In his new novel, as throughout his career, the prolific, still-fresh author achieves but intermittent mastery over his own unexamined…
I have always had trouble with the work of Philip Roth. Unless my memory is playing tricks on me—and if so, I have no doubt that someone, though not, if I know anything about him, Roth himself, will correct me—it was I who “discovered” him as a writer of fiction. In early 1957, as a recently hired assistant editor of COMMENTARY, I had the job of going through the daily deluge of unsolicited manuscripts known as the “slush pile.” Even at a glance it was easy to see that most of these manuscripts were unworthy of publication anywhere, or unsuitable for COMMENTARY in particular. But once in a while, even if the manuscript that had been submitted was not in itself much good, the writer might show enough sign of real talent to be encouraged or cultivated; and once in a greater while, I would come upon a piece that was in my judgment actually publishable, and I would then circulate it to my superiors for a final decision.
One of the first such manuscripts I singled out in this way was something called “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” by an unknown writer named Philip Roth. I say “something” because it might have been either a memoir or a short story: it was—foreshadowing in this much of the author’s later work—hard to tell. And I say “unknown” because, though I recognized Roth’s name from a few short reviews he had done for the New Republic, I had never before come upon anything else of this nature by him. In any case, I was excited by the literary powers Roth demonstrated here and considered him a real find.
My senior colleagues, though markedly less impressed than I was, still thought well enough of this submission to accept the piece, and it ultimately appeared in the November 1957 issue of COMMENTARY. By placing it in a department that used to run in the magazine under the rubric “From the American Scene,” and that was devoted mainly to nonfictional accounts of immigrant Jewish life in neighborhoods like the Lower East Side of New York, we were treating it as a memoir (the locale in this case being the Weequahick neighborhood of Newark, to which Roth would never cease returning in his work). So far as I can recall, Roth made no objection to this categorization, but by including “You Can’t Tell a Man By the Song He Sings” in his first book, the collection of short stories entitled Goodbye, Columbus that appeared about two years later, he himself chose to represent it as a piece of fiction.
It was and still is rare for a writer of fiction to make his debut with a collection of short stories; usually he is able to get such a collection published only after he has produced a well-received novel or two. Even more unusual was—and is—it for a collection by anyone other than a well-established author to attract a great deal of favorable attention, let alone be awarded important literary prizes. Yet more than one reviewer pronounced Goodbye, Columbus a masterpiece; it won the National Book Award, whose prestige within the serious literary community was already becoming much greater than the more middlebrow Pulitzer Prize that it had been established to challenge; and the book even sold well, going through innumerable printings both in hard and soft-cover editions.
What explained this degree of success was that Roth, from a strictly literary point of view, was so precociously accomplished that in himself he amounted to a phenomenon no less unusual than the circumstances and the reception of his book Reviewing it for COMMENTARY (July 1959), Saul Bellow put the case with his characteristic brilliance:
Goodbye, Columbus is a first book but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso.
Then, too, there was the Jewish side of Goodbye, Columbus. Since the appearance six years earlier of Bellow’s own The Adventures of Augie March (his third novel) there had been much talk of the flowering of a new school of American-Jewish fiction, and Bellow himself had come to be regarded as its major representative. In this capacity he was in effect giving Roth the same kind of imprimatur that had a little earlier been accorded to Bernard Malamud (mostly, as with Roth, on the basis of his short stories, though they had not yet been brought together into a book-length collection). To be sure, all three of these writers, and especially Bellow, would express resentment when they were identified as Jewish writers, as though this diminished them and made their work less American or less universal. Thus, playing on the brand name of a quality men’s-clothing manufacturer of the time, Bellow would quip that he, Malamud, and Roth had been turned into the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx of American literature.
No such anxiety ever seemed to trouble the soul of William Faulkner, or of any of the other prominent Southern novelists whose own flowering had preceded that of the Jews and who by the late 50’s were beginning to be forced to jostle with them for center stage in the upper reaches of the literary culture. Faulkner, for example, believed—and very aggressively so—that it was precisely the particularistic Southernness of his own work that gave it universality.
In theory, Bellow and his younger Jewish colleagues certainly shared Faulkner’s belief that in literature the road to universality was through the particular, as did all sophisticated literary people in that period. Indeed, no critical doctrine was more influential in those days than this one. Nevertheless, some lingering trace of doubt seemed to remain in the hearts of the Jewish novelists. Probably this was left over from an all too recent past in which a writer with a name like Nathan Weinstein felt obliged to change it to Nathanael West if he was to be taken seriously, and in which fiction about Jewish life was almost always relegated to the literary margin, if it was noticed at all. A very striking and poignant illustration was Ludwig Lewisohn. His early work in the 20’s had attracted the admiring attention of giants like Thomas Mann and Sigmund Freud, but he became a virtual nonperson in the literary world after espousing Zionism and writing in his novels both openly and in a “positive” spirit about Jews and the Jewish experience.
Another saliently cautionary example was Call It Sleep by Henry Roth (no relation to Philip). This novel about life among immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side, written in part in an English idiom that managed to mimic the rhythms and locutions of Yiddish, would many years later (and in the wake of the cultural change Bellow and the others helped bring about) be rediscovered and acclaimed as a masterpiece. But Call It Sleep was largely ignored upon its publication in 1934 (inducing in its author one of the longest-lived writer’s blocks in the history of literature). Much the same fate, and at much the same time, befell Daniel Fuchs’s so-called “Williamsburg Trilogy,” though unlike Roth, who went to Maine to raise waterfowl, Fuchs responded to the failure of his novels by going off to Hollywood where he became a screenwriter—and, mercifully, a successful one at that.
It was perhaps in response to so unwelcoming a cultural climate that a playwright like Arthur Miller took to pretending, by giving the characters in his plays Waspy names like Biff or ethnically ambiguous ones like Loman, that these people, whose Jewishness was obvious to anyone with eyes to see, were undifferentiated Americans. (When Miller’s The Death of a Salesman was staged in a Yiddish translation, the review of the production in COMMENTARY was wickedly entitled “Death of a Salesman in the Original.”) Similarly, another famous Jewish playwright, Lillian Hellman (who in The Little Foxes, which was actually based on her own family, had set a model for Miller’s way of washing the ethnic taint out of his characters) thought that the jewishness of The Diary of Anne Frank would limit its appeal on Broadway. Consequently, Hellman advised the playwrights she proposed for the job of dramatizing the diary that they in effect de-Judaize it as much as they possibly could.
But at the same time, and in another part of the cultural forest—the highbrow part—Jewish writers who drew on the Jewish experience for material were becoming all the rage. In this new climate, the poet Delmore Schwartz did not feel the need to change his surname to its Anglo equivalent of Black (in fact, if his parents had changed it to Black, he might well have changed it back to Schwartz). Nor did his great friend and mutual admirer Saul Bellow—however hard he may have found it to erase every single trace of these old pressures from his soul—make any attempt to disguise the Jewishness of his characters. On the contrary, he boldly asserted that they were as American as anyone in the novels of Henry James: “I am an American, Chicago born,” declares Augie March in the highly significant first words of the first-person novel that achieved a breakthrough into the mainstream for Bellow himself and for the Jewish novelists who followed in his footsteps.
Accordingly, in his review of Goodbye, Columbus, Bellow did not hesitate to spend most of his time talking about Roth’s handling of Jewish material. Invidiously, he compared this young colleague with older Jewish writers like Herman Wouk, “who think that ours [i.e., the ones inhabited by Jews] are the best of all possible suburbs in the best of all possible Americas,” and defended him against those within the Jewish community “who feel that the business of a Jewish writer in America is to write public-relations releases, to publicize everything that is nice in the Jewish community and to suppress the rest, loyally.”
Roth’s early success, in short, was based on more than his remarkable talent. Poor Henry Roth had made his debut within a literary culture that had either no interest in Jews or that regarded them as an unfit subject for American literature, whereas Philip Roth exploded into a culture in which there had developed a new receptivity to fiction about Jews. There were, however, implicit conditions attached to this receptivity. Obviously the work in question had to be sufficiently intimate with the still exotic American-Jewish experience to render it convincingly. But the author also had to be sufficiently distanced from this experience to write about it with a critical if not a jaundiced eye. This test Roth passed with flying colors from the word go.
