When Philip Roth published his collection of stories, "Goodbye, Columbus," in 1959, the book was generously praised and I was…
. . . the will takes pleasures in begetting its own image.
—J. V. Cunningham
When Philip Roth published his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, the book was generously praised and I was among the reviewers who praised it. Whatever modulations of judgment one might want now to propose, it is not hard to see why Roth should have won approval. The work of a newcomer still in his twenties, Goodbye, Columbus bristled with a literary self-confidence such as few writers two or three decades older than Roth could command. His stories were immediately recognizable as his own, distinctive in voice, attitude, and subject; they possessed the lucidities of definition, though I would now add, lucidities harsh and grimacing in their over-focus. None of the fiction Roth has since published approaches this first collection in literary interest; yet, by no very surprising turn of events, his reputation has steadily grown these past few years, he now stands close to the center of our culture (if that is anything for him to be pleased about), and he is accorded serious attention both by a number of literary critics and those rabbis and Jewish communal leaders who can hardly wait to repay the animus he has lavished upon them. At least for a moment or two, until the next fashion appears, we are in the presence not only of an interesting writer but also a cultural “case.”
The stories in Goodbye, Columbus are of a special kind. They are neither probings through strategic incident to reach the inner folds of character nor affectionate renderings of regional, class, or ethnic behavior. They are not the work of a writer absorbed in human experience as it is, mirroring his time with self-effacing objectivity. Nor is Roth the kind of writer who takes pleasure in discovering the world’s body, yielding himself to the richness of its surfaces and the mysteries of its ultimate course. If one recalls some of the motives that have moved our novelists—a hunger to absorb and render varieties of social experience, a respect for the plenitude of the mind, a sense of awe induced by contemplation of the curve of heroic fate, a passion for moral scrutiny—none of these seems crucially to operate in Roth’s work. It is, in fact, a little comic to invoke such high motifs in discussing that work, and not because Roth is a minor writer but because he is a writer who has denied himself, programmatically, the vision of major possibilities.
What one senses nevertheless in the stories of Goodbye, Columbus is an enormous thrust of personal and ideological assertiveness. In the clash which, like Jacob with his angel, the writer must undertake with the world around him—and, unlike Jacob, must learn when and how to lose—there can be little doubt that Roth will steadily pin his opponent to the ground. His great need is for a stance of superiority, the pleasure, as Madison Avenue puts it, of always being “on top of it.” (Perhaps he should have been a literary critic.) Only rarely do his fictions risk the uncharted regions of imaginative discovery; almost all his work drives a narrative toward cognitive ends fixed in advance. Roth appears indifferent to the Keatsian persuasion that a writer should be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts,” since that would require a discipline of patience; nor does he pay much heed to the Coleridgean persuasion that “tragedy depends on a sense of the mind’s greatness,” since that would mean to acknowledge the powers of another mind, to soften his clattering voice, and to ease himself into that receptivity to experience which is one mark of the creative imagination.
For good or bad, both in the stories that succeed and those that fail, Goodbye, Columbus rests in the grip of an imperious will prepared to wrench, twist, and claw at its materials in order to leave upon them the scar of its presence—as if the work of fiction were a package that needed constantly to be stamped with a signature of self. With expectations of being misunderstood I am tempted to add that, despite their severe and even notorious criticisms of Jewish life in America, Roth’s stories are marked by a quintessentially “Jewish will,” the kind that first makes its historical appearance in the autobiography of Solomon Maimon, where the intellectual aspirant sees himself as a solitary antagonist to the world of culture which, in consequence, he must conquer and reduce to acknowledgment.
The will dominating Goodbye, Columbus clamors to impose itself—in part through an exclusion of inconvenient perceptions—upon whatever portions of imagined life are being presented. And that is one reason these stories become a little tiresome upon rereading: one grows weary of a writer who keeps nagging and prodding and beating us over the head with the poker of his intentions. What is almost always central in Roth’s stories is their “point,” their hammering of idea, and once that “point” is clear, usually well before a story’s end, the portrayal starts to pale, for not enough autonomous life remains and too much of the matter seems a mere reflex of the will’s “begetting.”
Even in regard to details of milieu and manners, for which Roth has been frequently praised, the will takes over and distorts. In his title novella, “Goodbye, Columbus,” there are some keen notations—the refrigerator in the basement bulging with fruit, the turgidities of the wedding—which help to characterize the newly-rich Patimkins in their suburban home. And there are moments of tenderness—a quality not abundant in Roth’s work—during the romance between Neil Klugman, the poor Newark boy, and Brenda Patimkin, the self-assured Radcliffe girl (though nothing she says or does could persuade one that she would ever have been admitted to Radcliffe). Yet if the novella is read with any care at all, it becomes clear that Roth is not precise and certainly not scrupulous enough in his use of social evidence. The Patimkins are easily placed—what could be easier for a Jewish writer than to elicit disdain for middle-class Jews?—but the elements of what is new in their experience are grossly manipulated. Their history is invoked for the passing of adverse judgment, at least part of which seems to me warranted, but their history is not allowed to emerge so as to make them understandable as human beings. Their vulgarity is put on blazing display but little or nothing that might locate or complicate that vulgarity is shown: little of the weight of their past, whether sustaining or sentimental; nothing of the Jewish mania for culture, whether honorable or foolish; nothing of that fearful self-consciousness which the events of the mid-20th century thrust upon the Patimkins of this world. Ripped out of the historical context that might help to define them, the Patimkins are vivid enough, but as lampoon or caricature in a novella that clearly aims for more than lampoon or caricature. (There is, for example, a placing reference to Mrs. Patimkin’s membership in Hadassah, employed as a cue for easy laughs in the way watermelons once were for Southern blacks—it is an instance of how a thrust against vulgarity can itself become vulgar, and by no means the only one in Roth’s work.)
On the other side of the social spectrum Roth places Aunt Gladys, still poor, fretting absurdly over her nephew’s health and, quite as if she were a stand-in for the Mrs. Portnoy yet to come, rattling off one-liners about the fruit in her icebox. Aunt Gladys, we learn, is preparing for a Workmen’s Circle picnic; and for a reader with even a little knowledge of Jewish immigrant life, that raises certain expectations, since the Workmen’s Circle signifies a socialist and Yiddishist commitment which time, no doubt, has dimmed but which still has left some impact of sensibility on people like Aunt Gladys. But while named, as if to signal familiarity with her background, this aspect of Aunt Gladys’s experience is never allowed to color Roth’s portrait, never allowed to affect either the ridicule to which she is subjected nor the simplistic fable—so self-serving in its essential softness—of a poor but honorable Jewish boy withstanding suburban-Jewish vulgarity and thereupon left without any moral option in his world.
The price Roth pays for immobilizing the Patimkins into lampoon and Aunt Gladys into vaudeville is that none of the social or moral forces supposedly acting upon Neil Klugman can be dramatically marshaled. And Neil Klugman himself—poor cipher that he is, neither very klug nor very man—can never engage himself in the risks and temptations that are supposed to constitute his dilemma, if only because Roth is out there running interference, straight-arming all the other characters in behalf of this vapid alter ego. Even so extreme an admirer of Roth’s work as Theodore Solotaroff acknowledges the “abstractness that Neil takes on. He . . . is too far along the path he is supposed to be traveling in the story. One could wish that he were more his aunt’s nephew, more troubled and attracted by the life of the Patimkins, and more willing to test it and himself.”
Now the issue is not, I had better emphasize, whether newly-rich suburban Jews are vulgar—a certain number, perhaps many, surely are—nor whether they are proper targets of satire—everyone is. What I am saying is that in its prefabricated counterpositions “Goodbye, Columbus” draws not upon a fresh encounter with the postwar experience of suburban Jews but upon literary hand-me-downs of American-Jewish fiction, popularizing styles of rebellion from an earlier moment and thereby draining them of their rebellious content.
