The Great Pumpkin and/or The Great Conceit? This blog may be just another piece of support for the tired wisdom that there are few things more dangerous (or tedious) than a retiree with a typewriter. The Great Pumpkin was Schulz’ attempt to view the absurdity in myth, possibly in dogma, and to show that we often need to have something outside of ourselves to lean on. Schulz and Roth had two distinct approaches to the same issue.
Philip Roth: “I am who I don’t pretend to be.”
Our friend George Draper is in many ways responsible for this blog. I serve this up as a defense. What can one do but look out over the horizon and conjure up those items of meaning and pluck those that are most prized and ponder them, whether they exist in one’s reality or the chalets of his mind. What George did was send an email about our mutual love of the craft of language as it was practiced in the recent film, Darkest Hour, about Churchill, which ended with his famous speech in Parliament about “defending on the beaches, etc”. At that moment, the British Army was being rescued from Dunkirk with the assistance of Operation Dynamo- a collection of brave civilians in their “Little Ships”, the British Navy, the RAF and and some even more heroic French soldiers who fought to the death to protect the exit of the 330,000 souls. The film ends with a wonderful line Halifax delivers to a nearby companion, “He marshaled the English language and sent it in to battle”.
The Great Conceit? I am fully aware of my attempts at using this very language to get at what ever alights in my craw at any particular moment. Another tessera has been flung at me and here I go. George ended his email with a link to a recent article in the NYTimes about Philip Roth, whose work is being brought to life in another of those miracles of modern technology brought on by the collision and collusion of Cable TV, the Internet and often some Jewish-American writer- The Serial, an umpteen part story delivered on your favorite media platform. David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” is making a six-part mini-series of Roth’s “The Plot Against America.”
The article, though, was my great distraction. Of course I know who Philip Roth is. But, to know. In Spanish there is conocer and saber. One is “know of” and the other is “to know”. I primarily know of Roth and am not sure how much I can know him, though that is my failing as a reader. This blog could be imagined as an individual going through a museum show at the Met from all that I have researched in the past day or so. Roth’s work has been collected for this one temporary show for the museum’s walls. It is not all of his work, for Roth is not like Vermeer, instead producing work like Rubens and they are everywhere now. Only some can be displayed in this show. I enter the Met, probably securing the lapel sticker by paying the most meager of offerings to save a bit of dash….very Shylock of me, and wander the exhibit armed with only scant knowledge of Roth and more curious than complicit with the man’s knowledge and command of the language. What I see, though, astounds me and leaves me wanting more. I have had a spiritual and uplifting experience. But, know that this is an experience a child might have in his coming of age era. I am a child in intellect when compared to what is found in the show and armed with only a yearning for understanding, something Roth might say, “the naiveté of the child whose faith surpasseth dogma”
What followed is a couple days of sorting through Rothisms, Roth links, conversations with Mary, conversations with my mind. The result is this collection of thoughts, lifted excerpts from articles and an assortment of links. If you suffer them and descend into the tedium of this retiree armed with a keyboard and word processor, I hope you enjoy Roth for what you already know about him and are intrigued and surprised by what is new to you. His is a fabulous life, you must agree, even if you are one of his detractors, of which, I found, there are many.
My thoughts will necessarily be supplemented by those whose command of the language is greater and more interesting than mine. It will be difficult to separate them at times and they will be shamelessly “borrowed” by me in the course of the writing. The blog will therefore start with my thoughts, transition into thoughts on Roth by experts in his field and then end with Roth’s own words. There are links at the end or within to all the sources I’ve used. This exercise was satisfying on so many levels, as I have always been fascinated and intimidated by writers and their aplomb with weaving words, though even more appreciative of their ability to capture thoughts, concepts, moments, visions, experiences, whatever and hand them over to me to plug into my very own synapses and commit them to my own mental imagery. How long they remain is the question. One that Roth himself pondered throughout his life and one that is central to all our conditions. Indeed, because he felt his capacity waning, he stopped writing novels in 2012. I fully understand why he stopped writing, just as I came to understand why Hemingway blew his brains out (He did not shoot himself in the heart, which would have killed him just as surely, and, if Roth wants to kill a character, he breaks his jaw)
Portnoy is perhaps the quintessential ‘early Roth’ character. We Americans share a conceit that the rest of the world both envies and abhors. Our quest as a nation is one that builds a shrine to individualism. What is admirable and abhorrent about that, though, is that it gives each person license to be an individual and to be naive. Roth also feels that we have allowed persons into power that have subjugated our goals and focused us on the material and the mundane. He also has been prescient in his writing and the article I linked above is scathing on the H.L. Mencken World we now live in with Trump. Such fabulous use of adjectives for the man and his cronies.