True, the stories of Bernard Malamud, being much more sympathetic to their Jewish characters than Roth’s, did not pass, or even sit for, this test. But Malamud’s Jews were acceptably and reassuringly poor, and he tended to envelop them in a kind of mythological aura that made the “public-relations” question moot or irrelevant. By contrast, the novella from which Goodbye, Columbus took its title was the very contemporary and very realistic story of an affair between the protagonist-narrator, a lower-class boy from Newark named Neil Klugman, and Brenda Patimkin, the daughter of an affluent suburban family whose nouveau-riche way of life he gets to know in all its garish detail almost as intimately as he comes to know Brenda in the physical sense.
It was also true that Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, as Bellow went out of his way to emphasize, took a very different—or, if one likes, a more positive—tack from Roth’s and also achieved great success: it was well reviewed and became a big best-seller. But in the highbrow literary world (including COMMENTARY, where I myself had written a savage piece about Marjorie Morningstar upon its publication in 1956), the aggressively anti-assimilationist Wouk, like the equally aggressive assimilationist Miller, were looked down upon as inconsequential middle-brows whose great popularity had nothing to do with genuine literary distinction.
So far as this last issue went, I fully endorsed Bellow’s assessment of Philip Roth. In reading “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” when I had fished it out of the slush pile, I too was amazed by how extraordinarily accomplished this young writer already was—and that story (memoir?), as would soon become apparent, was far from one of his best. In “Goodbye, Columbus” itself, and the four other shorter stories that, along with “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” made up the book, Roth demonstrated that no one, not even Bellow himself, had so perfectly pitched an ear for the speech of the first two generations of Jews who had come to America from Eastern Europe, or so keen an eye for the details of the life they lived, or so alert a perception of the quirks and contours of their psychological makeup.
In addition to sharing Bellow’s admiration for Roth’s literary abilities, I also felt the same irritation he did with the uncritically celebratory attitude toward America expressed by Herman Wouk. (Uncompromisingly and puristically stern young critic that I was in my early twenties, I had even accused Bellow himself of the same failing when I reviewed The Adventures of Augie March in 1953.) And finally, I was at one with Bellow in his contempt for the philistinism of Jewish readers who regarded it as the duty of Jewish writers to portray their people only, or at least largely, in the most sympathetic and favorable terms.
But, as I say, I have always had trouble with Roth, and here is where it first popped up. It was one thing to hold out, as Bellow did in defending Roth against certain of his readers within the organized Jewish community (and this, remember, was still in the relatively innocent pre-Portnoy’s Complaint days), for the right and the duty of literature to get at reality in its own special way. It was also intellectually shooting fish in a barrel to assert, as Bellow again did, that literature was not a species of public relations. In fact, in the 50’s, the piety toward serious literature—which equaled, and perhaps even exceeded, the standing it had first acquired in the 19th century as a substitute or even a replacement for religion, and from which the contemporary attitude originally derived—was so great that making such an argument seemed entirely unnecessary.
Many years later—though before the rise of politically-correct speech codes—A. Bartlett Giamatti, then a professor of literature at Yale, would privately tell me that the lengthy and tediously-argued demonstrations by his colleague Robert Brustein of the artistic failings of obviously inconsequential Broadway hits seemed to him the critical equivalent of “mugging cripples.” So too with the attacks that Bellow and even more so Roth himself—first in dealing with the angry response to an essay he would do for COMMENTARY in 1963 entitled “Writing About Jews,” and then following the great Jewish storm that would break after publication in 1969 of Portnoy’s Complaint—launched on the rabbis, the Jewish functionaries, and many ordinary Jews of an older generation. I do not mean to insinuate that these Jews were “cripples,” but only that their arguments were so weak and out of touch with contemporary critical dogma that exposing and ridiculing them, as Roth was so easily able to do, bore a certain resemblance to the mugging by the strong of the weak and defenseless.
It went without saying that I was on the side of Bellow and Roth in this “mugging”; otherwise, as the then-editor of COMMENTARY (which I had become in 1960), I would not have accepted “Writing About Jews.” Even so, however, I had an uneasy (if largely hidden, as much from myself as others) sympathy for the Jewish nervousness over Roth’s work; and over the years this feeling of sympathy grew deeper.
Yet there were complications and nuances involved here that must be brought in and stressed. On the one hand, I was well aware that Roth could never have achieved so uncanny a degree of accuracy unless he had not only paid close attention to but had taken genuine delight in the world he was evoking. Moreover, he was being perfectly sincere when he declared:
Not always, but frequently, what readers have taken to be my disapproval of the lives lived by Jews seems to have to do more with their own moral perspective than with the one they would ascribe to me: at times they see wickedness where I myself had seen energy or courage or spontaneity; they are ashamed of what I see no reason to be ashamed of, and defensive where there is no cause for defense.
On the other hand, it was also clear to me that more than a little sophistication in literary matters was required to detect the presence of this delight in Roth’s work. As he himself put it, his Jewish critics, in “looking at fiction as they do—in terms of ‘approval’ and ‘disapproval’ of Jews, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ attitudes toward Jewish life,” were unable to see what his stories were really about. “It is difficult, if not impossible,” he complained, “to explain to some of the people claiming to have felt my teeth sinking in, that in many instances they haven’t been bitten at all.”
In other words, reinforcing and exacerbating their Jewish defensiveness and sensitivity was an old-fashioned moralistic conception of literature (a conception, by the way, that had been good enough for some very great literary critics like Dr. Johnson and Matthew Arnold, and to which Roth might have paid a bit more respect on that account alone). All they could see was a cruel eye relentlessly being cast on them and theirs, with no other purpose than to sneer and mock and defame; and the better Roth was at this game—the closer he cut to the bone—the worse it was for such readers.
Most of these people, after all, were old enough to have been exposed personally to the kind and degree of anti-Semitism from which Roth’s generation (which was also my own—I am about three years older than he) had blessedly been spared. We had grown up in an America where, because the Holocaust had shown that there was literally no limit to the lengths to which anti-Semitism was capable of going, it had become taboo (for white Gentiles, that is) to say anything hostile about Jews. But our parents and grandparents and the organizations that spoke in their defense had not been so blessed. In the light of what they had seen and heard and gone through, either in their own lives or in those of other Jews, how could they not expect harmful consequences to follow from the reports that this young “informer”1 of genius was broadcasting to the enemy, confirming and reinforcing every hurtful stereotype that they had been struggling so hard to discredit? To them it seemed that with the Gentile anti-Semites finally forced to bite their tongues, a smart Jewish boy with a big dirty mouth had come along to take their place.
In all honesty, I have to add that even if Roth had introduced more “positive” shading or balance into his picture of the first- and second-generation American Jews, it probably would have gone unnoticed within the context of the much richer and more daring fun he was making of them (those “teeth” Bellow said he had been born with, and to which Roth himself alluded, were as large and as sharp as a shark’s). But in any event no such balance could be perceived in—to take the most striking instance—his portrait of the Patimkin family in “Goodbye, Columbus.” Consumed by their lust for material goods to the exclusion of all else, shrewd about money and business and vulgar about anything cultural or spiritual, armored by a self-satisfaction that no uncertainty could penetrate, the Patimkins were the very glass of the unfashionable and the very mold of bad form (and looking worse and worse with the ethos of the 60’s fast approaching).
Yet the irony was that, in its own way and of its own kind, the self-satisfaction of Philip Roth seemed at least as great as that of the Patimkins. Even at the time, and in spite of my admiration for Roth’s literary powers, I wondered how it was that a simple question had never occurred to his protagonist or to him: how could someone like either one of them have possibly emerged from such a milieu and from such a people? Surely they could not have sprung full-blown from the brow of Henry James. Surely there must have been something in the life into which they were born and the culture in which they grew up that made them into such utterly wonderful people (and that may even have predisposed them to being attracted to the likes of Henry James). But if so, what was it? And why did not the slightest sign of it show up in the stories? And did not its absence constitute a failing—even an aesthetic failing, an offense against the inner artistic requirements of the stories themselves?