I doubt, in any case, that Roth is really interested in a close and scrupulous observance of social life. He came to the literary scene at a moment when the dominant kind of critical talk was to dismiss “mere realism,” as if that were a commodity so easily come by, and to praise “the imagination,” as if that were a faculty which could operate apart from a bruising involvement with social existence. And this critical ideology served to reinforce Roth’s own temperament as a writer, which is inclined to be impatient, snappish, and dismissive, all qualities hardly disposing him to strive for an objective (objective: to see the object as it is) perception of contemporary life.
Defending himself several years ago against the rather feckless attacks of outraged rabbis, some of whom complained that he did not provide a “balanced portrayal” of Jewish life, Roth wrote that “to confuse a ‘balanced portrayal’ with a novel is . . . to be led into absurdities.”1 Absurdities, he continued, like supposing a group of 19th-century Russian students sending off a complaint to Dostoevsky that Raskolnikov is not a “typical student.” Well, that’s amusing, though I think it would be quite possible to show that, in some sense, Dostoevsky does present a “balanced portrayal” of Russian life. In any case, Roth in his defense, as in his fiction, makes things a little too easy for himself. For the critical issue is not whether he has given a “balanced portrayal” of the Jews as a whole or even the suburban Jews, but whether his portrayal of the Patimkins as the kind of people they are is characterized by fullness and precision. After all, no fictional portrait is merely idiosyncratic, every novel or story aspires to some element of representativeness or at least reverberation—and indeed, at a crucial point in “Goodbye, Columbus,” when Neil Klugman is reflecting upon what his fate would be if he were to marry Brenda, he at least takes the Patimkins to be representative of a way of life. It will not do to say that the Patimkins are “unique,” for if they were they could have no interest other than as an oddity. What is at stake here is Roth’s faithfulness to his own materials, the justice and largesse of his imaginative treatment.
There remains another line of defense against such criticism, which Roth’s admirers frequently man: that he writes satire and therefore cannot be expected to hew closely to realistic detail. This is a defense that quite fails to apprehend what the nature of good satire is. To compose a satire is not at all to free oneself from the obligation to social accuracy; it is only to order that accuracy in a particular way. If it can be shown that the targets of the satirist are imprecisely located or that he is shooting wild, the consequences may be more damaging than if the same were shown for a conventional realist. And if it can be shown that the satire is self-serving—poor Neil, poor Alex . . .—then it becomes—well, imagine how absurd Gulliver’s Travels would seem if we became persuaded that the satiric barrage against mankind allows for one little exception, a young hero troubled by the burdens of being English and resembling Jonathan Swift.
Roth’s stories begin, characteristically, with a spectacular array of details in the representation of milieu, speech, and manners and thereby we are led to expect a kind of fiction strong in verisimilitude. But then, at crucial points in the stories, there follow a series of substitutions, elements of incident or speech inserted not because they follow from the logic of the narrative but because they underscore the point Roth wishes to extract from the narrative. In “The Conversion of the Jews” a bright if obnoxious Jewish boy becomes so enraged with the snffling pieties of his Hebrew-school teacher, Rabbi Bender, that he races out of the classroom and up to the roof, threatening to jump unless the rabbi admits that “God can do anything” and “can make a child without intercourse.” The plot may seem a bit fanciful and the story, as Mr. Solotaroff justly remarks, “inflated to get in the message”—but no matter, at least our attention is being held. Then, however, comes the breaking point, when the writer’s will crushes his fiction: Ozzie “made them all say they believed in Jesus Christ—first one at a time, then all together.” Given the sort of tough-grained Jewish urchin Ozzie is shown to be, this declamation strains our credence; it is Roth who has taken over, shouldering aside his characters and performing on his own, just as it is Roth who ends the story with the maudlin touch of Ozzie crying out, “Mamma. You should never hit anybody about God. . . .” Scratch an Ozzie, and you find a Rabbi Bender.
A richer and more ambitious story, “Eli the Fanatic” suffers from the same kind of flaws. An exotic yeshivah sponsored by a Hasidic sect settles in Woodenton, a comfortable suburb. The local Jews feel hostile, tension follows, and Eli Peck, a vulnerable Woodenton Jew, undergoes a kind of moral conversion in which he identifies or hallucinates himself as a victim in kaftan. It is difficult, if one bears in mind Roth’s entire work, to take at face value this solemn espousal of yeshivah Orthodoxy as the positive force in the story; I cannot believe that the yeshivah and all it represents has been brought into play for any reason other than as a stick with which to beat Woodenton. Tzuref, the yeshivah principal, is well-drawn and allowed to speak for his outlook, as Aunt Gladys in “Goodbye, Columbus” is not: which is one reason this story builds up a certain dramatic tension. But again Roth feels obliged to drop a heavy thumb on the scales by making his suburbanites so benighted, indeed, so merely stupid, that the story finally comes apart. Here is a Woodenton Jew speaking:
Look, I don’t even know about this Sunday school business. Sundays I drive my oldest kid all the way to Scarsdale to learn Bible stories . . . and you know what she comes up with? This Abraham in the Bible was going to kill his own kid for a sacrifice. She gets nightmares from it, for God’s sake. You call that religion? Today a guy like that they’d lock him up.
Now, even a philistine character has certain rights, if not as a philistine then as a character in whose “reality” we are being asked to believe. To write as if this middle-class Jewish suburbanite were unfamiliar with “this Abraham” or shocked by the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, is simply preposterous. Roth is putting into the character’s mouth, not what he could plausibly say, but what Roth thinks his “real” sentiments are. He is not revealing the character, but “exposing” him. It is a crucial failure in literary tact, one of several in the story that rouse the suspicion Roth is not behaving with good faith toward the objects of his assault.
This kind of tendentiousness mars a number of Roth’s fictions, especially those in which a first-person narrator—Neil Klugman, Alex Portnoy—swarms all over the turf of his imaginary world, blotting out the possibility of multiple perspective. It is a weakness of fictions told in the first person that the limits of the narrator’s perception tend to become the limits of the work itself. Through an “unreliable” first-person narrator it is, of course, possible to plant bits of crucial evidence that call his version of things into question, but that requires a good deal of technical sophistication and still more, a portion of self-doubt such as our culture has not greatly encouraged these past two decades. There usually follows in such first-person narratives a spilling-out of the narrator which it becomes hard to suppose is not also the spilling-out of the author. Such literary narcissism is especially notable among minor satirists, with whom it frequently takes the form of self-exemptive attacks on the shamefulness of humanity. In some of Mary McCarthy’s novels, for example, all the characters are shown as deceitful and venomous, all but a heroine pure in heart and close to the heart of the author. Neither Klugman nor Portnoy is exactly pure in heart, but as a man at ease with our moment, Portnoy has learned that “sincerity” can pay substantial dividends by soliciting admiration for the candor with which it proclaims impurities. And as for those of Roth’s stories that avoid the looseness of the first-person narrative, his own authorial voice quickly takes over, becoming all but indistinguishable from a first-person narrator, raucous, self-aggrandizing, and damned sure that the denouement of his story will not escape the grip of his will.
