Patrimony, by Philip Roth
There once was a well-known New York intellectual desperate to place his father in one of the old-age homes built and maintained by the city’s Jewish community. With this man, who happened to call me one day for advice, it had long been a point of pride never to have sustained any connection of his own with organized Jewish life, and although educated about everything else in the world, he had conspicuously declined to educate himself about its culture, its traditions, or its modes of self-perpetuation. None of which had stopped him, however, from writing whole books sentimentally celebrating the supposed “integrity” of the Jews when they were poor and victimized, and attacking their “degradation” as soon as they became associated with the striving American middle class. To complete the anecdote it is only pertinent to add that, largely on the strength of his reputation as an eminent Jewish intellectual, the same middle-class community whose works he contemned and had ever disdained to support quickly found a place for his father in one of its oversubscribed institutions; and that he has gone on denouncing it to this very day.
A commonplace enough occurrence. And yet there were also other, mitigating elements in this little episode which ought not to be overlooked, and which along with much else happen to link its protagonist to the author of Patrimony. Conspicuous among them was the tone, at once intimate and pugnacious, in which my caller spoke to me, quite unforgettably, about his worries for his failing father. In him as here in Philip Roth, a longstanding and fiercely embraced sense of filial obligation seemed to have grown out of, to be inseparable from, some shared memory of injury. Exactly whose injury, it was hard to say—the father’s, who in order to secure the son’s advancement had endured endless humiliations and sacrifice, or the son’s, who in redeeming the sacrifice, by fulfilling his father’s thwarted ambitions, had somehow necessarily also repudiated his existence. In any event the consequence, again as in Roth, was to overlay an already thick mix of feelings with a belligerent, almost resentful, piety. What was unusual was hardly the belligerence; it was the intimacy, plus the child’s assumption toward his parent of an automatic, reflexive, virtually parental protectiveness.
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