I was bothered by this set of questions, but truth to tell, I evaded their implications as long as I could allow myself to get away with it. For confronting them head-on might have pushed me uncomfortably closer to a position about the relation of literature to things outside itself than I then had any wish to be. Like Roth, I too had been educated—he at the University of Chicago, I at Columbia and Cambridge—to believe that there was no higher calling than literature, that it needed no justification from any other enterprise, and that its only responsibility was to itself. Art was not, as the Communists and other leftists had recently been proclaiming, a “weapon”—not in the class struggle and not in any other war, either. Still less were its concerns—as Roth, echoing Bellow, would phrase it himself—those of “a public-relations firm.” Art was a good in itself, complete unto itself, responsible only to its own inner imperatives and laws.
In his latest novel, I Married a Communist,2 Roth puts a more extensive and developed version of this conception of literature into the mouth of an instructor at the University of Chicago named Leo Glucksman who is trying to undo the intellectual damage that has been done to Nathan Zuckerman—the character who by now has been not only Roth’s protagonist but his virtual alter ego through many books—at the hands of a Communist mentor Nathan had known as a high-school kid in Newark:
“Art as a weapon?” he said to me, the word “weapon” rich with contempt and itself a weapon. “Art taking the right stand on everything? Art as the advocate of good things? Who taught you all this? Who taught you art is slogans? Who taught you art is in the service of “the people”? Art is in the service of art—otherwise there is no art worthy of anyone’s attention.
But Glucksman’s sermon is far from finished, and with mounting fury he goes on:
What is the motive for writing serious literature, Mr. Zuckerman? To disarm the enemies of price controls? The motive for writing serious literature is to write serious literature. You want to rebel against society? I’ll tell you how to do it—write well. . . . You want a lost cause to fight for? Then fight for the word. Not the high-flown word, not the inspiring word, not the pro-this and anti-that word, not the word that advertises to the respectable that you are a wonderful, admirable, compassionate person on the side of the downtrodden and the oppressed. No, for the word that tells the literate few condemned to live in America that you are on the side of the word!
The young Philip Roth must have taken this aestheticist creed to heart. “I was,” he once said, “one of those students of the 50’s who came to books by way of a fairly good but rather priestly literary education, in which writing poems and novels was assumed to eclipse all else. . . .” I was one of those students, too.
But down deep, both of us had reservations about the aestheticist doctrine, each after his own kind. My own had to do with the growing dissatisfaction I was coming to feel over the hermeticism and Alexandrianism it tended to breed. Under the influence of critics and teachers like Lionel Trilling at Columbia and F.R. Leavis at Cambridge, I was learning that while loyalty to the dictates of its own nature and traditions was certainly the necessary precondition for the creation of a genuine work of art, it was not the only condition, and especially where literature, and more particularly where the novel (as opposed to music and abstract painting or even lyric poetry) was concerned. For the novel could hardly help getting involved in the social, moral, and political milieu out of which it emerged and could hardly evade commenting on the life around it.
I did not for a moment doubt that the political imperialism and the intellectual crudity of the doctrine of “art as a weapon” had to be rejected. And yet I also began to understand that rejecting it did not necessarily mean that the only alternative left standing was aestheticism. By the time I began publishing literary criticism as a very young man in the early 50’s, I had come to accept that while my duty was to arrive at a reasoned and informed judgment of the aesthetic merits of the work, this was not the end of it: other duties then followed. There were—as Leavis so powerfully demonstrated in his own critical writings—moral considerations to be raised. And as Trilling showed in his critical essays, social and even political factors could be brought into the discussion without violating the principle that aesthetic factors remained paramount both in the creation and in the response to a work of art. For me this meant that as a critic my job was to show how the aesthetic successes or failings of the work could themselves tell us important things about its surrounding social, moral, and political context.
Roth’s reservations about aestheticism, I think, were of a somewhat different order: not so much theoretical as practical. I strongly suspect he would have liked to follow through on Glucksman’s concluding adjuration to Nathan Zuckerman to
achieve mastery over your idealism, over your virtue, as well as over your vice, aesthetic mastery over everything that drives you to write in the first place—your outrage, your hatred, your grief, your love! Start preaching and taking positions, start seeing your own perspective as superior, and you’re worthless as an artist, worthless and ludicrous.
But if, in his own words, the young Philip Roth “imagined fiction to be something like a religious calling, and literature a kind of sacrament,” and if he would therefore have wished to work in accordance with Glucksman’s creed, he must soon have discovered that he was simply incapable of achieving mastery over the outrage, hatred, grief, and love that drove him to write. By nature he was too judgmental and too passionately tendentious to transcend such motives and feelings. What he wanted to do as a writer, what he needed to do as a writer, was to take stock of the world in which he lived and give it the business, as only someone with so wicked a pen and so unforgiving a mind as his could do. How then could he submit to what Leo Glucksman demanded of him? Why should he even try?
But Roth’s most serious disability from the perspective of Glucksman’s dictates was that he could never stop himself from seeing his own perspective as superior. Superior to the culture of contemporary middle-class America, superior to what he took in his own untutored mind to be the traditions of Judaism and the Jewish people, and superior to all the characters he himself wrote about—except of course the ones like Neil Klugman in “Goodbye, Columbus” or Nathan Zuckerman in most of his later books, who have served as his protagonists. Yet Irving Howe—a formidable critic to whom Roth could not give the back of his hand and with whom he could not wipe the floor in an argument about literature, as he had done with the rabbis who had earlier expressed such anger and anguish over the harm they thought he was causing the Jewish people—eventually came along to question the ground of this sense of superiority. Quoting with approval another such critic (Baruch Hochman), Howe pointed out that it was “not at all clear how Neil Klugman, who is so offended at the Patimkins, stands for anything substantially different from what they stand for.”3
Howe’s article, “Philip Roth Reconsidered,” was published in COMMENTARY in December 1972, just about ten years after Roth’s own “Writing About Jews.” By then, Roth had followed up Goodbye, Columbus with five novels. The first two of these, Letting Go (1962) and When She Was Good (1967), were very different from his debut volume, and seemed to represent strenuous (and in this sense, I would say, commendable) efforts to broaden his range. Having previously made his mark with short fiction, in Letting Go he produced a very long and dense variant on the academic novel; forsaking the exuberantly satiric and comic touch that marked most of the stories in Goodbye, Columbus, he now turned unrelievedly grim and depressing in focusing on the unmodulated woes of two young academics at the University of Chicago. And having become known as a member of the Hart, Schaffner, and Marx trio, he then went on in When She Was Good to write a book about a Midwestern American family in which no Jews appeared.
In sum, what Roth tried to do in his first two full-length novels involved a kind of repudiation of his most authentic gifts, and the predictable result was failure. From a literary point of view, both Letting Go and When She Was Good had their moments, but neither proved a worthy successor to Goodbye, Columbus, and neither was well received.
My guess is that the failure of these two books was one of the factors that emboldened Roth to write Portnoy’s Complaint, which came out in 1969, about two years after When She Was Good. All the qualities that had made Goodbye, Columbus so impressive and that he had temporarily abandoned in writing his next two books now returned with hurricane force, given even greater velocity by the freedom Roth was now willing and able to indulge. Previously—as I myself had occasion to witness in the pre-Portnoy days—Roth could keep a whole dinner party in stitches when he decided to let loose with a spontaneous comic riff. But it was not until Portnoy’s Complaint that he felt free to do the same thing as a writer on paper.
This freedom was a personal assertion by Roth while—as I also had occasion to know from direct experience—representing a change in his own sense of propriety. For, hard as it may be to believe, there was a decidedly prissy side to Roth when he was young. Shortly after our first meeting, which took place in 1957 when he came to see me in connection with the imminent publication of “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings” in COMMENTARY, he told a mutual friend that he disapproved of how foul-mouthed I was. It was true that I tended, as was common in literary circles in those days, to use four-letter words quite frequently in private conversation. Roth did not. Perhaps the reason was that such language was frowned upon at the University of Chicago, where he was teaching at the time, and perhaps it was because he still felt uncomfortable with it. Of course, as things turned out, in this respect I could not have held a candle, or even a matchstick, to the future author of Portnoys Complaint.