To these strictures I would offer one exception, the Roth story that, oddly, was most attacked by his rabbinical critics: “Defender of the Faith.” This seems to me a distinguished performance, the example of what Roth might have made of his talent had he been stricter in his demands upon himself. Roth’s description of the story is acute: “It is about one man who uses his own religion, and another’s uncertain conscience, for selfish ends; but mostly it is about this other man, the narrator, who because of the ambiguities of being a member of a particular religion, is involved in a taxing, if mistaken, conflict of loyalties.” This conflict is at once urgent for those caught up in it and serious in its larger moral implications. Nathan Marx, back from combat duty in Germany, is made First Sergeant of a training company in Missouri; he is a decent, thoughtful fellow whose sense of being Jewish, important though it is to him, he cannot articulate clearly. A few recruits in his company, led by Sheldon Grossbart, attach themselves to Marx, presumably out of common feeling toward the problem of being Jews in an alien setting, but actually because Grossbart means to exploit this sense of solidarity in behalf of private ends—he looks forward to the crucial favor of not being sent overseas to combat. As Roth comments, Grossbart is “a man whose lapses of integrity seem to him so necessary to his survival as to convince him that such lapses are actually committed in the name of integrity.” At the end of the story, Sergeant Marx, incensed at the manipulation to which he has been subjected, makes certain that Grossbart is indeed shipped overseas, while he, Marx, braces himself to face the consequences of an act he admits to be “vindictive.”
The power of this story derives from presenting a moral entanglement so as to draw out, yet not easily resolve, its inherent difficulties. Unattractive as Grossbart may be, his cunning use of whatever weapons come to hand in order to protect his skin seems entirely real; one would have to be thoroughly locked into self-righteousness not to be drawn a little, however shamefacedly, to Grossbart’s urgency. The willingness of Marx to bend the rules in behalf of the Jewish recruits is plausible, perhaps even admirable; after all, he shares their loneliness and vulnerability. Established thereby as a figure of humaneness, Marx commits an act that seems shocking, even to himself, so that he must then try to resist “with all my will an impulse to turn back and seek pardon for my vindictiveness.” If it is right to punish Grossbart, Marx also knows the punishment is cruel, a result, perhaps, of the same Jewish uneasiness that had first made him susceptible to Grossbart’s designs.
The story does not allow any blunt distribution of moral sympathies, nor can the reader yield his heart to one character. Before the painfulness of the situation, Roth’s usual habit of rapid dismissal must melt away. We are left with the texture of reality as, once in a while, a writer can summon it.
Neither before nor after “Defender of the Faith” has Roth written anything approaching it in compositional rigor and moral seriousness. It may, however, have been the presence of this story in Goodbye, Columbus that led reviewers, including myself, to assume that this gifted new writer was working in the tradition of Jewish self-criticism and satire—a substantial tradition extending in Yiddish from Mendele to Isaac Bashevis Singer and in English from Abraham Cahan to Malamud and Bellow. In these kinds of writing, the assault upon Jewish philistinism and the mockery of Jewish social pretension are both familiar and unrelenting. Beside Mendele, Roth seems soft; beside Cahan, imprecise. But now, from the vantage point of additional years, I think it clear that Roth, despite his concentration on Jewish settings and his acerbity of tone, has not really been involved in this tradition. For he is one of the first American-Jewish writers who finds that it yields him no sustenance, no norms or values from which to launch his attacks on middle-class complacence.
This deficiency, if deficiency it be, need not be a fatal one for a Jewish writer, provided he can find sustenance elsewhere, in other cultures, other traditions. But I do not see that Roth has—his relation to the mainstream of American culture, in its great sweep of democratic idealism and romanticism, is decidedly meager. There is no lack of critical attitude, or attitudinizing, in Roth’s stories, but much of it consists of the frayed remnants of cultural modernism, once revolutionary in significance but now reduced to little more than the commonplace “shock” of middlebrow culture. And there is a parasitic relation to the embattled sentiments and postures of older Jewish writers in America—though without any recognition that, by now, simply to launch attacks on middle-class suburbia is to put oneself at the head of the suburban parade, just as to mock the uprightness of immigrant Jews is to become the darling of their “liberated” suburban children.
One reason Roth’s stories are unsatisfactory is that they come out of a thin personal culture. That he can quote Yeats and Rilke is hardly to the point. When we speak of a writer’s personal culture we have in mind the ways in which a tradition, if absorbed into his work, can both release and control his creative energies. A vital culture can yield a writer those details of manners, customs, and morals which give the illusion of reality to his work. More important, a vital culture talks back, so to say, within the writer’s work, holding in check his eccentricities, notions, and egocentrisms, providing a dialectic between what he has received and what he has willed—one can see this in novelists as various as Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Verga, and Sholem Aleichem.
When we say, consequently, that a writer betrays a thin personal culture we mean, among other possibilities, that he comes at the end of a tradition which can no longer nourish his imagination or that he has, through an act of fiat, chosen to tear himself away from that tradition—many American writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, could no longer continue with firm conviction in the line of transcendental idealism which had been so liberating fifty or sixty years earlier. It is, of course, a severe predicament for a writer to find himself in this situation; it forces him into self-consciousness, improvisation, and false starts; but if he is genuinely serious, he will try, like a farmer determined to get what he can from poor soil, to make a usable theme of his dilemmas.
Perhaps this thinness of culture has some connection with that tone of ressentiment, that freefloating contempt and animus, which begins to appear in Roth’s early stories and grows more noticeable in his later work. Unfocused hostility often derives from unexamined depression, and the latter, which I take to be the ground-note of Roth’s sensibility, fully emerges only in the two novels he wrote after Goodbye, Columbus. But even in the early stories one begins to hear a grind of exasperation, an assault without precise object, an irritable wish to pull down the creatures of his own imagination which can hardly be explained by anything happening within the stories themselves. If sentimentality is defined as emotion in excess of what a given situation warrants, what are we to say about irritability in excess? As one of Roth’s critics, Baruch Hochman, has sharply noticed:
The energy informing [Roth’s] stories is scarcely more than the energy of irritation, an irritation so great that it makes the exposure of inanity seem a meaningful moral act. For Roth does not seem really to be concerned with the substance of the values he shows being eroded. It is not at all clear how Neil Klugman, who is so offended at the Patimkins, stands for anything substantially different from what they stand for—setting aside the fact that he is poorer than they, which he cannot help. His differences with them lie elsewhere than in the moral realm. . . .
At times the note of disgust is sounded in full, as in “Epstein,” a nasty joke about a middle-aged man’s hapless effort to revive his sexuality. Reading the last paragraphs of this story, arranged as a pratfall for the poor slob Epstein (and how pleasurable it is for “us,” the cultivated ones, to sneer at those slobs, with their little box houses, their spreading wives, their mucky kids, their uncreative jobs), one is reminded of D. H. Lawrence’s jibe about writers who “do dirt” on their characters.
The standard opinion of Roth’s critics has been that his two novels, Letting Go and When She Was Good, add slight luster to his reputation, and there is not much use in arguing against this view. Yet it should be noticed that there are patches of genuine achievement in both books, sometimes a stumbling, gasping honesty. They are not novels that yield much pleasure or grip one despite its absence, but both are marked by tokens of struggle with the materials of American life. And there are moments that come off well—the persistence of the battered divorcee, Martha Reganhart (Letting Go), in raising her children decently, the precocious eeriness of little Cynthia Reganhart, the struggle of Lucy (When She Was Good) to raise herself above the maudlin stupor of her family. Conventional achievements all of these are, and of a kind novelists have often managed in the past—of a kind, also, they will have to manage in the future if the novel is to survive. But right now, in our present cultural situation, this is hardly the sort of achievement likely to win much attention, as Roth evidently came to see.
Roth is not a “natural” novelist at all, the kind who loves to tell stories, chronicle social life, pile on characters, and if in his early fiction he seems willfully bent on scoring “points,” in the novels his will exhausts itself from the sheer need to get on with things. He is an exceedingly joyless writer, even when being very funny. The reviewers of his novels, many of them sympathetic, noticed his need to rub our noses in the muck of squalid daily existence, his mania for annotating at punitive length the bickerings of his characters. Good clean hatred that might burn through, naturalistic determinism with a grandeur of design if not detail, the fury of social rebellion—any of these would be more interesting than the vindictive bleakness of Roth’s novels.
