their intellectual accomplishments in science, literature and the arts; she told us of the value they placed on education and lifelong learning.

And, then, unforgettably, bringing up the example of the Rothschilds, she told us of Jewish philanthropy, how a long-oppressed and suffering people had taken their immense, hard-earned wealth and used it for the greater good, deciding that their pain would be unique only in that they were determined to not let others suffer as they had, that they would do what they could to decrease the sum total of the inevitable pain and anguish that is every human’s lot on this earth.

I do not remember if my mother told us about Palestine and its dispossessed people. Perhaps she did, but only briefly. Perhaps she meant to tell us another time. Or perhaps she did, but I could not pay attention, for I was riveted by other components of the tale I had just heard.  Perhaps my mother only told me the Exodus version of happenings in the Middle East, and elsewhere. All stories are incomplete; this one surely was.

I grew familiar with the story of the Palestinians much later; the moral burden that placed upon the residents of Israel and perhaps Jews everywhere, only became clearer to me much later in my life. By then, because of the story I had first heard as a eight-year old, and its storyteller, and because–other than Edward Said–the strongest and clearest voices that pointed out Israeli missteps were always Jewish, I had come to believe–even as figurative scales fell from my eyes–that a resolution of the ‘Palestinian problem’ lay within the moral, intellectual and political reach of the Jewish people.

It might be their sternest challenge yet, to find the moral clarity and the political courage to undo undoubted injustice, one which Judaism’s ethical codes most certainly instruct them to.

Isaac Bashevis Singer on A Rabbi’s Crisis

In Isaac Bashevis Singer‘s “I Place My Reliance on No Man” (collected with other short stories in Short Friday) Rabbi Jonathan Danziger goes to pray in his synagogue one Monday morning. As he prays, he encounters a crisis:

When the rabbi came to the words, ‘I place my reliance on no man,’ he stopped. The words stuck in his throat.

For the first time he realized that he was lying. No one relied on people more than he. The whole town gave him orders, he depended on everyone. Anyone could do him harm. Today it happened in Yampol, tomorrow it would happen in Yavrov. He, the rabbi, was slave to every powerful man in the community. He must hope for gifts, for favors, and must always seek supporters. The rabbi began to examine the other worshippers. Not one of them needed allies. No one else worried about who might be for or against him.  No one cared a penny for the tales of rumormongers. ‘Then what’s the use of lying?’ the rabbi thought. ‘Whom am I cheating? The Almighty?’ The rabbi shuddered and covered his face in shame….Suddenly, something inside the rabbi laughed. he lifted his hand as if swearing an oath. A long-forgotten joy came over him, and he felt an unexpected determination. In one moment everything became clear to him…

Rabbi Jonathan Danziger then asks one of the congregants, Shloime Meyer, if he can work for him, picking fruits in his orchard. He will no longer serve as rabbi. His mind is made up. That life is behind him.

As the story ends, the rabbi wonders:

Why did you wait for so long? Couldn’t you see from the start that one cannot serve God and man at the same time?

Danziger might have imagined that as rabbi he would spend his days studying the scriptures, engaging in learned debates about their interpretations, dispensing sage advice to the perplexed, and being respected and admired for his great learning and moral rectitude. Instead, his certifications met with disfavor and disapproval, and his parishioners found a veritable litany of complaints to level against him. He might have contemplated a life spent in contemplation of the sacred, but instead he found himself immersed in the profane.

Rabbi Danziger’s resolution of his crisis is perhaps novel, but his crisis is not. He has come to realize like all too many of us, that our exalted visions of our work and our life, are sadly incongruent with the actual lived reality of our lives. (The What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme often captures this quite well.) Our levels of awareness about this fact can vary. Some rabbis might be just as immersed as Danziger in the all too worldly goings on about them, but might disregard this evidence in favor of holding to their preconceived notions of their imagined life. Such illusions might be desirable too. The mundane realities of life sometimes require, as a palliative of sorts, some elaborate storytelling about what we have let ourselves in for.  But only if they do not create the kind the painful dissonance that finally forced Danziger to put down the holy scrolls and head for the orchards. The maintenance and sustenance of that inner discord can be more damaging than the price paid for a life left behind. In those cases, it might be better to seek the kind of reconceived life that Danziger sought.

Philip Roth and Writing for One’s ‘Community’

In reviewing Claudia Roth Pierpont‘s Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books, Adam Mars-Jones writes:

Letting Go…hadn’t yet been published when Roth was given a hostile reception at a symposium organised by Yeshiva University….The topic was ‘The Crisis of Conscience in Minority Writers of Fiction’, and the idea seemed to be, if he didn’t already have such a crisis, to lay one on for him. The first question he was asked was: ‘Would you write the same stories you’ve written if you were living in Nazi Germany?’….

There might have been places where Pietro di Donato, author of Christ in Concrete, would be grilled in fine detail about his depiction of Italian immigrants. There were certainly places where Ralph Ellison would be called out for Invisible Man’s representation of the Negro and for his views on the race question. But at Yeshiva University Philip Roth was always going to be the main dish. By accepting a Jewish university’s invitation…Roth was also implicitly accepting that he had responsibilities towards his community.

Even if the hostile questioning lasted half an hour…The profound effect it had seems to combine a rejection of the forces that held him to account and a rejection of the elements of his personality that led him to expect anything different….Roth’s idealism…was certainly transformed, not poisoned but pickled, perhaps, by the bitter juices of experience.

The immediate effect of the Yeshiva confrontation…was that Roth resolved never to write about Jews again. Of course he did, but from that point on he took pleasure in defying any party line.

Writing for a community while informed by some supposed responsibility to it feels like an impossible burden to bear. This is not because the writer (or some other artist) is a magically autonomous entity outside the realm of moral judgment; rather, it is because the supposed community is not easily defined. A ‘community’ is as nebulous an entity as ‘nation’, as problematic in the way it is invoked and used for chastisement and censure.That old slogan “no entity without identity” seems particularly apropos in this situation: Who and what are included in the community? What are its origins and extents? Who occupies its margins, who its center?

This problem of demarcation and definition immediately renders the writer’s fulfillment of his supposed ‘responsibilities’ to his ‘community’ intractable: Who should she write for? Whom should she represent? Whose voice should she articulate? Which agendas should be hers?

Those who demand responsibilities toward a community from those who write, all the while bearing the nominal identity of this supposed group, are very often a privileged group, comfortably ensconced in a dominant position. When they make their demands for fidelity, they are all too often seeking a commitment to their ideologically inflected vision of the community, their positions of privilege and power, their roles as community story-tellers.

The writer who is accused of having abdicated his responsibilities to the community has, more often than not, complicated this comfortable picture. In those cases, such accusations should be worn like badges of honor.