But the new freedom that made Portnoys Complaint possible was also a gift of the 60’s. Portnoy’s Complaint, published a decade after Goodbye, Columbus, took full advantage of the dispensation afforded by the culture of the 60’s really to “let go,” to “let it all hang out,” to shed any and all inhibitions in the choice of subject matter, the use of scatological language, the explicit descriptions of sex (Roth’s great contribution was to bring masturbation, up till then one of the dirtiest and most secret of dirty little secrets, into the realm of serious fiction), and in the expression of disreputable social attitudes (disreputable, that is, by the standards that were still prevalent, at least on the surface, when Goodbye, Columbus came out: pretty soon these new standards would become as conventional in liberal circles as the ones they would replace).
Roth’s new book created a sensation in the literary world and was a great success in the commercial realm. And to the Jews who had been so offended by Goodbye, Columbus, it in effect said what Al Jolson had once had a habit of announcing to his audiences: “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
Sophie Portnoy, the mother of Roth’s new protagonist and narrator Alexander, and her beaten-down husband made the Patimkins look positively genteel, while their son’s compulsive denunciations of just about everything and everyone Jewish (except, again, himself and, by extension, his creator) went beyond anything even hinted at in any of the stories of Goodbye, Columbus. Yet either out of sheer exhaustion, or out of the same sense of defeat that the culture of the 60’s inflicted upon almost all other established institutions, or out of an unwillingness to go around the track with Roth yet again in a period when their objections were bound to seem even more hidebound and retrograde than before, the defenders of Jewish honor against the even more horrific defamations he was heaping upon it now made (if memory serves) no greater a fuss, and perhaps even a smaller one, than they had over Goodbye, Columbus or even “Writing About Jews.”
This time, however, they themselves had a few defenders who could present their case in terms that, being at least as grounded as Roth’s in the most sophisticated assumptions and ideas of contemporary literary culture, were far more persuasive. Irving Howe was the main such defender, and in running his “Philip Roth Reconsidered” in COMMENTARY, I added my own two cents in a little piece in the same issue called “Laureate of the New Class.”
Like Howe, I said, I had praised Goodbye, Columbus. Like him, too, I had found little to admire in Roth’s next two books (the first of which, Letting Go, I had in fact written about unfavorably in another magazine). Nor did I find any more to admire than Howe did in the two very short ones that by 1972 had already followed Portnoys Complaint: Our Gang (1971), a satire on Nixon and his administration that managed to be both demagogic and boringly conventional in the orthodoxy of its liberal stance, and The Breast (1972), a novella, obviously inspired by Kafka’s story about the man who turns into a cockroach, but going its model one better, or perhaps worse, by making the hero suffer a metamorphosis into a female breast. And though I freely admitted rating Portnoys Complaint more highly than Howe did, I also said that I agreed in almost every other detail with his literary analysis of Roth’s work in general and of his weaknesses both as a novelist and as a satirist. I agreed, too, that Roth had come to stand very close to the center of the culture as it had developed in the 60’s, and that this had much to do with his steadily increasing reputation among the critics and his growing popularity with the reading public in general.
Here, however, I parted company with Howe in his attribution of this status to a decline in the quality of Roth’s work. Lurking below Howe’s explanation I spotted an atavistic remainder of the old assumption once shared by leftists and modernists alike that when a serious artist achieves popularity, he must have “sold out” by compromising his own standards and accommodating himself to popular taste and fashion. My own view was that the process had worked in exactly the opposite direction. That is, over the years more and more people had come along who were in tune with the disgust for Americans and American life that had been expressed in Roth’s work from the beginning and who hence had in increasing numbers come to recognize him as their own. Because so many of the Americans this Jewish writer dealt with were Jewish, he had been accused of a special animus against his own people or of Jewish self-hatred. But it had become clear from books like Letting Go, When She Was Good, and Our Gang that his loathing for non-Jewish Americans was scarcely less intense than his distaste for his fellow Jews.
But, I went on, not all Americans, whether Jewish or Gentile, were subject to this disgust. Exempted along with himself were the members of his own “gang”—the group of educated people that had come to be known as the “New Class.” Roth was their “laureate” in the sense that everything he wrote served to reinforce their standard ideas and attitudes, to offer documentary evidence for their taken-for-granted view that America was a country dominated by vulgarians, materialists, bores, and criminal political leaders. In doing so, Roth was inviting his readers to join with him in snobbishly and self-righteously celebrating their joint superiority to everyone else around them. They were what one of their member-admirers (the socialist political writer and activist Michael Harrington) extolled as a “conscience constituency,” motivated only by ideas and ideals, whereas the rest of the population was animated only by baser drives. Even the New Class’s own baser drives—Alexander Portnoy’s sexual lusts, to cite the most blatant example—were a sign of superiority, since they represented a healthy yearning for liberation from the constrictions and limitations of a repressed Puritanical society.4
There was, then, I argued, an extraliterary and even a narrowly political dimension to Roth’s work and to his popularity as well. Without going as far as the New Left or the counterculture, he nevertheless, and in his own unique style, experienced and gave voice to a hostility as great as theirs to middle-class America and what later came to be called “family values.” As he had put it in a famous passage from another article he did for COMMENTARY in 1961, “Writing American Fiction”:
[T]he American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. . . . Who, for example, could have invented Charles Van Doren? Roy Cohn and David Schine? Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine? Dwight David Eisenhower?
As the editor of the magazine in which this piece was published, and as a leftist, I thought at the time that it was a wonderful essay, but from the perspective of my present conservative outlook, the passage I have just quoted seems silly. Who now even remembers some of these characters who struck Roth as so vividly outlandish or wicked that they were “the envy of any novelist”? By that standard, Bernard Goldfine should still be a name as familiar as Raskolnikov, but I myself no longer even know who he was, and I venture to guess that most young people today would say the same of Sherman Adams, Charles Van Doren, and David Schine. And to single out Eisenhower for dishonorable mention among political leaders in a century that had spawned Hitler, Stalin, and Mao? This was indeed an embarrassment to Roth’s “meager imagination,” though not in the sense he intended.
Naturally I could and should have raised some of these questions even then, but my own general position was still so close to Roth’s that they never sprang to mind. Besides, even if they had, I might well have dismissed them as overly fastidious and niggling.
Irving Howe, in a remark as hurtful in its own way as anything Roth himself ever wrote, said: “The cruelest thing anyone can do with Portnoy’s Complaint is read it twice.” Well, I once committed that very cruelty and still found the book very funny, at least in certain passages. But though I had already read everything Roth had previously published, and though I would continue keeping up with everything he was subsequently to produce, I confess to having given him only one reading per post-Portnoy volume. Even this took a lot of time, since Roth proved to be a very prolific writer—I Married a Communist is his 23rd book—and not all of it turned out to be well-spent. I was repelled by Our Gang, I was disgusted by The Breast, and I was bored both by The Great American Novel(1973, about baseball) and, many years later, by the return to scatological extremism in the much-praised and belaureled Sabbath’s Theater (1995).
Moreover, I was irritated by the literary games Roth took to playing in some of his later, “postmodern” novels. These games consisted in virtually forcing the reader into seeing something as autobiographical and then implicitly rebuking him for doing so (how could anyone be so stupid as not to understand that art “transmutes” reality?). For example, the recurring protagonist Nathan Zuckerman had so much in common with Roth himself (among a myriad of other details, he was the author of a best-selling novel called Carnovsky, which was a dead ringer for Portnoy’s Complaint) that it would have taken a mind set in postmodernist critical concrete not to see him as a thinly disguised version of his creator. But by various means, both within the novels and in pronouncements Roth made to interviewers (including his favorite one, himself) the reader was ridiculed for being such a dodo. Indeed, we were even forbidden, on pain of proving ourselves incapable of understanding the nature of artistic creation, to read Operation Shylock (1993) as autobiography, though the hero was actually called Philip Roth and other real people also made appearances under their own names.
In Leaving a Doll’s House (1996), her memoir about her eighteen-year-long relationship with Roth that began as an extended affair, culminated in marriage, and ended in divorce, the British actress Claire Bloom tells the following story about reading the manuscript of the novel which was eventually published in 1990 as Deception:
I eagerly opened the folder. Almost immediately I came upon a passage about the self-hating, Anglo-Jewish family with whom he lives in England. Oh well, I thought, he doesn’t like my family. There was a description of his working studio in London, letter-perfect and precise. Then I reached the depictions of all the girls who come over to have sex with him. . . . As Philip always insisted that the critics were unable to distinguish his self-invention from his true self, I mindfully accepted these . . . seductresses as part of his “performance” as a writer; but I was not so certain.