Roth is the consummate individual, but he is also Jewish. He is also American. He is also from New Jersey and New York City. His navel is one that cannot escape those facts, even though his views apply to every nook and cranny of the urban and suburban life in America. His characters must first have been exposed to that life.
So, for me, the historian, the fascination is with the cultural and historical context of Roth as a man and writer, and my attempt to understand him at his word and within my understanding of the America he grew up in, one that closely parallels some of my own, though he had a head start in years by more than a decade and a head start in intellect by more than many, many points on the IQ scale. My own conceit as an American is that I think it would be interesting to have a conversation with him in the living room, knowing that he really shouldn’t be there in reality, but that I’m worth it. We Americans have a poor sense of seeing the big picture…we love the view from our navel. So did Roth, it seems, but what a navel.
The Twentieth Century was not kind to the Jews, though in some circles it has been called the Jewish Century, a conceit or an approbation? Jews have been diminished in number in that century, forced to emigrate from their homelands and have chosen either America or Israel in the Post War in general to pursue their individual quests. Much of Twentieth Century history is defined by this fact. Even much of the impetus for the actions and words of the White Supremacists at Charlottesville engendered anti-Semitism along with racism. In America, in its pockets of bigotry, stupidity and recalcitrance, those Americans, all of whom have some historical family record of immigration, we see disdain for the ideas that challenge their small worlds. Roth challenged it, he viewed it, exposed it and wove his magical words in doing so. What a marvel.
That Jewish culture, in spite of the institutional and concerted attacks on it in the 20th century, has given so much to the world in the last century. Some of my blogs have attested to that fact and we need only list a few individuals here to confirm this statement: Entertainers, Musicians, Intellectuals and leaders in Science, Philosophy and Law. Our love of all the Simon work from The Wire mentioned in the NYTimes article and everything he did afterwards is added to that list and anything Aaron Sorkin does, with his recent Maggie’s Game benefitting from both his writing and directing was enjoyed greatly by Mary and me. Even the recent Cable program, Comedians in Cars Drinking Coffee, with Jerry Seinfeld interviewing colleagues of his craft demonstrating how important the viewpoint of anyone who spends their life focusing on the minutia of society and who can make us laugh at a very tiny incident.
Roth, observer and comic, is an example. In Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews,” it is Hebrew school that serves as the unlikely venue for the sacramental act. Rabbi Binder tries to inculcate Jewish skepticism of Christian dogma in the minds of pre–Bar Mitzvah boys who would rather be outside playing baseball. One little boy, however, is listening, and when the Rabbi emphasizes the absurdity of Immaculate Conception, Ozzie Freedman objects: “If God could create the heaven and the earth in six days, and He could pick the six days He wanted right out of nowhere, why couldn’t He let a woman have a baby without having intercourse?” Rabbi Binder accuses Ozzie of impertinence and summons his mother to a meeting. At the next class, Ozzie tries to coax Rabbi Binder’s theology into a more capacious place: “ ‘Then, Itz,’ ” he tells his friend, “ ‘then he starts talking in that voice like a statue, real slow and deep, and he says that I better think over what I said about the Lord …’ Ozzie leaned his body towards Itzie. ‘Itz, I thought it over for a solid hour, and now I’m convinced God could do it.’ ” Finally, when all his scholastic strategies have been exhausted, Ozzie shouts at Rabbi Binder: “You don’t know anything about God!” for which he gets a smack on the face—and runs up to the roof of the school. At the denouement, when all the congregation—his fellow Hebrew school pupils, Rabbi Binder, Yakov Blotnik, the janitor with the mark of Auschwitz on his arm, his mother and the municipal fire department—are assembled in the courtyard below to see if he will jump; when his mother shouts up to him, “Ozzie, come down. Don’t be a martyr, my baby” and the pupils chant in chorus, “be a Martin, be a Martin!” Ozzie forces everyone to their knees. He has them proclaim the following doxology: “Tell me you believe God can do Anything.” Then: “Tell me you believe God can make a child without intercourse.” And finally, the catechism: “You should never hit anybody about God.”