What, one wonders, does he really have against these unhappy creatures of his? Why does he keep pecking away at them? I think the answer might furnish a key to Roth’s work. Perhaps as a leftover from the culture of modernism and perhaps as a consequence of personal temperament, Roth’s two novels betray a swelling nausea before the ordinariness of human existence, its seepage of spirit and rotting of flesh. This is a response that any sensitive or even insensitive person is likely to share at some point and to some extent, but it simply does not allow a writer to sustain or provide internal complications of tone in a large-scale work. It starts as a fastidious hesitation before the unseemliness of our minds and unsightliness of our bodies; it ends as a vibration of horror before the sewage of the quotidian. Men grow paunches, women’s breasts sag, the breath of the aged reeks, varicose veins bulge. It all seems insufferable, an affront to our most cherished images of self, so much so that ordinary life must be pushed away, a disorder to be despised and assaulted. It is as if, in nagging at his characters, Roth were venting some deep and unmanageable frustration with our common fate.
The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is to read it twice. An assemblage of gags strung onto the outcry of an analytic patient, the book thrives best on casual responses; it demands little more from the reader than a nightclub performer demands: a rapid exchange of laugh for punch-line, a breath or two of rest, some variations on the first response, and a quick exit. Such might be the most generous way of discussing Portnoy’s Complaint were it not for the solemn ecstasies the book has elicited, in line with Roth’s own feeling that it constitutes a liberating act for himself, his generation, and maybe the whole culture.
The basic structural unit of Portnoys’ Complaint is the skit, the stand-up comedian’s shuffle and patter that come to climax with a smashing one-liner—indeed, it is worth noticing that a good many of our more “advanced” writers during the last two decades have found themselves turning to the skit as a form well-suited to the requirements of “swinging” and their rejection of sustained coherence of form. The controlling tone of the book is a shriek of excess, the jokester’s manic wail, although, because it must slide from skit to skit with some pretense of continuity, this tone declines now and again into a whine of self-exculpation or sententiousness. And the controlling sensibility of the book derives from a well-grounded tradition of feeling within immigrant Jewish life: the coarse provincial “worldliness” flourishing in corner candy-stores and garment centers, at cafeterias and pinochle games, a sort of hard, cynical mockery of ideal claims and pretensions, all that remains to people scraped raw by the struggle for success. (This sensibility finds a “sophisticated” analogue in the smart-aleck nastiness of Jules Feiffer’s film, Carnal Knowledge, which cannot really be understood without some reference to the undersides of Jewish immigrant life, not as these have affected the subject-matter of the film but as they have affected the vision of the people who made it.)
Much of what is funny in Roth’s book—the Monkey’s monologues, some rhetorical flourishes accompanying Alex’s masturbation, Sophie Portnoy’s amusement at chancing upon her son’s sexual beginnings—rests on the fragile structure of the skit. All the skit requires or can manage is a single broad stroke: shrewd, gross, recognizable, playing on the audience’s embarrassment yet not hurting it too much, so that finally its aggression can be passed off as good-fellowship. (We all have Jewish mamas, we’re all henpecked husbands, we all pretend to greater sexual prowess than. . . .) The skit stakes everything on brashness and energy, both of which Roth has or simulates in abundance. Among writers of the past Dickens and Céline have used the skit brilliantly, but Dickens always and Céline sometimes understood that in a book of any length the skit—as well as its sole legitimate issue, the caricature—must be put to the service of situations, themes, stories allowing for complication and development. (A lovely example of this point can be seen in the skits that Peter Sellers performs in the movie version of Lolita.)
It is on the problem of continuity that Portnoy—or, actually, Roth himself—trips up. For once we are persuaded to see his complaints as more than the stuff of a few minutes of entertainment, once we are led to suppose that they derive from some serious idea or coherent view of existence, the book quickly falls to pieces and its much-admired energy (praised by some critics as if energy were a value regardless of the ends to which it is put) serves mainly to blur its flimsiness. Technically this means that, brief as it is, the book seems half again too long, since there can be very little surprise or development in the second half, only a recapitulation of motifs already torn to shreds in the first.
It is worth looking at a few of the book’s incoherences, venial for a skit, fatal for a novel. Alex is allowed the human attribute of a history within the narrative space of the book, presumably so that he can undergo change and growth, but none of the characters set up as his foils, except perhaps the Monkey, is granted a similar privilege. Alex speaks for imposed-upon, vulnerable, twisted, yet self-liberating humanity; the other characters, reduced to a function of his need, an echo of his cry, cannot speak or speak back as autonomous voices but simply go through their paces like straight-men mechanically feeding lines to a comic. Even more than in Roth’s earlier work, the result is claustrophobia of voice and vision: he never shuts up, this darling Alex, nor does Roth detach himself sufficiently to gain some ironic distance. The psychic afflictions of his character Roth would surely want to pass up, but who can doubt that Portnoy’s cry from the heart—enough of Jewish guilt, enough of the burdens of history, enough of inhibition and repression, it is time to “let go” and soar to the horizons of pleasure—speaks in some sense for Roth?
The difficulty that follows from this claustrophobic vision is not whether Mrs. Portnoy can be judged a true rendering, even as caricature, of Jewish mothers—only chuckleheads can suppose that to be a serious question!—but whether characters like Mr. and Mrs. Portnoy have much reality or persuasiveness within the fictional boundaries set by Roth himself. Sophie Portnoy has a little, because there are moments when Alex, or Roth, can’t help liking her, and because the conventional lampoon of the Jewish mother is by now so well established in our folklore it has almost become an object of realistic portraiture in its own right. As for Mr. Portnoy, a comparison suggests itself between this constipated nudnik whom Alex would pass off as his father and “Mr. Fumfotch” in Daniel Fuchs’s novel Homage to Blenholt. Fuchs’s character is also a henpecked husband, also worn down by the struggle for bread, but he is drawn with an ironic compassion that rises to something better than itself: to an objectivity that transcends either affection or derision. In his last novel Fuchs remarks, while writing about figures somewhat like those in Roth’s work, “It was not enough to call them low company and pass on”—and if this can be said about Depression Jews in Brighton Beach, why not also about more or less affluent ones in the Jersey suburbs?
We notice, again, that Portnoy attributes his sexual troubles to the guilt-soaked Jewish tradition as it has been carried down to him by his mother. Perhaps; who knows? But if we are to accept this simplistic determinism, why does it never occur to him, our Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity who once supped with John Lindsay in the flesh, that by the same token the intelligence on which he preens himself must also be attributed to the tradition he finds so repugnant—so that his yowl of revulsion against “my people,” that they should “stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass,” becomes, let us say, a little ungenerous, even a little dopey.
And we notice, again, that while Portnoy knows that his sexual difficulties stem from his Jewishness, the patrician New England girl with whom he has an affair also turns out to be something of a sexual failure: she will not deliver him from the coils of Jewish guilt through the magic of fellatio. But if both Jewishness and Protestantism have deeply inhibiting effects on sexual performance—and as for Catholicism, well, we know those Irish girls!—what then happens to this crucial flake of Portnoy’s wisdom, which the book invites us to take with some seriousness? As for other possible beliefs, from Ethical Culture to Hare Krishna, there can surely be little reason to suppose they will deliver us from the troubles of life which, for all we know, may be lodged in the very nature of things or, at the least, in those constraints of civilization which hardly encircle Jewish loins exclusively.
