The most Rothian of responses to Philip Roth’s death on May 22 came, most likely, from Jacques Berlinerblau, Georgetown University professor and one of the late master’s shrewdest Boswells. “When word came last Tuesday night that Philip Roth had passed away,” Berlinerblau wrote, “I reacted inappropriately. Gentle reader, would you think less of me if I confessed that upon receiving the sad news, I speed-dialed my agent and conferred with publicists?”
If the answer is yes, gentle reader, well, you just didn’t know Philip: Honoring the late writer’s spirit means not succumbing to the waves of encomia that washed our shores when news broke that our last “living giant” had succumbed. “One explanation for my muted response to Roth’s death,” Berlinerblau continued, his grin visible on the page, “is that I am, well, a Rothian. As such, I am allergic to so-called ‘normal,’ or ‘healthy,’ emotional responses.” Just as Mickey Sabbath masturbated on the grave of a dead lover, so did Berlinerblau pounce at the press, a slightly more sublimated way to relieve the same lively urges. It was a fitting, even brilliant tribute, for this is the world that Roth had wrought.
Which leaves the rest of us earnest schlubs with a conundrum: How might we do the memory of the dearly departed writer justice?
It’s a trick question. Knowing my distaste for the man and his oeuvre, a dear friend, her heart and mind both finer than mine, asked if I was at all moved by the outpouring of emotion from Roth’s grieving fans. I was, as anyone with even a dab of spiritual imagination and communal inclinations would have been. The trouble is that Roth lacked both, which made him—is it too early for judgment?—a uniquely pernicious presence in American, and particularly Jewish-American, life and culture.
To begin to understand him, look first at what Roth rejected. At the hands of a different writer, the journey of the Finkels and the Roths from Kozlov and Kiev to Weequahic, Newark might’ve contained multitudes. Settling in America, clawing for parnassah (a way to make a living), flirting with a foreign culture while at the same time helping to reshape it—that, to paraphrase another Jewish writer who looked at America with an infinitely greater measure of grace—is a story stuffed with stuff that is coarse and stuffed with stuff that is fine. Roth had an appetite for the coarse part only: His mother and his father, his neighbors and his relatives, his friends and their families—all were treated with cruel contempt and dismissed as too crude to merit the writer’s insightful gaze.
That is, when they mattered at all: Most often, the others in a Roth novel served as nothing but a shimmering screen on which to project the Greatest Story Ever Told, the story of young Philip emerging from the putrid muck of his debased community and letting his brilliance shine. To his credit, Roth was more or less honest about his predilections. In 1969’s Portnoy’s Complaint, he wrote in the introduction to the book that truly made him a star of “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.”
The dime store Freudian language is telling. Like so many American Jews who brashly swore off the old ideas of their faith only to submit to newer and far flimsier ones with just as much egoistic gusto as their hunched-over and bearded ancestors had sought to nurture humility, Roth found in the spirit of Freud a machinery with which to flatten his emotional landscapes. And like so many American Jews who sighed with relief at being the first generation of Jewish men and women to enjoy America’s bounties without worrying too much about the pangs of hunger or the pricks of prejudice, Roth, too, took his newfound liberty as an invitation, if you’ll pardon the expression, to ejaculate often and freely.
All of that wouldn’t have been a problem if Roth were a mere cub instead of a literary lion, had he been a mewing little thing roaring playfully from time to time and, from his safe spot in the snug middle of the pack, scaring no one. But Roth, like the comedian he’d been as an adolescent, had impeccable timing: He arrived to precocious adulthood at the exact moment when the sacred spirits that had always animated this godly nation—the spirits that rocked revival tents and carried men to fight first the British and then each other—broke free of the synagogue and the church and began looking for different, more kaleidoscopic vessels. If you wanted to break on through to the other side in the 1960s, you didn’t kneel and pray; you listened to Morrison, you dropped acid, you read Roth.
And while other artists of his generation sometimes matured gracefully—listen to Dylan’s 1997 masterpiece Time Out of Mind to hear what a candid wrestling match with maturity and mortality sounds like—Roth dug deeper into his designer myopia. The exuberant youth who took pleasure at winning praise by, as he himself put it in his introduction to the 30th anniversary reissue of Goodbye, Columbus, handing over a “store of tribal secrets . . . the rites and taboos of his clan”—Goodbye, Columbus won praise via the 1960 National Book Award for fiction—had become a solipsistic adult who now imagined that all of history revolved around the same narrow and carnal axes from which he was neither able nor willing to break free.