No one took advantage of the comic opportunities of self-invention, of unencumbered encounters with the ambient cultures, more than Philip Roth. Even when Nathan Zuckerman is the anchor, his longevity embraces many twentieth-century Jewish incarnations, among them the young writer serving his apprenticeship at the feet of a Great Arbiter of the Great Books and falling in love with the woman he presumes to be the Greatest Martyr of all ( Jewish) time, Anne Frank ( The Ghost Writer); the brash young writer nearly crushed by the titans of literary criticism ( The Anatomy Lesson); and the “secret sharer” and recorder of another man’s drama ( The Human Stain). Finally, in Exit, Ghost, Nathan, himself aged and physically compromised, is reunited, briefly, with his “Anne Frank” (Amy Bellette) who is even more heir than he to the depredations of the flesh. There are other characters who tip over from impersonators into impostors—in the comic mode (“Philip Roth” in Operation Shylock) and in the tragic mode (Coleman Silk in The Human Stain). “My hero,” the Real Philip Roth explains to Hermione Lee, “has to be in a state of vivid transformation or radical displacement. ‘I am not what I am—I am, if anything, what I am not.’ … Nathan Zuckerman is an act. It’s all the art of impersonation, isn’t it? That’s the fundamental novelistic gift. … Concocting a half-imaginary existence out of the actual drama of my life is my life. There has to be some pleasure in this job, and that’s it. To go around in disguise.”
Or….Roth was a committed fan of Kafka. Kafka wrote, “The meaning of life is that it stops.” Is this Roth in a nutshell. What a wonderful seed he has planted from whatever nut tree he came from.
Roth, the anti-everyman…the everyman represents all of us. Roth wrote of the dangers of this, but every culture needs an everyman to set up the paradigm, to give us guidance, to make sense of the world. But, in America, land of the individual, this is obstructed or denied on many levels. Roth is an individual seeking to understand and expose the everyman.
In the first decades and again in the late middle decades of the twentieth century, Jewish-accented prose converged with the “scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life” and with the comedy of American self-invention to affirm what is also profoundly modern (in the sense of being perpetually in-the-moment): America as by definition the embodiment of “the new.” In the preface to his republished classic, The Puritan Origins of the American Self, Sacvan Bercovitch wrote: “The newness of this New World defied, indeed reversed, the common-sense meaning of new. … [In other colonial histories, one finds] that New France, New Spain, and New Amsterdam were new in the sense of replica, imitation, or offspring. Even when they condemned the effects of conquest, they promoted the social structures and belief systems of the ‘parent country.’ [Cotton] Mather, on the contrary, describes a venture destined to supersede a corrupt Old World. … His New England opens a new stage in world history.”
Roth exploited the permission granted his own generation, defined by Remnick as “steeped in America, in its freedom and talk, its energies and superabundance.”
Movements for sexual liberation, civil rights, higher socioeconomic mobility, and gender equality each begot its own fair share of challenges and paradoxes. In response to the moral respectability that American Jews embodied in their postwar milieu, and considering the myriad social forces put into flux by the turbulence of the ’60s, Portnoy’s Complaint took a different approach. Avishai observes, “Here was a book that seemed to say you don’t have to be this respectful. I’m going to tell you about the repellent side, or at least about a man who is in a struggle with the repellent.” the virtues and perils of assimilation, the tension between personal and collective identity, and the ethical dilemmas emerging from these struggles—have shown themselves to be “latent in any bourgeois decade.”