There is something suspect about Portnoy’s complaining. From what he tells us one might reasonably conclude that, in a far from perfect world, he is not making out so badly; the boys on his block, sexual realists that they are, would put it more pungently. Only in Israel does he have serious difficulties, and for that there are simple geographical solutions. What seems really to be bothering Portnoy is a wish to sever his sexuality from his moral sensibilities, to cut it away from his self as historical creature. It’s as if he really supposed the super-ego, or post coitum triste, were a Jewish invention. This wish—Norman O. Brown as a yingele—strikes me as rather foolish, an adolescent fantasy carrying within itself an inherent negation; but it is a fantasy that has accumulated a great deal of power in contemporary culture. And it helps explain, I think, what Roth’s true feelings about, or relation to, Jewishness are. Portnoy’s Complaint is not, as enraged critics have charged, an anti-Semitic book, though it contains plenty of contempt for Jewish life. Nor does Roth write out of traditional Jewish self-hatred, for the true agent of such self-hatred is always indissolubly linked with Jewish past and present, quite as closely as those who find in Jewishness moral or transcendent sanctions. What the book speaks for is a yearning to undo the fate of birth; there is no wish to do the Jews any harm (a little nastiness is something else), nor any desire to engage with them as a fevered antagonist; Portnoy is simply crying out to be left alone, to be released from the claims of distinctiveness and the burdens of the past, so that, out of his own nothingness, he may create himself as a “human being.” Who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so lofty in spirit never to have shared this fantasy? But who, born a Jew in the 20th century, has been so foolish in mind as to dally with it for more than a moment?
What, in any case, is Portnoy’s Complaint—a case-history burlesqued, which we are invited to laugh at, or a struggle of an afflicted man to achieve his liberation, which we are invited to cheer on? Dr. Bruno Bettelheim has written a straight-faced essay purporting to be the case notes of Alex’s psychoanalyst, Dr. O. Spielvogel, who can barely restrain his impatience with Alex’s effort to mask his true problems with “all the clichés of a spoiled Jewish childhood.”
A few times I [Dr. Spielvogel] indicated the wish to say something, but he only talked on the more furiously. . . . This extremely intelligent young Jew does not recognize that what he is trying to do, by reversing the Oedipal situation, is to make fun of me, as he does of everyone, thus asserting his superiority. . . . His overpowering love for his mother is turned into a negative projection, so that what becomes overpowering is the mother’s love for him. . . . While consciously he experienced everything she did as destructive, behind it is an incredible wish for more, more, more. . . .
Now this is amusing, though not as amusing as the fact that it often constitutes the line of defense to which Roth’s admirers fall back when the book’s incoherence is revealed (“after all, it’s a patient on the couch, everyone knows you can’t take what he says at face value. . . .”). But to see the book in this light, as the mere comic record of a very sick man, is radically to undercut its claims for expressing radical new truths. Roth, never unwary, anticipates the problem by having Portnoy say, “Is this truth I’m delivering up, or is it just plain kvetching? Or is kvetching for people like me a form of truth?” Well there’s kvetching and kvetching. At times it can be a form of truth, but when the gap is so enormous between manifest content and what Dr. Spielvogel cum Bettelheim takes to be its inner meaning, then kvetching becomes at best an untruth from which the truth must be violently wrenched.
It seems hard to believe that Roth would accept the view that his book consists merely of comic griping; certainly the many readers who saw it as a banner behind which to rally would not accept that view. For, in a curious way, Portnoy’s Complaint has become a cultural document of some importance. Younger Jews, weary or bored with all the talk about their heritage, have taken the book as a signal for “letting go” of both their past and perhaps themselves, a guide to swinging in good conscience or better yet, without troubling about conscience. For some Gentile readers the book seems to have played an even more important role. After the Second World War, as a consequence of certain unpleasantnesses that occurred during the war, a wave of philo-Semitism swept through our culture. This wave lasted for all of two decades, in the course of which books by Jewish writers were often praised (in truth, overpraised) and a fuss made about Jewish intellectuals, critics, etc. Some literary people found this hard to bear, but they did. Once Portnoy’s Complaint arrived, however, they could almost be heard breathing a sigh of relief, for it signaled an end to philo-Semitism in American culture, one no longer had to listen to all that talk about Jewish morality, Jewish endurance, Jewish wisdom, Jewish families. Here was Philip Roth himself, a writer who even seemed to know Yiddish, confirming what had always been suspected about those immigrant Jews but had recently not been tactful to say.
The talent that went into Portnoy’s Complaint and portions of Goodbye, Columbus is real enough, but it has been put to the service of a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity. It is very hard, I will admit, to be explicit about the concept of vulgarity: people either know what one is referring to, as part of the tacit knowledge that goes to make up a coherent culture, or the effort to explain is probably doomed in advance. Nevertheless, let me try. By vulgarity in a work of literature I am not here talking about the presence of certain kinds of words or the rendering of certain kinds of actions. I have in mind, rather, the impulse to submit the rich substance of human experience, sentiment, value, and aspiration to a radically reductive leveling or simplification; the urge to assault the validity of sustained gradings and discriminations of value, so that in some extreme instances the concept of vulgarity is dismissed as up-tight or a mere mask for repressiveness; the wish to pull down the reader in common with the characters of the work, so that he will not be tempted to suppose that any inclinations he has toward the good, the beautiful, or the ideal merit anything more than a Bronx cheer; and finally, a refusal of that disinterestedness of spirit in the depiction and judgment of other people which seems to me the writer’s ultimate resource.
That I have here provided an adequate definition of vulgarity in literature I do not for a moment suppose—though I don’t know of a better one. It ought, however, to serve our present purposes by helping to make clear, for example, the ways in which a book like Portnoy’s Complaint, for all its scrim of sophistication, is spiritually linked with the usual sentimental treatment of Jewish life in the work of popular and middlebrow writers. Between Portnoy’s Complaint and Two Cents Plain there is finally no great difference of sensibility.
Perhaps the matter can be clarified by a comparison. Hubert Selby’s novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, portrays a segment of urban life—lumpen violence, gang-bangs, rape, sheer debasement—that is utterly appalling, and the language it must record is of a kind that makes Roth seem reticent; yet as I read Selby’s book there is no vulgarity in it whatever, for he takes toward his barely human figures a stance of dispassionate objectivity, writing not with “warmth” or “concern” but with a disciplined wish to see things as they are. He does not wrench, he does not patronize, he does not aggrandize. Repugnant as it often is, Last Exit to Brooklyn seems to me a pure-spirited book; amusing as it often is, Portnoy’s Complaint a vulgar book.
About the remainder of Roth’s work I have little to say.
Our Gang, purporting to be a satire on Richard Nixon, is a coarse-grained replica of its subject. A flaccid performance, it has some interest through embodying a strong impulse in our culture, the impulse to revert not so much to the pleasures of infantilism as to the silliness of the high-school humor column. About this book I would repeat what Henry James once said of a Trollope novel: “Our great objection . . . is that we seem to be reading a work written for children, a work prepared for minds unable to think, a work below the apprehension of the average man or woman.”
The Breast,2 extravagantly praised by my literary betters, is a work to which, as students would say, “I cannot relate.” Well-enough written and reasonably ingenious, it is finally boring—tame, neither shocking nor outrageous, and tasteless in both senses of the word. Discussions will no doubt persist as to its “meaning,” but first it might be better to ask whether, as a work of literature, it exists. For simply on the plane of narrative it cannot, or ought not, hold the interest of a reasonably mature reader.
Flaubert once said that a writer must choose between an audience and readers. Evidently Roth has made his choice.
1 “Writing about Jews,” COMMENTARY, December 1963.
2 Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 78 pp., $4.95.
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Philip Roth Reconsidered
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Civic propriety vs the people.
Donald Trump’s critics are becoming more strategic. Democrats who contend that the left should be more selective with what they chose to become outraged over have been winning the argument. Most influential Republicans in and out of elected office stifle their criticisms of the president lest they anger the majority of their constituents who support him. These are sound political strategies, but they leave us with a conundrum. Just because it is politically imprudent to condemn Donald Trump’s divisive impulses doesn’t mean that those impulses are unworthy of criticism. Indeed, even at the risk of sacrificing political capital, Trump’s reckless rhetorical flourishes must be called out for what they are if the country’s humane and republican character is to be preserved.