Her uncertainty on this point was not, however, the worst of it. The worst came when she
arrived at the chapter about his remarkably uninteresting, middle-aged wife. . . . She is an actress by profession, and—as if hazarding a guess would spoil the incipient surprise lying in store—her name is Claire.
So insulting did she find this portrait of herself and so “completely unacceptable” was his use of her name that she demanded he change it to another one. At first he refused. “He tried to explain that he had called his protagonist Philip, therefore to name the wife Claire would add to the richness of the texture.” But for once this fancy pulling of artistic rank failed. When Claire Bloom desperately threatened a lawsuit to have her name removed, Roth finally gave in.
For all this, however, at a certain point a new note had already been entering into Roth’s work. Unaided by fresh rereadings, my memory, alas, is no longer good enough to locate precisely when it happened, but I have the impression that the change may have started in earnest with the novels collected into a single volume under the title Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and an Epilogue (1985). Here I thought I detected a touch of tenderness toward his characters that had never been much in evidence before, and, what was even more startling, the same feeling extended to the Jews he had so relentlessly and exuberantly ridiculed in the books that had first brought him fame. Once upon a time he had made light of anti-Semitism as a problem in the contemporary world, and he (excuse me, Alexander Portnoy) had even gone so far as to advise the Jews, in a typical example of language “transmuted” by art, “to stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass.” But as the quotation above from Claire Bloom suggests, and as Deception itself confirms, living in England seems to have led Roth to a change of mind and heart about the persistence of anti-Jewish feeling in the world, and therefore about Jewish security, including the security of Israel.
In Patrimony (1991), a book about the death of his father that he wrote within this new phase and that did not pretend to be fictional, he also expressed open affection and indeed love for his own family and for the Jewish world from which it stemmed. Neal Kozodoy, reviewing that book in COMMENTARY (May 1991), made several brilliantly telling points about the limitations of this affection, seeing in it the ugly remnants of the same old ignorance about his Jewish “patrimony” and the same old patronizing attitude toward the Jews themselves that had always marked Roth’s work. Yet nothing Roth had written before ever came even this close to acknowledging that there might be some virtue other than sheer energy to be found in the history and character of his own people.
Even more unexpected was American Pastoral (1997), the novel that immediately preceded I Married a Communist. I myself, and many other people too,5 detected in this book a born-again Philip Roth whose entire outlook on the world had been inverted. Going far beyond the Zuckerman trilogy or Patrimony in this respect, American Pastoral set up a contrast between, on the hand, the middle-class Jews who had once offered such fat targets for his poisoned arrows and, on the other, the counterculture and its academic apologists with whom in his younger days (admittedly never with a completely full heart) he had once identified and to whom he had directed his authorial winks of complicity. But to the delighted astonishment of some of us, and the puzzlement and disappointment of others, he now changed sides in the distribution of his scorn and his sympathies. Here, for once, it was the ordinary Jews of his childhood who were celebrated—for their decency, their sense of responsibility, their seriousness about their work, their patriotism—and here, for once, those who rejected and despised such virtues were shown to be either pathologically nihilistic or smug, self-righteous, and unimaginative.
From a technical standpoint, American Pastoral was almost as surprising as the attitudes it embodied and dramatized. Saul Bellow had long ago pointed out that Roth was already a virtuoso performer from the very moment he appeared on the scene, and yet this literary natural, after so many years of practicing his craft with the deftness and sureness that had come to be expected of him, suddenly turned awkward in handling the form of a story-within-a-story in which he chose to cast American Pastoral. Because of its problems of construction, the novel was repetitious, and this made it overly insistent and sometimes tiresome. My guess is that the fault lay with Roth’s inner resistance to coming right out with a frank and unambiguous mea culpa; if so, the formal flaws of American Pastoral amounted, so far as I was concerned, to a felix culpa.
Inevitably a question arose and hung in the air, tantalizingly for some and ominously for others: had Philip Roth turned into a neoconservative? A number of liberal critics who had always admired and defended him, and who were unwilling to believe that one of their own most prized novelistic spokesmen might have defected to the enemy, tried desperately to demonstrate that any such interpretation was simplistic and ideologically tendentious (dread words). While not exactly denying what American Pastoral seemed to be saying, they insisted that it was too complex a work to be summed up in political or social terms. So well did they succeed in defending it against itself that American Pastoral won another National Book Award for Roth, which it probably would not have done had the literary establishment taken it for what it really was.
Roth himself, not previously famous for being reticent about his own intentions as a writer, maintained a prudent silence on this occasion, neither affirming nor denying. But his very next and latest book, I Married a Communist, amounts to a reassuring declaration of solidarity with his old comrades within the liberal establishment. Not that this is its only intention, or even its main one. He clearly also wrote it to get even with Claire Bloom for her attack on him in Leaving a Doll’s House (just as he had done to Irving Howe through the character of Milton Appel in The Anatomy Lesson), and to tell his side of the story of their affair and marriage.
Of course (need I even say it?), this aspect of the book has been put through the usual “transmutations” of art. Thus, instead of being a British actress who made her mark on the stage and screen, the Claire Bloom character (called Eve Frame) becomes an American who once starred in silent films and then shifted to radio, and it is not Roth’s alter ego Nathan Zuckerman who suffers at the hands of this impossibly neurotic wife but another radio actor, Iron Rinn (né Ira Ringold).
There are other “transmutations” as well. The daughter to whom Claire Bloom was so attached, and who was apparently one of the main sources of her problems with Philip Roth, is a singer in real life (if I may be forgiven for introducing so crude a concept into so aesthetically lofty a context), whereas Eve Frame’s daughter is a harpist—that kind of thing. Yet so closely does Roth hue to the details of Bloom’s indictment in defending himself against her that it is almost impossible to understand what certain elements of I Married a Communist are doing there without first having read Leaving a Doll’s House.
But the most significant “transmutations” undergone in the Claire Bloom part of the story involve shifting it back from the 80’s and 90’s to the 50’s, making the husband not only into an actor but also into a secret member of the Communist party, and turning the spurned wife’s book from the tepidly feminist memoir Claire Bloom published into a vicious McCarthyite denunciation of her husband entitled, precisely, I Married a Communist (which then ruins his life). It is through this series of devices that Roth signs a loyalty oath (as one might put it) to the old-time liberal religion from which he seemed to have defected in American Pastoral.
And I mean old-time. Every liberal cliché about America at the height of the cold war is resurrected here—that its fear of the Soviet Union and its hostility to Communism were paranoid, that the Communists at home posed no threat worth taking seriously, and that the congressional investigations and the blacklists were cynical ploys aimed not at quashing Communist influence but at discrediting liberals and Democrats.
True, there is some slight awareness shown here and there of what we have learned (or rather what we have had definitively confirmed) from Kremlin archives since the demise of the Soviet Union, as well as from such formerly classified American sources as the Venona Papers, about the slavishness with which the American Communist party submitted to the dictates of Moscow, and the efforts it made to control the entertainment industry and the labor movement (though I cannot recall any allusion by Roth to the extent of espionage practiced by American Communists in this country). It is also important to note that neither of Roth’s two protagonists—the other is Murray Ringold, Ira’s brother and Nathan Zuckerman’s old high-school English teacher, who tells Nathan the story that Nathan tells us—is a Communist. Both Nathan and Murray reject Communism as a form of secularized religious utopianism, and both acknowledge that many Communists, including Ira himself, flat-out lied about being Communists. Both recognize as well that the Communist organizer who had recruited Ira into the party was a nasty piece of work. Nevertheless, the Communists, they suggest, meant well—after all, what harm did they do?—and anyway who could blame them for lying at a time when a McCarthyite lurked under every liberal bed? To put the point another way: with some qualification, the general tenor here is set by the anti-anti-Communism on which the young Roth cut his political teeth.