In American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Plot Against America, Roth, often telling the story from a child’s point of view, narrates the souring of America’s promise. These books all begin with a childhood reminiscent of utopia and end with looming malice. That he himself had once been a prominent chronicler of a bitter American childhood seems to matter little to him; Roth the writer, like any true narcissist, was only interested in his present moment and had little patience for consistency, that old hobgoblin of little minds. As a young lad, childhood was the still bleeding wound that had to be healed with lust and scorn; as a middle-aged man, it was paradise seen from within, but amounted to a permanent adolescent whine seen from without—except of course by the legions of the other denatured Jews who were more or less doing the same thing as Roth, with less talent.
And because he could no longer rely on those trusty gargoyles, his parents and fellow Jews, to play the part of the now long since humiliated demons swiping at the tired, poor, young Philip yearning to breathe free—as if his parents and grandparents had sacrificed nothing to make that breathing possible—he welcomed in external threats to do the job once held by Sophie Portnoy. Whether they were Charles Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic goons or the hedonistic wreckers of the Weather Underground hardly mattered: What mattered is that the Roth character, the protagonist of every Roth book, was still blissfully unhappy.
Here, for example, is how Roth ends American Pastoral. Its protagonist, Swede Levov, begins life with a bloom: The star athlete son of a rich family, he marries a beauty queen and moves to a beautiful home in the country. By the time Roth is done with him, he’s huddling in a decimated ghetto in New Jersey with his daughter, a radical on the run and the emaciated victim of both rape and ideology (which often comes to the same thing). “They’ll never recover,” Roth writes in the book’s final paragraph. “Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”
Roth never answers the question. He cannot. To understand the life of any family is to understand loyalty as well as leeriness, tenderness as well as contempt, sacrifice as well as scorn. These intricate and difficult emotions require one to be truly curious about the world that lays beyond the tip of one’s penis, which, to Roth, proved an unappealing proposition. This is not to say that he didn’t feel deeply, or better, acutely; he did, perhaps more finely than most writers of the second half of the 20th century. But like the protagonist of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, Roth possessed a brilliant mind but no midot, no character virtues.
Roth also lacked patience for the silent, meditative process that turned pain into art. Most of America’s literary greats have been sublimators: Whitman, a closeted homosexual, tamed his libido and taught it poetry; Dickinson, a shut-in, pressured her anxieties into diamonds; Poe was a drug addict who somehow captured his fears and turned them into bone-chillers. Roth was too loose and too proud for such hard inner work. He was, as I noted in an earlier critique, “never in possession of the loom—so elegantly mastered by his contemporary, Saul Bellow—that lets a writer process his or her bales of bile into beautiful fabrics that keep us warm.”
Well, what of it? Not every writer is obliged to carry the burden of goodness, and those who settle for nothing but virtue are often the sorriest bores. But Roth’s outsized legacy, clearly visible long before his death, had an impact paralleled by few. Childless in life, he nonetheless sired a generation of young Jewish writers who attempted to replicate his drumbeat: Jonathan Safran Foer, Sam Lipsyte, and others are Roth’s wayward sons, like him mistaking exuberant tricks for real emotion and like him having little interest in anything but their own cravings and contempt.
Even more tragically, Roth’s ascent gave American Jews another identity marker with which to effortlessly telegraph meaning: Having cast off the difficult and demanding yoke of their tradition—all those restrictions and obligations! All that fear of and need to love God!—for the spiritual supermarket of American life, where they could cobble together a self by choosing the customs and cultural touchstones they deemed most attractive, educated and secular American Jews for decades defined themselves in part by pointing to Roth’s sensibility. Like the master, they too were smart and acerbic outsiders, critical of their own faith community and mildly mistrustful of the world around them. If you want to know what happens to a generation who lives in the light of such a man, pop into any non-Orthodox synagogue on a Sabbath and count the empty pews.
But if you want to take the real measure of Roth’s legacy, look not at Zuckerman, his famous long time alter ego, but at Zuckerberg. Facebook (and, to an extent, Twitter) has no more fitting patron than St. Philip of Newark.
An age in which we’re all urged to turn our attentions inward toward the idol of authenticity, to post whatever comes to mind without considering the impact it might have on those near to us, to advertise our secrets and the secrets of others and celebrate our appetites by sharing anything from candid snapshots of our genitalia to composed arrangements of our meals—such is the Age of Roth. Life, like literature, unfolds slowly and painstakingly, giving us the time and the assurances we need to trust each other and love one another. Light it all on fire, and you may end up famous, either for fifteen minutes on Facebook or for life on the cover of your own Library of America set of volumes. But Roth’s novels, like so many posts and tweets and Snap stories, were bursts of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Rest in peace, then, Philip ben Bess and Herman. You would have scorned the sincere sorrow of your admirers, for real emotions are frightening. But I hope that wherever you are, you’ll take some comfort in knowing that even though you’ve long since abandoned us, even having proscribed in advance all Jewish ritual at your funeral, we’ve never given up on you.