Last week, Donald Trump was brazenly taken out of context by a handful of media outlets when he called criminal migrants subject to deportation “animals.” The president’s detractors suggested that he was referring to all undocumented immigrants, while Donald Trump’s defenders insist that he was only and obviously referring to the vicious El Salvadoran gang MS-13. Watch the clip for yourself; the president is, as ever, not particularly specific. That ambiguity has proven a strategic asset for Trump. The president and his political operation claim that those who take issue with his remarks are defending a gang of murderous thugs. That tactic is thoughtlessly cynical. Though it is surely common parlance to refer to violent criminals as “animals” and “not human” as the president did, it is also not language we should countenance in a responsible statesman.
There is enough scholarly literature and social science on the effect of dehumanizing rhetoric from political leaders on their respective societies for any conservative with a proper fear of the state to find Trump’s remarks disturbing. Throughout history and across wildly distinct cultures, such language from public officials has prepared the way for social unrest and, ultimately, statist oppression. This is hardly the first time Trump has described criminal immigrants as beasts and implied that individual immigrants were incapable of any independent thought that contradicts their ethnicity’s hive mind. And we have reason to fear the extent to which this kind of rhetoric has greased the skids for inhumane policies that are happening right before our eyes.
The New York Times reported in late April that the Department of Health and Human Services has lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children who were separated from their parents or were apprehended alone after they crossed the border illegally. They have simply fallen off the radar, prompting concerns that these children could end up in the custody of abusers or human traffickers. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents at the border, which is a practice that is often legitimate and predates the Trump administration. What is new is that the Trump administration has openly floated the idea of breaking up families as a means of deterring future illegal immigration. The process would be entirely humane, said White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, because HHS does “a very, very good job of putting them in foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.” Clearly, that is not the case.
What’s more, the process to which illegal migrant parents are subjected is disturbing. No human being could fail to be moved by the all-too-common story of a young mother, forced to wear a yellow bracelet that identifies her as an illegal immigrant parent, weeping in an American courtroom as she is separated from her children. This is not “ordered liberty” or the dispassionate conduct of the affairs of a state. It’s capricious and vengeful, and it is corrupting of the soul. Donald Trump isn’t responsible for a mentality on the right that views this kind of treatment as a necessary evil to which any self-respecting country must appeal; he’s a product of it.
The idea shared by some on the right that even modest comforts for border-crossers are an unacceptable indulgence was evident as early as 2014. That sentiment surfaced in response to broadcaster Glenn Beck who, amid a surge crossing the border in the summer of 2014, sent meals and toys to the border. Some on the right reacted to this act of charity as if he had personally vaulted migrant children over the border fence.
“[H]e is helping the illegals out, how is that different than giving their parents jobs here?” asked Ohio Rep. Andrew Brenner. He added that there is a reason why anyone who “feeds, gives shelter, water and food to illegals” is violating the law: “basic economics.” Breitbart’s John Nolte insisted that Beck’s charity would be exploited by “drug smugglers and human traffickers” to “recruit more” parents of small children to make the hazardous trip north. He added that the affairs of these migrants, their deportation, and whatever relief they are provisioned, should be the exclusive province of the state. But not all on the right were comfortable with even government-provided relief efforts. In a speech at the height of the crisis, former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin attacked the “incentives and invitations” that have transformed America into an “unfunded charity” for illegal immigrants, forcing the “forgotten man” to compete for lower wages and fewer opportunities.
Most of the right’s influential voices recognized this humanitarian tragedy and demanded a compassionate response, but that sentiment was not universal. For some, even the smallest kindness represented a display of weakness that would only be exploited. For the sake of the country, they told themselves, the instinct toward human compassion must be subdued. Two years later, the Republican Party’s primary process became a competition to establish who could prove they were the most uncompromising when it came to illegal migrants. With unconstitutional citizen watch lists, amendments to the founding charter designed to end birthright citizenship, mass deportation squads, and a plan to seize bank records to prevent the transmission of cash overseas, Trump won that contest with ease. To Trump’s supporters, these were mere positioning statements, unworkable as policy but valuable as an expression of his commitment to enforcing immigration law. But Trump’s actions as president—from the pardoning of the scofflaw Joe Arpaio to warrantless immigration raids—suggest that this isn’t about the law at all.
Surely, most Americans do not see what’s wrong with Donald Trump’s expressions of populist fervor. They might agree that violent criminal migrants deserve to be called animals and that those NFL players, mostly African Americans, who refuse to stand for the flag should self-deport. But civic propriety is often in conflict with the kind of bombast that would be at home in a bar or on talk radio. The ideal head of government in a republic of laws cools passions and tempers prejudices. Donald Trump has done just the opposite, and that is a tragedy of which we all must take stock. History will remember those who looked away.
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Cut bait while there's still line.
Nearly three months ago, Donald Trump reaffirmed his status as a maverick who’s liberated from the conventions that shackled past presidents by giving a North Korean despot something North Korean despots have sought for decades. Today, the planned bilateral summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has collapsed. In the intervening weeks, those conventions of which Trump is so disdainful demonstrated their value.
In retrospect, it is a marvel that the prospect of a summit between the American president and the scion of the Communist dynasty in Pyongyang was taken so seriously. Initially, it took Donald Trump a whopping 45 minutes to accept Kim’s overture. In that timeframe, surely complex matters such as American grand strategy, Kim’s domestic position, our complex and conflicting regional alliances, and achievable objectives got short shrift.
Expectations for the summit were unreasonably high almost from the outset. Those high hopes were made physically manifest in the form of 500 collector’s coins commemorating the presumably historic event. For a time, though, those expectations did not seem entirely fanciful.
North Korea’s openness to secret contacts with Trump administration officials, including the CIA director and vice president, were welcome changes of heart. When Trump tweeted about Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, North Korea did not correct him. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea even appeared to drop its opposition to military drills on the Peninsula and the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Mutual concessions seemed to mark the start of a new era. For a time, progress seemed possible. But that progress was only illusory.
This week, North Korea formally closed its nuclear test site. But North Korea’s test site collapsed in October of last year, taking as many as 200 trained professionals with it. Closing a defunct installation isn’t much of a concession. Nor, for that matter, is the surrender of American hostages. Indeed, the only reason to take hostages is to be able to give them up in a negotiation to generate concessions from your interlocutor without having surrendered anything of strategic value. The “peace treaty” that South Korea negotiated with North Korea is likely invalid because the U.S. and China—both parties to the 1953 cease-fire—were not part of the process. Recently, North Korea has rediscovered its opposition to military drills on the peninsula and its commitment to maintaining a nuclear arsenal, and communications between Washington and Pyongyang had broken down. The only thing the two parties agreed upon after ten weeks of preparatory work was on the summit itself. That is a recipe for disaster.
With no clarity on core objectives, the best that anyone could have hoped for from this summit was amicable ambiguity. But the more likely scenario was confusion, mutual hostility, and the closing off of lines of communication. It was a mark of maturity for the president to cut his losses before any irreplaceable American interests were sacrificed. That is, after all, how summits like these tend to end.
There are not many historical examples of bilateral summitry between two hostile powers, but the examples that we have to draw lessons from are not encouraging.
“I have never been so proud of my President as I have been in these sessions and particularly this afternoon,” Secretary of State George Schultz told reporters moments after Ronald Reagan’s summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, failed. Schultz put a positive spin on this summit’s failure, just as Reagan officials had the year earlier when a similar meeting at Geneva, Switzerland, did not produce anything other than an exchange of familiarities. But Reagan’s expectations for the summit were not met, and we are all better off as a result. As I wrote in April:
Had Reagan succeeded on his terms, the deal struck between the two powers in Iceland would have badly strained American relations with its nuclear-armed European allies and provided an economic lifeline to Moscow that might have postponed the Soviet Union’s implosion. In retrospect, the president’s willingness to walk away from the table set the stage for one of the most astonishing events of the 20th Century: the peaceful end of the Cold War and the fall of European communism.