Like Patrimony and a number of Roth’s recent novels, I Married a Communist is also much preoccupied with the theme of getting old and sick and waiting for death to strike. This preoccupation generates the only genuinely powerful passages the novel contains: passages that are wistful without being sentimental, that are lyrical without becoming soupy, and that are written in the veritably gorgeous prose of which Roth is capable when the mood is upon him. Yet the point these passages convey—that the vastness of the universe makes everything on earth seem unreal and meaningless—sounds rather narcissistic coming from a writer meditating about death (quite as though he were saying: “If I have to die, and sooner rather than later, what difference can anything make?”). And even if we ignore or forgive their narcissism, they still fail to redeem what is in the end one of Roth’s less successful books.
For me this is a double disappointment. After American Pastoral, I looked forward eagerly to the riches that might be unearthed by the changes in Roth’s sense of life—the broadening of his sympathies, the deepening of his perceptions, and the liberation of his mind from the stifling orthodoxies of the politically correct liberal faith of his youth. What has come out instead is a regression to spiritual pettiness and vindictiveness and another act of political flattery directed at the ideas and attitudes of the audience that had made him its laureate on this very account.
After all these years, then, and after a brief interlude in which I thought my troubles with Philip Roth had finally been resolved, I find myself disturbed by them yet again. But Roth, for all his preoccupation with death, is still only about sixty-five, which means that as things are today he is still a relatively young man with—God willing—long years of writing ahead of him. And to judge by his unfailing literary energies, he is also still full of enough creative juice, discipline, and stamina to produce many more books.
All of which is to say that perhaps the best is yet to come from Philip Roth. I myself think there is a chance that it will. But I also think he will only be able to mine the full lode of riches still buried within him if he can finally summon the courage to “let go” altogether of the youthful habits of mind and spirit from which he seemed to be freeing himself for a while but which, on the evidence of I Married a Communist, are still putting up a strong fight to keep him from digging further into the depths that are so dangerous to those very habits and so full of potential reward for him and for the literature of this country.
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The Adventures of Philip Roth
Must-Reads from Magazine
A dangerous idea makes a comeback.
The word “ethics” frequently appears in the biographies of the authors who penned a recent Washington Post op-ed lamenting the “taboo” associated with “talking about overpopulation.” Frances Kissling is the president of the Center for Health, Ethics, and Social Policy. Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Only Jotham Musinguzi, the “director general of Uganda’s National Population Council,” manages to avoid distorting the definition of the word by attaching his name to this piece. The Malthusian prescriptions these “ethicists” apply to the forever-looming “Population Bomb” have nothing to do with ethics.
They open their op-ed with a whitewash gloss over Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” which they note had a “major impact” on public policy but that “spurred a backlash” rendering the discussion of its thesis “radioactive.” They do manage to confess that “Ehrlich’s predictions were extreme,” but that is just a sympathetic way of saying dead wrong.
Ehrlich stipulated that the Earth had a finite “carrying capacity,” and its limits were about to be tested. He claimed that mass starvation was imminent; hundreds of millions would die. Neither the first nor the third world would be spared; the average American lifespan would decline to just 42-years-old by 1980. Ehrlich continued to make apocalyptic predictions after his book became a sensation. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he wrote in 1969. “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years,” Ehrlich added a year later. Between 1980 and 1989, most of the Earth’s population, including 65 million Americans, would die or be murdered what he grimly dubbed “the Great Die-Off.” As recently as this year, Ehrlich—who still teaches at Stanford University—said that civilizational collapse remains a likely prospect and the chief shortcoming of his most famous book was that it failed to invoke the modern progressive Trinity: feminism, anti-racism, and inequality.
Our “ethicists” don’t tackle any of this. Indeed, they favorably note that Ehrlich’s warnings render family planning a necessity to stave off the unfortunate conditions that would force the wealthy world to withhold food aid from the developed world to induce “necessary and justifiable” deprivation. Seriously. And because population control is not a problem in the developed world, where birthrates are declining below replacement rates, population controllers tend to fixate on sexual habits in the developing world. The authors of this op-ed limit are no exception. They draw an almost always fallacious straight-line projection and conclude that—in the unlikely event that nothing changes between 2050 and 2100—a population crisis should afflict a variety of Sub-Saharan African nations. To avert this crisis, they advocate proper sexual hygiene, to which almost none would object. But their core agenda isn’t the distribution of prophylactics. They seek to de-stigmatize abortion, which is justifiably controversial. After all, it was “The Population Bomb” that lent renewed legitimacy to age-old arguments in favor of targeting black and brown populations with sterilization and eugenics.
In the United States, population control hysteria led, in part, to the sterilization of “up to one-quarter” of the Native American women of childbearing age by 1977, according to Angela Franks’ 2005 book, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy. “The large number of sterilizations began in earnest in 1966, when Medicaid came into existence and funded the operation for low-income people.” Thousands of Native American women in the early to mid-1970s were sterilized after signing consent forms that failed to comply with regulations.
With the assistance of the U.S. government and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Puerto Rican government operated a program of voluntary female sterilization for decades, but it was “voluntary” in the most perverse sense. Pressure from employers and public incentives united to “liberate” women from the drudgery of childbearing, leaving many women without much of a choice in the matter. A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican women found that one-third of women in prime child-bearing years admitted to undergoing sterilization.
American minority populations were a secondary concern to population controllers, though. It was, as ever, the developed world that most demanded their technocratic touch. The World Bank, working in quiet concert with the U.S. government, helped to advance the goal of keeping population levels in the developing world down. “In some cases, strong direction has involved incentives such as payment to acceptors for sterilization, or disincentives such as giving low priorities in the allocation of housing or schooling to those with larger families,” a 1974 National Security Council memorandum read. American philanthropic institutions in concert with USAID reportedly distributed unsafe and untested contraceptive chemicals in the developing world. “USAID has been able put some distance between itself and many of the more objectionable elements of its population agenda,” Population Research Institute’s James A. Miller wrote in a 1996 exposé.
From Northeast Asia to South America; from East Africa to the West Indies, a pseudoscientific religion that justified coercion and eugenics to achieve “optimal” population ratios guided the development of Western public policy. In a comprehensive 2012 essay in The New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin demonstrated conclusively that 20th Century population control programs were “dictatorial,” “dishonest,” “coercive,” “medically irresponsible and negligent,” “cruel, callous, and abusive of human dignity and human rights,” and, perhaps most of all, “racist.” It was their “neocolonial” aspects that led to a left-wing revolt against population controllers, but while still adhering to their flawed Malthusian faith in humanity’s limited capacity to engineer itself out of a jam.
So, yes, overpopulation remains a “taboo” subject because it has justified one of the most abusive campaigns of industrialized human rights abuses the world has ever seen. In making a veiled argument in favor of abortion, our “ethicists” have inadvertently made their opponents’ case for them: reproductive controls targeting women in the developing world inevitably veer towards condescension, imperialism, and dehumanization. “The conversation about ethics, population and reproduction needs to shift from the perspective of white donor countries,” the authors conclude. And yet, as was ever the case, the “perspective of white donor countries” seems always to be the place from which dangerous ideas about the need to control the child-rearing habits of women in the equatorial world spring. 50 years after the publication of a book that helped legitimize the sterilization of millions in the developing world, that chauvinism remains a prominent feature of the population control movement.
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The virtue of virtue.
At some point over the past two or three years–I’m not sure when exactly–“virtue” became a dirty word on the American right. There’s not a little irony in this development. If there’s one commitment that is supposed to tie the various strands of American conservatism, it’s the cultivation of the human virtues–those habits of the human spirit that aim at its perfection: Prudence, justice, courage, and temperance, according to the classical definition.
But not anymore.
Maybe it’s because, for good and ill, the party of the right has tied its fate to Donald Trump, a figure seemingly out of one of those 19th-century novels that study the virtues by describing their absence in the protagonist’s soul (Vanity Fair comes to mind). Talk of temperance rings hollow when the president of the U.S. is so manifestly incapable of mastering his instinct for insult and vulgarity. The word “prudence” grates when the president turns to the most ham-fisted means for achieving even reasonable ends. And so on. Worse, some on the right have conflated “virtue signaling”–the moral preening of progressives about vegan food and feminist dating and so forth–with virtue as such.
