Monday, December 27, 2004

Irving Howe, puritan?

Interesting piece by Morris Dickstein in Bookforum, linked to from Arts and Letters Daily, about Dissent magazine founder, coiner of the phrase, "New York Intellectual," and all-around cool person, Irving Howe:

Howe saw himself as a perpetual dissenter, but there were always others ready to follow where he led. His socialism seemed an anomaly in the '50s, as American power grew and intellectuals became more complacent and self-satisfied. Yet he also felt shunted aside by the young leftists of the '60s, and responded with a steady barrage of criticism so intemperate it might have permanently alienated him from those who shared his deepest aims... Yet, three decades later, there is no writer more revered by intellectuals who combine the hope for greater economic equality with a stubborn faith in democracy, who criticize their country for falling short of its ideals but refuse to see it as the root of all evil in the world.

This much I more or less already knew: Howe was and is something of a hero to those on the anti-anti-American left, and reading Dissent even today, one comes across articles (by Michael Walzer and others) which explain how a person can find terrorism unacceptable without finding the Bush administration acceptable. Howe's legend certainly lives on at Dissent. When I was an intern there last summer, one of my tasks was assembling (and, in the process, reading) a scrapbook of articles about Howe and his unique brand of democratic socialism, one whose ideals seem to have outlived the popularity of the term "socialism" among contemporary American intellectuals.

But something I hadn't known until reading Dickstein's article was that Howe the literary critic had a "puritanical streak:"

"It was the outraged moralist in him that led him... to revile Roth in Portnoy's Complaint for putting his talent 'to the service of a creative vision deeply marred by vulgarity.'"

Given my blog's current subhead, I feel I must comment: Portnoy's Complaint may well be Roth's best use of his talent. Alex Portnoy may be vulgar, and his (fictional) existence may be enough to make Jewish women of the world think less of Roth personally, but the book itself isn't expecially "marred by vulgarity". Portnoy essentially misperceives the world around him, overestimating the degree to which his mother ruined his life, turning the "Jew vs. Gentile" division into the sole one of any relevance and assuming that all others are as preoccupied with it as he is, considering his own sexual urges to be further out of the norm than they possibly could be and telling of them in explicit (and frequently vulgar) detail in order to convey just how sick a puppy he really is. But what's brilliant about Portnoy is how much Alex's misperceptions tell about the times--while it would be absurd to say that American Jews at the time all identified with Alex, his "complaint" at the very least rang true. Unlike real-life Irving Howe, who challenged the views of those around him, the fictional Portnoy, despite his politically liberal inclinations, fully accepts that things are the way they are--no, it's more than that he fully accepts the status quo, he's altogether in love with determinism, with the idea that his being Jewish and his having a domineering mother have made him the man he is, and that his fate is inescapable. Portnoy doesn't challenge stereotypes, he swallows them whole, then spews them back out in such an absurd way as to make it clear that Roth, though he may have some Portnoy in him, couldn't possibly believe that Portnoy is telling it like it is. Roth creates a Portnoy whose real problem isn't that he's Jewish in a predominantly Christian country, or that his mother was overly concerned with his digestive processes as a child, but that he is incapable of seeing himself as anything other than the result of unfairness, whether on the part of his own family or on the part of those who would judge him on account of his background. That Portnoy is pathetic, often hilariously so, shows that Roth is as critical of the world around him as was Howe.

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