The perils of a failed summit have proved all too real. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, stands as a warning to headstrong presidents seeking to leave their mark on the world. Kennedy studied closely the cataclysmic miscalculations made in Munich in 1939 and believed himself capable of avoiding the traps into which Neville Chamberlain had fallen, but he made his own unique mistakes. The young president allowed himself to be harangued by Khrushchev, which left the Soviet leader convinced of his weakness. “It was just a disaster,” said Assistant Secretary of State Paul Nitze. “I’m scared to death about what will happen next.” His trepidation was warranted. Within two months, Khrushchev ordered the walling in of East Berliners. One year after that, Soviet high command approved the deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba, touching off the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known.
The collapse of a fraught summit between the leader of the free world and the abhorrent head of one of the world’s most repulsive regimes does not signal the end of diplomacy. Indeed, it is a hopeful sign; a failed summit between the two countries’ principals might have closed off pathways to further negotiations. Negotiations between functionaries at lower governmental levels do not carry that risk.
Nor should Western diplomatic professionals worry that Trump has undermined Kim’s domestic position to the point that he will have to adopt a more confrontational posture and appease his regime’s hardline elements. A confrontational North Korea is the status quo ante; not optimal, but not an unknown quantity either. From Soviet generals to the Iranian mullahs, Westerners are frequently in thrall to the idea that a given interlocutor is surely preferable to uncompromising alternatives waiting in the wings. That is the appeaser’s construct. A deal that preserves the longevity of this criminal regime without a verifiable and long-term solution to the threat that a summit is designed to address is far worse than no summit at all.
Trump deserves credit both for being open to outside-the-box solutions to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and for recognizing when it was time to cut his losses on a bad idea. In the end, if maximum pressure on Pyongyang, Beijing, Moscow, and the rest of the rogues who support this disgraceful state convinces the Kim regime to make some hard choices about its survival, Trump may actually deserve that Nobel Prize.
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Podcast: The DPRK and the NFL.
The Trump-Kim meeting is off, and the question is this: If the announcement of thawing relations with North Korea helped Trump’s approval rating, will this hurt or harm it? And why won’t Trump trumpet the bipartisan legislative successes of the past few weeks? Give a listen.
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The great American novel.
Why won’t the child just listen? Why won’t she come to reason? Where did I do wrong with her?
Parents of difficult children have asked themselves such questions since time immemorial. For all of modern psychology’s advances, today’s parents are no more likely to have good answers than did their forebears a hundred or a thousand years ago. Indeed, modernity itself has compounded the ancient problem, by breaking taboos around honoring mother and father and spawning new reasons for children to rebel against parental order that would have been inconceivable under premodern conditions.
This tangle of themes is at the heart of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, perhaps the darkest and most acrid novel about parenting in all of American letters.
Roth, who died Tuesday at age 85, never had children. Yet he wrote perceptively and with great empathy for Seymour “the Swede” Levov, the novel’s protagonist, whose love for his daughter, Merry, knows no bounds and is utterly unrequited. Handsome, affable, responsible, and wealthy, the Swede does everything right by the standards of the midcentury American bourgeoisie. He manages a successful enterprise, procures a trophy wife, owns a tasteful estate in the Jersey suburbs, and fathers a girl who brings ruin to it all. There is a rage within Merry, which, as she grows older, explodes (quite literally) in political radicalism before she smothers her inner flames under Far-Eastern asceticism.
Why does Merry go wrong? What is the source of her rage? She isn’t as beautiful as her mother, Dawn, for starters. Dawn is vapid and cold, and she holds Merry as a judgment against her husband; their marriage is loveless. Then there is Merry’s severe stuttering, which speech therapy fails to alleviate for many years. The Swede’s love doesn’t suffice to overcome these natural disadvantages. Nor can the father’s love keep away the ferment and collective rage roiling America in the late 1960s: race riots, assassinations, all manner of sexual and cultural degradation. Merry is disordered because disorder is in the American air she breathes.
So it is that, five years after Merry commits a Weather Underground-style terrorist attack in the name of stopping the American war machine in Vietnam, the Swede finds Merry living in an almost animal-like state on the streets of Newark. Merry is now a fanatical Jainist, filthy and wafer-thin. Having committed bloody acts of terror, she has now adopted the opposite extreme–total pacifism, veganism–perhaps as a form of expiation. The father-daughter exchange that follows makes for excruciating reading for anyone who has ever loved a child:
“You’re not my daughter. You’re not Merry.”
“If you wish to believe that I am not, that may be just as well. It may be for the best.”
“Why don’t you ask me about your mother, Meredith? Should I ask you? Where was your mother born? What is her maiden name? What is her father’s name?
“I don’t want to talk about my mother.”
“Because you know nothing about her. Or about me. Or about the person you pretend to be. . . . Tell me why you’re pretending to be my daughter!”
“If I answer the questions, you will suffer even more. I don’t know how much suffering you want.”
Though set in the turbulent 1960s, American Pastoral has a striking contemporaneity. We, too, are living through an age of intense intergenerational conflict. Today’s aging Boomers are as mystified by the zeal for abstract justice and romantic politics among the young as Roth’s Swede is by Merry’s Marxist and Jainist turns. True, Millennials aren’t, for the most part, setting off bombs at post offices and police stations.
But they mob their professors, ruthlessly discipline and punish their peers online, and take up all manner of secular substitute religions, from mindfulness to “clean eating” to identity politics. They are hungry for order and solidarity and transcendence. Their parents, who only know how to fight battles of cultural and sexual liberation, are no more capable of nourishing that hunger than the feckless, well-intentioned, all-too-sensible Swede.
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Both sides of the issue.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is “appalled.”
Crowned the “free world’s best hope” in 2017 by Rolling Stone, Trudeau has, since then, cut his foreign policy chops: heavy on gender equality, feminism, environmentalism and relatively light on security and geopolitics. He fancies soft-lens moments when he can tear up on cue, fun parades, dress-up extravaganzas and breezy feel-good stuff, all of which is reflected in his photo-posturing and official statements. His election slogan, when running against PM Harper in the 2015 federal election, was to promote “sunny ways.”
This naïve cheer has yet to resonate in the Middle East and, in particular along the Israel-Gaza border. Since withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel has watched the Dante-esque destruction of what was a robust economy. Under Hamas rule, the Strip has become a theocratic terrorist state. Significant sums of foreign cash donated to develop and support civilian infrastructure are diverted to build terror tunnels, pay terrorist salaries, and produce of all manner of weapons. Incitement to violence against Jews and Israelis is fierce, endemic, and unrestrained. And every so often, a full-blown war breaks out.
Perhaps unaware of the long, complex, tragic backstory, Trudeau blasted Israel in a statement issued on May 16: “Canada deplores and is gravely concerned by the violence in the Gaza Strip that has led to a tragic loss of life and injured countless people.”
He pulls no punches, focusing on one individual who was injured in both legs by Israeli sniper fire at the border: “We are appalled that Dr. Tarek Loubani, a Canadian citizen, is among the wounded–along with so many unarmed people, including civilians, members of the media, first responders, and children.” For a leader who crows about his strong, principle-based support for Israel this is quite the invective. What seems to have stoked his previously dormant ire is the fact that Dr. Loubani was injured by Israeli fire on Monday, May 14, which was a very busy day: the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the state of Israel; the official ceremony opening the American Embassy in Jerusalem; and “Naqba” or “Disaster” Day, commemorated each year by Palestinians.
Each Friday since March, Hamas has staged a “March of Return” at multiple locations along the border fence. Billed as a “peaceful protest,” crowds tend to swell to the tens of thousands following midday prayers, during which Imams fire up the men to annihilate the Zionist occupiers and restore Palestinian and Arab honor.