So it didn’t come as a surprise to me when an acquaintance, normally a sound conservative, accused me of having joined the “virtue vultures” over my objections to Trump’s treatment of illegal-immigrant children at the border. As COMMENTARY readers know, I have some sympathy with the immigration frustrations that catapulted Trump to the White House. Native populations in the West have a right to demand an orderly immigration system–to know who is crossing their borders and for what purpose. The liberal, transnationalist effort to erase borders is dangerous and, ultimately, futile. Let me stipulate, too, that a certain percentage of the children crossing the border are unaccompanied or accompanied by people other than their natural parents. No doubt, separation is necessary in some cases.
Nevertheless, the systematic, indiscriminate tearing asunder of natural families, even temporarily, is a grave wrong. As the Catholic University theologian Chad Pecknold has argued, “the separation of children from their parents—due to the fact that said parents may or may not be guilty of misdemeanors—is wicked. Regardless of differences of opinion on how to enforce real national borders, the intact family is the pre-political common good of all.” The state proceeds from the natural family. It can’t, and mustn’t, destroy its own building block: the family. This a matter of political justice. But Trump’s hard-line policy also runs afoul of prudence, since the public relations outcry makes it that much harder to forge a comprehensive solution to the immigration problem.
Justice. Prudence. Those pesky virtues. Those pesky virtue vultures.
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A writer-director’s profound meditations on violence
Youthful success is almost always followed sooner or later by a sharp negative reaction. In McDonagh’s case, it was finally triggered by the release of Three Billboards, whose characters include a psychopathically violent racist who appears at film’s end to have changed his brutal ways. Many progressive-minded critics, among them April Wolfe of the Village Voice, were offended by the suggestion that such a creature might be capable of a transformation as profound as the one he seems to undergo: “In some ways, watching this film is like reading those alt-right fashion profiles of Richard Spencer that insisted we overlook his campaign of quiet terror and find common ground with him.”
That an ostensibly serious critic could interpret Three Billboards in so rigidly reductive a way is, however, less a commentary on McDonagh’s film than a sign of the times. The underlying moral complexity of Three Billboards is alien to many younger moviegoers, who increasingly think it wrong for an artist not to make crystal-clear at all times which of his characters wear the black hat and which the white, and who judge art by the degree to which it accords with their own definitions of “black” and “white.” Not so McDonagh, who uses the graphic violence that is his trademark not to titillate the jaded but to shock his viewers into looking more closely at the world in which they live—a world about whose nature his own vision is singularly acute.
Born in London in 1970, McDonagh is the younger son of working-class Irish Catholic parents who moved to England to better themselves. Though he grew up in the midst of a self-consciously Irish culture and has set most of his plays in Ireland, he has never lived there. Similarly, he went to Catholic schools but lost his faith early on and dropped out at 16, thereafter educating himself by reading widely and watching plays on the BBC.
McDonagh was initially more interested in film than in theater, which he saw as “a middle-class art form…that I as a working-class person was cut out of.” But it was the stage for which he started writing, and he was already fully formed as an artist by the time The Beauty Queen of Leenane was premiered. Since then he has written eight more plays, four of which are set in Ireland. While three of the others take place elsewhere—Hangmen in England, The Pillowman (2003) in an unspecified totalitarian state, and A Behanding in Spokane (2010) in the U.S.—they are defined less by their settings than by their characters, who are indistinguishable from the demented blabbermouths who inhabit his Irish plays.
Whatever their nominal origins, most of McDonagh’s characters speak an ornate patois that is a savage parody of the clichés of stage Irishness (“Oi have me drunkard mammy to look after”). In addition, they are injustice collectors whose passion to settle old scores has been intensified to the point of rage by the closed-minded insularity of the communities in which they live. Typical of McDonagh’s flamboyant treatment of this latter theme is The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001), a black comedy that portrays a cell of murderous Irish terrorists as a gaggle of drunken halfwits who love their pets more than their fellow men. By play’s end, the stage is slippery with blood and body parts—not to mention the battered corpses of two cats.
Terrorism is no laughing matter, yet nothing about The Lieutenant of Inishmore is more characteristic of McDonagh than the fact that it is a comedy. The play, which he says was inspired by “pacifist rage,” is a scalding-hot broth of contempt for the “stupid violence” of the IRA. His Ireland is no verdant Eden but a desperate land full of self-destructive sentimentalists who feed on embroidered memories and long-cherished grudges—and who slaughter innocent bystanders in the name of “the patriot game.” How best to tell the truth about such madness? McDonagh chooses to make fun of it: “Didn’t he outright cripple the poor fella laughed at that girly scarf he used to wear, and that was when he was 12?” “His first cousin, too, that fella was, never minding 12! And then pinched his wheelchair!”
Like all of McDonagh’s plays, The Lieutenant of Inishmore is concerned with the corrupting power of vengefulness. That a playwright of Irish descent should be preoccupied with such a subject makes perfect sense, since the history of Ireland in the 20th century was a tale of religious and cultural irredentism run amok. But McDonagh casts his net wider, encompassing as well what one might call “spiritual irredentism.” In A Behanding in Spokane, the vengeful party is a homicidal maniac who has spent the past 47 years searching for his left hand, from which he was involuntarily separated by “six hillbilly bastards” who lived to regret their crime; in Hangmen, it is a mysterious stranger who torments a public executioner whom he believes to have hanged an innocent man. In Beauty Queen and The Lonesome West (1997), by contrast, the conflicts are between blood relatives who have come to despise one another. Yet whoever they are and wherever they live, they have in common the desire for vengeance and the willingness to obtain it by any means necessary, violence very much included.
Extreme though it is, McDonagh’s violence is never gratuitous, much less quasi-pornographic. It is used to dramatize a moral precept, which is that the consequences of violent acts, in particular those to which men resort when seeking revenge, can neither be foreseen nor controlled. In McDonagh’s world, violence is a train of powder that, once ignited, is prone to blow up the just and the unjust—not to mention the person who set it off.
This theme also dominates McDonagh’s feature films, though the first two, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths, are more conventional in approach than his stage plays. It had always been his ultimate goal to both write and direct his own films, not merely because he wanted to reach a wider, less class-bound audience but because, like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder before him, he was determined to secure the artistic integrity of his work (“Part of the director’s job on a film is to protect the writer, so that’s half the battle”). But to achieve these goals, he was forced at first to make movies that fit more or less recognizably into the comic crime-film genre.
To be sure, In Bruges, the story of a pair of guilt-ridden Irish hitmen who hole up in Belgium after bungling a job, has serious overtones. It is set, for instance, in Bruges, a city full of cathedrals visited mainly by tourists, so as to hint at the effects of Europe’s loss of religious faith. Still, neither In Bruges nor Seven Psychopaths aspire in the end to being much more than formidably intelligent entertainment, bearing the same relationship to McDonagh’s stage plays that Graham Greene’s thrillers of the ’30s do to his more ambitious novels of spiritual malaise and distress.
Not so Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the first of McDonagh’s films to be directly comparable in both stylistic approach and moral gravity to his best plays. It is not, to begin with, a comedy, black or otherwise. Funny though it sometimes is, Three Billboards is set in motion by an event of the utmost foulness—the rape and murder of a teenage girl—and at no point does McDonagh play that hideous occurrence for laughs. To the contrary, Three Billboards is centered on Mildred, the dead girl’s mother (played with gaunt and horrific force by Frances McDormand), who refuses to accept that her killer cannot be found and punished.
To goad the local police into solving the crime, Mildred rents three billboards located on the outskirts of the small town in rural Missouri where she lives, using them to post a message accusing Ebbing’s police chief (Woody Harrelson) of having failed to do his duty. By doing so, she enrages Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an ill-educated, black-hating uniformed thug, who thereupon commits a series of violent acts that lead to his firing. A spiral of reciprocal bloodshed ensues that threatens to tear Ebbing apart, at the height of which Mildred joins forces with Dixon in order to hunt down, vigilante-style, her daughter’s killer. But Three Billboards does not end there. Instead, Mildred and Dixon seem to have a change of heart just before the final blackout:
MILDRED: You sure about this?
DIXON: About killing this guy? Not really. You?
MILDRED: Not really. I guess we can decide along the way.
What has happened to them? McDonagh plants a clue when, early in the film, we see another character reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find. This is not merely a touch of local color but a signal to the viewer that Three Billboards will be a secular counterpart of O’Connor’s stories about the operation of divine grace, a narrative conditioned by McDonagh’s own early exposure to the Roman Catholic dogma that he would later reject but never forget. In Christian theology (and the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary), grace is “the free and unmerited favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners.” The recipients of such grace may choose to reject it—a decision that in O’Connor’s stories can lead to dire consequences ranging from self-mutilation to first-degree murder—but they are changed by it nonetheless.
