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.

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.

History as Chronicle of the Inevitable

From Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America:

[A]s Lindbergh’s election couldn’t have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable.  The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.

When I first studied history as a subject of formal instruction, one equipped with formal syllabi and textbooks, it was presented as a very particular narrative, the classic dates-and-kings-and-battles kind. There was no increase in the sophistication of our studies as we rose from the sixth to the eighth grades, merely a chronological transition from the Ancient to the Medieval to the Modern, eras that neatly terminated as centuries did. Our understanding of the events we studied remained pegged to the same paradigms in each grade in school: here was a cavalcade of occurrences, flowing through time, each bringing forth in neat succession the one after it; history was just one damn thing after another. (Later, military histories introduced me to the notion of history written by victors, to the selective presentation of those narratives that best validate and justify and tidy up the messiness of something as chaotic and morally problematic as war. These histories at least made clear their writing was a creative act.)

The contingencies that Roth’s narrator notices missing in school history are implicit there but their presence is easily masked by the fact of history looking back at the past, at events transpired and now fixed and unalterable. Viewed from this perspective, it is all too easy to imagine the collective weight of all that went before forcing into existence the events of historical narratives, turning them from potential to actual. When this is done, the indeterminate garden of forking paths that is the future suddenly and mysteriously becomes as determinate and necessary as the past–the transition through the present has this magical effect. We forget, all too soon, every moment’s pregnancy with possibility. This is facilitated, of course, by the selective narrow focus that ignores entire classes of humans, entire domains of human activity. Small wonder that historical events that do not reflect the rich diversity of historical forces in action at any given moment appear so inevitable.

Some kinds of histories–especially of those human activities considered to be conceptually divorced from social, political and economic contexts–are especially susceptible to acquiring an air of inevitability about them. Histories of science are sometimes understood in this fashion; the edifices of scientific knowledge are imagined built up in step-wise fashion, each stone rising ever higher on the basis of the logical and evidential support afforded by the ones beneath it; no alternative developments appear visible. It is only the closer look at the social embedding of the laboratory that enables the revelation of its many contingencies. Keeping the ‘terror of the unforeseen’ hidden here serves the ideological purpose of portraying scientific knowledge as untainted by even the slightest hint of subjectivity; the practitioners of science appear free of any distinctively human bias.

Fearful Reveries, Penal Colonies and Death in the Dark Ocean

In Everyman (Vintage, 2006), Philip Roth writes of his central protagonist’s fears that intrude into an otherwise idyllic sojourn by the sea:

The only unsettling moments were at night, when they walked along the beach together. The dark sea rolling in with its momentous thud and the sky lavish with stars made Phoebe rapturous but frightened him. The profusion of stars told him unambiguously that he was doomed to die, and the thunder of the sea only yards away –and the nightmare of the blackest blackness beneath the frenzy of the water–made him want to run from the menace of oblivion to their cozy, lighted, underfurnished house.

I’m perhaps not as anxious about death as Roth’s ‘hero’–perhaps!–but the fear of the ocean, and especially at night, is a familiar one.

Years ago, during the second year of my two-year stint in Australia, as I began reading Robert Hughes‘ epic history of its convict years, The Fatal Shore,  I paused when I came to the following description of the ocean waters around Sydney Harbor:

Long swells boil into the cliff in a boiling white lather, flinging veils of water hundreds of feet into the air.

I was familiar, in a fashion, with the wildness thus described. Shortly after my arrival in Sydney, thanks to a good friend, I had been taken for a yacht ride through the Harbour, under the Sydney Bridge and past the Opera House, out to the heads where the open ocean was visible. As we sailed out, the formerly benign waves that bore our craft became steadily more feral, acquiring a shape, substance and heft not previously visible. By the time we had reached our turning around point, walls of green water were bearing down on us, their impact minimized by the skillful helmsmanship of our captain.  We were not skittled; we rode the waves well. But it was time to retreat into the safer waters of Sydney Harbour.

I didn’t forget those roiling waters, especially because I spent a year living at Bondi Beach, slowly becoming familiar with its crushing breakers, its foaming ‘big ones’, that so delighted surfers and terrorized mere mortals. On Christmas Day 2001, I ventured into the waters for a morning swim before heading out for the afternoon’s barbecuing, and found myself retreating a mere fifteen minutes later; I had been flung down, far too often for my liking, face down into Bondi’s white sands, by waves that came roaring in, again and again, relentless in their bruising power.

The thought of those same towering waters at night filled me with dread. What was it like, out on the open waters that were visible from Bondi’s cliffs? It was with some incredulity then, that I read in Hughes’ book of the desperate convicts who, beaten and chastised beyond bearing. had decided to run away from their penal confinement and cast themselves into the open waters at night, hoping somehow to wash up on a distant, safer, shore.

There are many imagined deaths that afflict me with nauseating fear. Among them, occupying an elevated rank, are those of the brutalized souls who thought that a dark roaring ocean was a safer place than the tyranny of their jailers.