Sunday, September 19, 2004

Portnoy, stop your complaining

As promised, my reaction to Philip Roth on Philip Roth. I have not yet read "The Plot Against America"--will do so when it arrives at Amazon--but I have read the New Yorker review of the book and, now, his own explanation, in which he states:

"Why it [European-level anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 1940s] didn't happen is another book, one about how lucky we Americans are. I can only repeat that in the 30's there were many of the seeds for its happening here, but it didn't. And the Jews here became what they became because it didn't. All the things that tormented them in Europe never approached European proportions here. Nor is my point that this can happen and will happen; rather, it's that at the moment when it should have happened, it did not happen."

In the New Yorker, Joan Acocella suggests that, in writing "The Plot Against America," Roth is atoning for his having written "Portnoy's Complaint"--in which he offended, to put it mildly, both his own ancestors and Jews in general--because in his latest book, Roth argues that his parents were right all along in being worried that pogroms would come to the States. "Did Sophie Portnoy and her husband, Jack, live their lives “in continual anticipation of total catastrophe”? Well, Q.E.D.," writes Acocella. She then refutes this interpretation, claiming that the book is, in fact, a satire, and that Roth is not repenting, after all.

Roth is not repenting. He has also not simply written a satire; he has written a fantasy in which America is really as polarized between Jews and non-Jews as he imagines it to be.

In Europe at the time World War II broke out (as well as today), there were "Germans" and "Jews in Germany," "Frenchmen and Jews" in France, etc. Where America had its categories of black and white (or, today, black, white, Asian-Pacific Islander, etc.), Europe (not unlike the rest of the world, barring the U.S.) divides its people into more subtle characterizations, meaning that plenty of ethnic conflicts break out among people who would all fall into just one of America's broad racial categories. In other words, while there has certainly been anti-Semitism in America, the U.S. is generally not divided, at least by people who are not Philip Roth, into just two categories, Jewish and Gentile. In some neighborhoods at some moments in history, Americans have obviously divided themselves into those particular groupings, but no one could say, objectively, that America was or is thus polarized.

And yet, from a Rothian, not-at-all-objective perspective, America is Jews and Gentiles. In "Portnoy's Complaint," Roth's narrator (and alter ego) Alex Portnoy mentions that no "shiksa" had ever been over to his family's house, except for the housekeeper, but that she didn't count because she was black. In Rothland--and I say this even after reading his fascinating novel about race in America, "The Human Stain"--the salient difference in America, the one that really matters, is the difference between white Jews and white non-Jews.

And now, after much bloggy rambling, I will get to the point: the reason what happened in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s couldn't have happened in the US is that the US, outside of Roth's admittedly interesting mind, was never primarily divided between Jews and non-Jews, and it seems like a bit of a stretch to say that anti-Semitism was ever, at least in the 20th century, the most prevalent type of bigotry in the country. Jews in Europe were (and, sadly, often are) traditional scapegoats, victims of pogroms, and were subjected to centuries of being kicked out of various parts of the continent. Jews in America suffered from much of the same intolerance that other minorities faced, and perhaps a bit more from those who felt that Jews were, as a group, "too" successful in various fields. Some individual American bigots or racist groups have, no doubt, chosen Jews as their primary targets, but some have also chosen blacks, some gays, some Latinos, etc. And, when you summon an image of "segregation" or "ghetto" in America, you probably do not immediately think of Jews and Gentiles, do you?

It appears that, in "The Plot Against America," Roth is able to imagine an America in which the polarization of Jewish and Gentile that exists in his head is mirrored perfectly by reality. Roth has altered the world to make his own neurotic, self-centered preoccupation seem reasonable. Nevertheless, he is a wonderful writer, and I look forward to seeing if his new novel is as twisted as I'm imagining it to be.

1 comment:

AUF said...

I disliked Roth's book intensely because it's not the least bit plausible, particularly his fictional Burton Wheeler. See my post here.