Anyone familiar with A Good Man Is Hard to Find will realize at once that Three Billboards is cut from the same cloth. Nowhere in the film does McDonagh suggest that the path of the regenerate is anything but stony. As O’Connor wrote, “all human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” In the case of Mildred no less than Dixon, this pain arises from the knowledge that both characters must abandon all hope of avenging Mildred’s daughter in order to break the endless cycle of vengeance and reprisal and start anew. Nor can we be sure that either of them will succeed in doing so. All we know is that hate has crippled their souls, and that they are now willing at last to consider—however tentatively—another way to live.
It is easy to see why so many people dislike Three Billboards. To begin with, it is no more realistic a portrayal of everyday life in rural Missouri than The Lieutenant of Inishmore is of the activities of the IRA. It is, rather, a parable, one in which reality is simplified and exaggerated, almost in the manner of a stage play, so as to more clearly depict the spiritual redemption that is its subject. For this reason, those who are unreceptive to the anti-naturalistic illusional techniques of theater are no more likely to appreciate Three Billboards.
“Woke” critics who view art through the prism of politics, by contrast, dislike the film because it fails to treat the plight of Mildred and Dixon as a “teachable moment” from which we are expected to learn that the human heart can only be cleansed of racism by way of political reeducation—a notion that could not have been further from McDonagh’s mind. The intensity with which some of these critics have attacked Three Billboards suggests that they are irredentists of yet another sort, power-seeking idealists who believe that their opponents are, like Dixon, too evil to be capable of redemption and therefore must not be debated on even terms but silenced by force majeure.
All this notwithstanding, Three Billboards was mostly received with enthusiasm by critics and audiences alike, much more so than one might reasonably expect of so serious-minded a film. What is more, its popular success, coupled with the warm public response to the plays that preceded it, leads me to suspect that its maker may come in time to be seen as the great dramatic poet of our angry age of tribalism. Having seen in his youth how tribal rivalry splintered the Irish soul, Martin McDonagh now writes plays and directs films of slangy eloquence and ugly beauty in which he seeks to persuade the rest of us to follow a more benign path—while we can.
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Jonathan Silver reviews Rick Richman's "Racing Against History"
The historical sources of this divide are illuminated in Rick Richman’s eye-opening Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler. In 1940, Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and David Ben-Gurion all made independent trips to the United States to raise a Jewish army to fight Hitler. Each mission failed. And the reasons for their failure show us that disagreements between American Jews and Israel are not new, and they are not the result of Prime Minister Netanyahu or any American president.
Britain had been the arena of Zionist diplomacy in the first years of the 20th century. But Zionist fortunes declined from the 1917 Balfour Declaration to the 1937 Peel Commission to the 1939 White Paper. British foreign policy had abandoned the Jews, embraced the Arabs, and, in the moments before war really broke out, was complicit in tightening the noose around the neck of Jewish Europe.
Chaim Weizmann, the scientist turned Zionist leader, tried to reorient British policy at every turn. He was an insider, a courtier who plied his charm in the private audience of the gentleman’s club. And on Weizmann’s 1940 trip to the United States, he operated in the same style. Richman describes private meetings with Louis Brandeis, even President Roosevelt. But it was all for naught. In Britain, Neville Chamberlain had rebuffed Weizmann’s offer of military support, and he wasn’t about to try to raise a Jewish fighting force in isolationist America. So he decided to refocus his trip on fundraising and to ask the American government to pressure Britain into relaxing its immigration restrictions in Palestine.
Richman, a lawyer in Los Angeles who contributes to Commentary’s blog, demonstrates that Weizmann’s reflections on 1940 are consistent with assessments of the American Diaspora he had been making for decades. As early as 1916, Weizmann had written that assimilation was “the natural progress of emancipated Jews” outside of the land of Israel. In America, he found that assimilationist pressure had led Jews to adopt the same isolationist view as their non-Jewish neighbors. American Jews believed that they were already in the promised land, and they would not let European strangers or Middle Eastern dreamers endanger their standing. As Richman tells it, Weizmann “maintained a studious public silence on anything that might be construed as suggesting that America, or American Jews, should actively respond to what was transpiring in Europe, other than by assisting in building Palestine through investments and contributions.”
Then came Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the so-called Revisionists. He was in the United States from March until his untimely death in August. The day he arrived, Jabotinsky walked off the Samaria, up to the New York Times, and matter-of-factly said that “if there is going to be real military war, there is going to be a Jewish army, fighting under a Jewish flag on the side of the democracies.” He saw Europe as it was, a “Zone of Jewish Distress,” and did not want Jews to believe that an Allied victory by itself could ensure Jewish survival there. Jabotinsky had previously argued, prophetically, for an evacuation scheme from Europe. Even in the event of Allied victory, he would have thought it absurd for Jews to return to Poland and Germany. He demanded recognition of a state in Palestine and thought it essential for his people to join the war effort in order for the Allies to incur Jewish debt—Jewish debt that would be repaid at the settlement table after the war by recognizing a Jewish state.
Jabotinsky also thought it essential for Jews to assume political responsibility for themselves—not only to bear Jewish arms, but to govern Jewish citizens in a Jewish state—in order to leave behind the ghetto mentality they had developed in the Diaspora. His vision of Jewish excellence, hadar, called impoverished and weak Diaspora Jews to the grandeur and magnificence that can be endowed only by sovereignty.
After the fall of France in June, Jabotinsky delivered what would be the last major speech of his life. In “The Second World War and a Jewish Army,” he explained to a standing-room-only audience of over 4,000 that “the principle by which all great nations live and without which they die” is “No Surrender.” The West must not surrender to Hitler, and the Jews must not surrender this chance to reassert the dignity of self-government. A Jewish army would “signify that the Jewish people choose a cloudy day to renew its demand for recognition as a belligerent on the side of a good cause.” Constituted “as a Jewish army,” Jews should “demand the right of fighting the giant rattlesnake.” Offers to serve began to be received and one can see how Jabotinsky’s call to hadar might have struck a chord. But it was not to be. Jabotinsky died suddenly that August. He was mourned by tens of thousands in the streets of New York and by many more thousands around the world. But in the immediate aftermath of his most promising speeches, it was the American Jewish establishment that criticized him as a militant extremist whose work did not embody Jewish values.
Then David Ben-Gurion arrived in October 1940, on Rosh Hashanah, and managed to offend just about every potential Jewish ally to be found, including the Zionists. Like Weizmann, Ben-Gurion thought it impolitic to ask Jewish Americans to support a Jewish military force in the midst of a presidential election. So for the first month, he undertook no major speeches. And when, after the election that gave Franklin Roosevelt a third term, he did speak, Ben-Gurion lacked Jabotinsky’s rhetorical power. In Richman’s telling, his visit to America at the end of 1940 was a disappointment.
Richman’s book reveals how three singular Zionist leaders came to America, each with their distinct habits of mind and ways of negotiating the country, its politics, and its people. Despite their apparent disagreements, they all stood for Jewish particularity and Jewish strength as the keys to the Jewish future. But in America, the Jewish future would not be decided by Jewish strength or understood in the name of Jewish particularity. The differences between Jewish Americans and Zionists predate Israel’s founding. They predate the Second World War. Richman’s remarkable account of a telling moment in history shows how the differences between American Jews and the descendants of Weizmann, Jabotinsky, and Ben-Gurion grow straight from roots of Zionism itself.
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Podcast: Border battles and the OIG report.
The implementation of a policy that separates illegal border-crossing children from their parents has thrown the Trump administration into crisis, in part, because no one is on the same page. Depending on the official speaking, this policy is either a necessary deterrent to future migrants, an unfortunate vestigial artifact of the Obama administration, or the law of the land. The hosts break down the political effect of the White House’s confusion. Also, the COMMENTARY Podcast breaks down the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s report that savages James Comey’s behavior in 2016 and suggests FBI Agent Peter Strzok’s anti-Trump bias might have had an effect on the product of the FBI’s Russia probe.
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