In contrast to Augustine, Portnoy flips religion on its head, bemoaning its seemingly diametric and insurmountable expectations with a provocative if sincere forthrightness largely unseen beforehand in postwar American literature.
He satirized the speech-intoxicated, God-saturated idiom of urban and suburban humans who happened to be Jews meeting the speech-intoxicated, God-saturated idiom of urban and suburban humans who happened not to be Jews.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had had his own English debut in 1953 through Saul Bellow’s masterful translations, was the poster child for what Roth was not doing. In an interview for The Paris Review in 1968, Singer both dismissed and reinforced the conundrum: “To me there are only Yiddish writers, Hebrew writers, English writers, Spanish writers. The whole idea of a Jewish writer, or a Catholic writer, is kind of far-fetched to me. But if you forced me to admit that there is such a thing as a Jewish writer, I would say that he would have to be a man [sic! ] really immersed in Jewishness, who knows Hebrew, Yiddish, the Talmud, the Midrash, the Hasidic literature, the Cabbala, and so forth. … If in addition he writes about Jews and Jewish life, perhaps then we can call him a Jewish writer, whatever language he writes in. Of course, we can also call him just a writer.”
“only in America” is the question of identity up for grabs. And, one might add, only in America can that transaction be carried out in the comic mode.
By the novel’s conclusion, it remains unclear how far Zeno has progressed in his “treatment.” His final entry presages humanity’s return to health, but only through a simultaneously unspeakable and sublime catastrophe: “There will be an enormous explosion that no one will hear, and the earth, once again a nebula, will wander through the heavens, freed of parasites and sickness.”
The license was in the first place verbal (and here again the parallels with Irish orality and transgressive speech are inviting) and in the second, comic—what David Remnick calls “verbal robustness, people talking, being terrifically funny.” In an earlier interview, with Hermione Lee (1984), Roth referred to Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator /character who appears in many of Roth’s fictions and has often been identified as the author’s alter ego. “Zuckerman’s struggle with Jewishness and Jewish criticism is seen in the context of his comical career as an American writer, ousted by his family, alienated from his fans, and finally at odds with his own nerve endings,” Roth said. “The Jewish quality of books like mine doesn’t really reside in their subject matter. … It’s a kind of sensibility that makes, say, The Anatomy Lesson Jewish, if anything does: the nervousness, the excitability, the arguing, the dramatizing, the indignation, the obsessiveness, the touchiness, the playacting—above all the talking. The talking and the shouting. … The book won’t shut up … won’t leave you alone. I knew what I was doing when I broke Zuckerman’s jaw. For a Jew a broken jaw is a terrible tragedy. It was to avoid this that so many of us went into teaching rather than prizefighting.”
Acts of Impersonation
“I am an American, Newark born,” is the way a Philip Roth character might have paraphrased Augie March’s inaugural leap onto the literary stage in the eponymous novel by Saul Bellow. But these authors, like most of their characters, are also Americans, Jewish-born. What multiple particularities enabled and what Roth realized to the fullest was not a clash of identities but an amalgamation of cultural possibilities. American identity emerged in the second and third postwar decades as a meeting ground of cultures that were themselves in flux—although the process began, of course, well before World War II. “America, I love you. If I didn’t hear an accent every day, I’d think I was in a foreign country,” says Molly Goldberg in her own Yiddish-and-Bronx-accented speech, which was amplified from 1929 to 1946 through hundreds of thousands of Philcos in homes like that of Herman and Bess Roth. When Augie appeared in 1953, paving the way for Eli (the fanatic), Neil (the romantic), Sgt. Nathan (defender of the faith), Ozzie (the theologian), Epstein (the philanderer), and finally Alex (the neurotic), American identity was already being performed in fiction as a series of hyphenated but nonessentialized possibilities: Jewish-American, Italian-American, Chinese-American, and Spanish-American. (African-American has taken longer, and indelible traces of the ongoing struggle are exposed in Roth’s late novel, The Human Stain, which preceded Barack Obama’s election by only eight years.) But this process depended on two other forces that had converged in the years of Roth’s apprenticeship: the reaffirmation of an American landscape that had been deeply affected, but not physically devastated, by World War II, and the reclamation of an heirloomed Jewish comedy.