Hamas recruits protest participants onto buses waiting outside mosques, throwing in financial incentives for attending, hoping to draw women and children as “extras” in this macabre, serial event. Many of the men show up with knives, Molotov cocktails, wire cutters, and other weapons and incendiary devices. A recent innovation is fire kites, which are launched and intended to burn Israeli farmers’ fields, and do. Pyres of car tires are lit, creating a dense, black, toxic screen to provide cover for physical border breaches and confuse Israeli snipers.
These “peaceful” protesters boast openly about their violent intentions, parroting Hamas leaders who, aside from one or two brief cameos well back from the fence, tuck away in their fortified bunkers under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and other safe havens in the Strip.
Hamas leaders have exhorted these “peaceful” protesters to tear down the border fence and then proceed to remove various bodily organs from Israelis they kill and eat them. They tell Gazans, and anyone paying attention, of their intention to foment chaos at the border. Ideally, the smoke and confusion would facilitate a goal they commend openly: the capture of one or more Israeli soldiers, and, if things go particularly well, perhaps a murderous romp in one of the many civilian villages within a few hundred meters of the border.
For those martyred in this jihad to murder Jews and destroy Israel, Hamas assures, there is an exalted place in Paradise.
Now, all this bluster may sound and seem “peaceful” to PM Trudeau, but it is quite the opposite. There have been multiple fence breaches by terrorists armed with more and less crude weapons. It isn’t necessary to have a tank to kill. Knives, meat cleavers and grenades do the trick, as Israelis know well. This is Hamas, for goodness sake. Read their Charter. Follow their “media.” It’s all there. Zero ambiguity. And they mean it.
Why, Trudeau must be asking, does the IDF not resort to less extreme measures? Live ammunition, he has surely been briefed, is a last resort. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Water cannons. Even leaflets, social media announcements and radio broadcasts warning people to stay well back from the border—all have been ineffective. And, for that, there is one reason: Hamas. Trudeau’s rage would more appropriately be directed at Hamas incitement, disregard for civilians and commitment to a hateful, murderous ideology.
And what about the “blockade” of Gaza, attributed solely to Israel? Reality check: Egypt enforces a much stricter blockade on the Strip, allowing almost nothing through. Israel, on the other hand, permits passage of truckloads of goods daily: medical supplies, food, even “dual use” materials like cement, gasoline and tires, which are more often than not taken for civilians and allocated to terrorist infrastructure.
Twice in recent weeks, “peaceful” protestors have torched the border checkpoint in Israel for the transfer of goods. It is destroyed.
The Gaza-Israel border is very hostile. Hamas has, in the last decade or so, dug 32 terror tunnels—complete with AC and internet wiring—with the sole intention of burrowing into Israel to launch murderous terror attacks. Jihad. This is not a nuanced struggle.
On this–all of this–Trudeau is silent.
Which brings us back to Dr. Loubani, the Canadian physician who has had at least one previous brush with misfortune in the region. During the protracted street violence in Egypt in 2013, following the coup in which General Sisi ousted Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, Dr. Loubani was in Cairo with a film professor from Toronto, who was also a strident anti-Israel activist. En route to Gaza to volunteer in a hospital, the travelers took a travel pause in Cairo. One afternoon, as they tell it, they happened, coincidentally, upon a large, violent demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and jailed, among them the two Canadians.
Friends and family of the Canadian duo launched a vigorous public relations campaign to draw attention to their plight and pressure the Canadian government to advocate with Egypt for their release. They went out for a walk, their advocates said, and were enjoying ice cream cones. Before they knew it, were surrounded by mayhem. Once there, they felt compelled to administer first aid to injured protesters.
As they languished in prison, however, the initial version gave way to a more complex story. It seems that Loubani and his friend had sophisticated camera and recording equipment with them. Not necessarily eyebrow-raising for a film professor. More unusual, however, would be that they thought to grab the pro gear when heading out for a jet-lagged stroll to get ice cream. (And then there’s the small matter of military dictatorships tending to be sensitive about having violent rallies photographed.)
However, the really interesting part is what Loubani arranged to have his father share with the media while he was still in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison: that they were also in possession of drones. Why? To ferry medical supplies to and from hospitals in Gaza, of course. That drone twist certainly piques one’s interest. There is only one use for drones in the Gaza Strip, and it is neither peaceful nor in any way related to humanitarian or hospital work.
On Monday, May 14, Naqba Day to Palestinians, Dr. Loubani says that he was standing near the border among a cluster of orange-vested medics during a lull in the chaos. He was wearing green scrubs from the Ontario hospital where he works. After being injured by Israeli sniper fire in both legs, Loubani asserted that he was likely targeted by Israeli snipers. (The IDF advises that it is investigating the incident but has no specific information at the moment.)
In light of this backdrop, Trudeau continued to blast Israel: “Reported use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable. It is imperative we establish the facts of what is happening in Gaza. Canada calls for an immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground—including any incitement violence and the excessive use of force.”
What we do know is that 50 of the 62 individuals killed that day at the border clash by Israeli sniper were Hamas operatives. We also know that Hamas regularly uses UNRWA schools, hospitals, and clearly marked ambulances to ferry fighters and weapons around the Strip. This is supported by documentary evidence collected over the years. Trudeau’s fury would be more appropriately directed at Hamas for its unconscionable leadership, encouraging extreme terrorist violence, and ongoing incitement against Jews and Israel. Hamas is, after all, listed as a terror organization in Canada and elsewhere for good reason.
The backlash to Trudeau’s statement was strong and quick. He seems, perhaps unwittingly, to have stumbled onto a hornet’s nest and turned to two Jewish MPs to clean up his mess—Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather, representing electoral ridings in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, with large Jewish populations. They issued a peculiar statement. While not directly critical of the prime minister, they unequivocally condemned and held Hamas responsible for the deaths and injuries at border clashes.
It seems that Trudeau tapped two rookie Liberal MPs, of a total of 184 in his caucus, to be the fig leaves for what seems to be a rather bifurcated and confusing policy on Israel. Some observers speculate that Trudeau hopes to use this clumsy doublespeak to allow him to be “correct,” depending on where and how the chips fall. By dereliction, the prime minister has signaled that the Israel-Gaza issue is a “Jewish” one, as opposed to one of the most important geopolitical crises in the world. Hamas, like Hizballah, Syria, the Houthis, is yet another Iranian proxy. It is disturbing that two Jewish MPs, representing “Jewish” ridings, are the only ones in the Trudeau government speaking out in support of Israel.
On social media, Mr. Housefather, in particular, refers to Canada’s consistent pattern of supporting Israel in UN votes as clear evidence of the prime minister’s true support. Whereas UN votes are important, surely, so are Trudeau’s public comments explaining his support for Israel. He tends to express himself in a sweeping, imprecise manner, oft-repeating distaste for the obsessive bullying of Israel in international forums. All of which is laudable. And he likes to say things about what good friends Canada and Israel are, but that even good friends can, sometimes, disagree.
Indeed, and those are likely the lines he trotted out when he spoke on the telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu one day after his written thrashing of Israel following the Loubani incident. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the exchange, but Trudeau issued a short readout on the call, reporting that he had expressed “thanks for the consular assistance Israel is providing . . . reaffirmed Canada’s call for a neutral process to ascertain how the actions of all the parties concerned . . . contributed to the events of May 14, including the reported incitement by Hamas . . .” And that they “agreed on the importance of addressing the economic crisis in Gaza and jointly affirmed the close and abiding friendship between Canada and Israel.”
In other words, PM Trudeau did nothing to walk back his perfervid criticism of Israel other than to acknowledge, as a possibility, “reported incitement by Hamas.” As if there is any doubt. What Prime Minister Trudeau does not say, in this case, is far more important than what he does.