Dateline: June 7, 2018
By Jeff Heller
If you are among the legions who love or despise the novels of Philip Roth, you are probably aware that he died last month, at the age of 85. Perhaps you are also aware and unsurprised at the (mostly male) tributes and (mostly female) condemnations this prompted. Having sampled one of each, I was eagerly led to a brilliant yet troubling 2008 Harper’s piece by the essayist and academic, Vivian Gornick, entitled “Radiant Poison: Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and the end of the Jew as metaphor”. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind a good deconstruction now and then; nor do I shy away from moral condemnation. On the other hand, I bristle when the shining of a critic’s light is so transparently intended to revise current public opinion, as to threaten to undermine entirely a writer’s well-earned reputation.
As Gornick sees it, Bellow and Roth each enjoyed a 30-year run in the forefront of Jewish-American letters, in the course of which an early expression of pure sentiment soon descends into a sustained and utterly tone-deaf attack on women. For Bellow this began with the writing of his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1952) and the joyful discovery of his own uniquely American voice and vision; while for Roth the ascension to literary greatness commences with his debut work, the novella Goodbye Columbus (1959), and, in particular, the exquisite tenderness with which the protagonist breaks up with his upper-class Jewish girlfriend. However, the balance of their prodigious output — and especially the works they are most famous for, Herzog and Portnoy’s Complaint — is bereft of any such emotional sensitivity and exudes, on the contrary, an unrelenting bitterness.
Worse, the turn to mean-spiritedness by these novelists seems to Gornick not only an abandonment of their better angels, but a regressive anachronism, occurring as it does at the precise cultural moment when post-war American Jews were free at last to move up the ranks of the professions (as they had done for generations in business). This to her is symptomatic of a disqualifying personal flaw, on the part of both men, who fail to give due credit to women for this unprecedented breakthrough — which made possible their own rise — while indulging unrepentantly in the primitive fantasy of Woman as a devouring homovore, as it were, eager to claim a disproportionate share of her man’s accolades.
Yet in so characterizing their work, it seems to me, Gornick comes dangerously close to obscuring why Bellow and Roth continue to matter; namely, their relentless, trend-bucking critique of the changing American scene, which combines the best elements of the 19th century novel — both (Dickensian) sociology and (Dostoyevskian) psychology — with their distinctly mid-20th century, ethnic-American sensibility. And, while we are spared an overtly psychoanalytic reading of these writers, they are portrayed nonetheless as eternal adolescents caught up in an interminable cycle of neurotic striving and disillusionment, recklessly projecting their misplaced Jewish angst upon the world. Indeed, they and their protagonists (erroneously conflated by Gornick) are seen as suffering from the philosophic disease, solipsism, wherein nothing is real or imaginable except insofar as it is a reflection and/or extension of self.
Gone is the respect usually accorded Messrs Bellow and Roth, their reverence for sacred, folkloristic, casuistic tradition or their reinvigoration of (Christian) America’s literary tradition (from which Jews had long been barred, as surely as they had the economic and social life of the Protestant mainstream). Rather, Gornick theorizes, it is the rise of feminism — beginning in the 1920s and reaching fever pitch in the 1970s — that deserves the credit for their breathtaking linguistic flourishes and scathing discontent. Not the decline of the West but the decline of the Breast explains their callous, narcissistic disparagement of everything they are not. Not the artist’s disenchantment with the American Dream but the great American Scream speaks volumes, writhing in infantile anguish, impossible to assuage.
Ironically, it is precisely this sort of psychological reductionism that Bellow and Roth fought relentlessly to see through and consign to the dustbin (though not before making of it an object of Jewish ridicule). Indeed, to understand these authors is to accept the premise that they are, first and last, literary artists who dare to embody, in their characters, traces of the very rapacious amorality they observe in contemporary American life. Of course this is difficult for anyone for whom such a representation stirs intense feelings of resentment. Yet, one should take care not to be blinded to the purpose behind the puerility; which is, I think, so that the reader might recognize the amorality lurking within, the better to make corrective work of it.
Gornick goes on to fault Bellow and Roth as well for failing to show proper respect to their fellow upward-striving, mid-century Jewish-Americans for paving the path of their liberation as well as that of blacks, gays and, not least, women themselves. And yet, I wonder whether by so doing she does not herself belie an insensitivity to the many who, having hitched their wagon to the star of assigned identity, if you will, were later overwhelmed by a self-annihilating culture no longer able to console or conceal, much less offset, political and economic decline. Which is the very theme the Chicagoan Bellow and Newarker Roth so vividly and courageously depict in their volumes and for which, I am confidant, they will long be remembered.
There is no question that the works of these brief chronicles of the time exhibit an unappeasable misogyny and should be excoriated as such; though no more, I think, than was the case throughout their eminent careers. Moreover, to suggest, as Ms. Gornick does, that this failing is evidence of a pathology better served by professional examination than literary transformation, is to erect a false equivalence with men who do actual harm to women and, more worryingly still, to throw out the ‘metaphoric’ baby, so as to bathe oneself in his ‘radiant’ bathwater.
Jeff Heller, M.A. has been a college counselor, social-service manager, and businessperson. An avid songwriter, Jeff’s album Reflection is available on Amazon. With doctoral training in Counseling Psychology and Sociology, for many years Jeff ran a be-your-own psychologist meet-up forum. Jeff is a member of the Writer’s Collective.