From here on out in the blog is a collection of thoughts written or spoken in interviews by Roth himself……..
Whoever looks for the writer’s thinking in the words and thoughts of his characters is looking in the wrong direction. Seeking out a writer’s “thoughts” violates the richness of the mixture that is the very hallmark of the novel. The thought of the novelist that matters most is the thought that makes him a novelist.
The thought of the writer lies in his choice of an aspect of reality previously unexamined in the way that he conducts an examination. The thought of the writer is embedded everywhere in the course of the novel’s action. The thought of the writer is figured invisibly in the elaborate pattern — in the newly emerging constellation of imagined things — that is the architecture of the book: what Aristotle called simply “the arrangement of the parts,” the “matter of size and order.” The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.
The novel, then, is in itself his mental world. A novelist is not a tiny cog in the great wheel of human thought. He is a tiny cog in the great wheel of imaginative literature. Finis.
living beyond the limits of discretion and taste and blaspheming against the decent
kiln of antagonism, unable and unwilling to hide anything
Joe sweetly summed it up in just 10 words. “I did the best I could with what I had.”
men with their share of peculiarities who are neither mired in weakness nor made of stone and who, almost inevitably, are bowed by blurred moral vision, real and imaginary culpability, conflicting allegiances, urgent desires, uncontrollable longings, unworkable love, the culprit passion, the erotic trance, rage, self-division, betrayal, drastic loss, vestiges of innocence, fits of bitterness, lunatic entanglements, consequential misjudgment, understanding overwhelmed, protracted pain, false accusation, unremitting strife, illness, exhaustion, estrangement, derangement, aging, dying and, repeatedly, inescapable harm, the rude touch of the terrible surprise — unshrinking men stunned by the life one is defenseless against, including especially history: the unforeseen that is constantly recurring as the current moment.
Can you think of an ideology capable of corrective self-satire
And surely the fact that writers really don’t mean a goddamn thing to nine-tenths of the population doesn’t hurt. It’s inebriating.
The young especially live according to beliefs that are thought up for them by the society’s most unthinking people and by the businesses least impeded by innocent ends. Ingeniously as their parents and teachers may attempt to protect the young from being drawn, to their detriment, into the moronic amusement park that is now universal, the preponderance of the power is not with them.
Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps, the gloomy tabulation of unspeakable violent events, the unceasing despoliation of the biosphere for profit, surveillance overkill that will come back to haunt us, great concentrations of wealth financing the most undemocratic malevolents around, science illiterates still fighting the Scopes trial 89 years on, economic inequities the size of the Ritz, indebtedness on everyone’s tail, families not knowing how bad things can get, money being squeezed out of every last thing — that frenzy — and (by no means new) government hardly by the people through representative democracy but rather by the great financial interests, the old American plutocracy worse than ever.
This is not some quiet little corner of the world.
80th birthday celebration, March 19, 2013 In my defense … I should insert here that remembering objects as mundane as a bicycle basket was a not insignificant part of my vocation. The deal worked out for me as a novelist was that I should continuously rummage around in memory for thousands and thousands of just such things. Unlikely as it may seem, a passion for local specificity—the expansive engagement, something close to fascination, with a seemingly familiar, even innocuous, object like a lady’s kid glove or a butcher shop chicken or a gold-star flag or a Hamilton wristwatch … [-a passion] for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing. Without strong representation of the thing—animate or inanimate—without the crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing. … It is from a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life, it is from the force of its uncompromising particularity, from its physicalness, that the realistic novel, the insatiable realistic novel with its multitude of realities, derives its ruthless intimacy.
Take a look at how one author looks at the compendium of Roth’s work in this article and why Roth stopped writing…http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/116513/is-roth-really-done