Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Céline is my Proust II

Roth again

Corey Robin is an ass.

In 2014, the mystery writer Lisa Scottoline wrote an instructive essay for The New York Times about two undergraduate seminars she took with Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. One of the courses was the literature of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt was on the syllabus.

In his five-page discussion of those years at Penn, Roth biographer Blake Bailey makes no mention of this course or Arendt. Instead, he focuses on the other course, “The Literature of Desire,” and Roth’s erotic presence inside and outside the classroom. In the wake of the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior that have been made against Bailey, the omission may seem small or slight. Yet it is telling. As Judith Shulevitz argues in a searching analysis of the allegations and the biography, Bailey is as incurious about Jewishness as he is about the reality of women.

And that's why Roth chose him.  


Mediocrity pervades the entire biography, not just the parts that have to do with women. Bailey credulously takes Roth’s side in fights with wives and lovers, but Roth had baggage in all domains of life, and Bailey, an eager bellhop, carries the whole load for him—the unhappy marriages and contentious divorces and relationships and affairs and everything else as well.

Bailey is tone-deaf about Jewishness, too. Unfamiliar with the subtleties of Jewish ambivalence about Jewish particularism, he doesn’t realize that Roth’s insistent rejection of the “Jewish writer” label is no simple claim. It requires unpacking. And Bailey doesn’t know how little he knows about Jewish history. Bailey uses Roth as his main source on the generations that came before Philip, even though Roth had only hazy knowledge of his Polish-born forebears and how they lived before they emigrated, and rarely wrote about the surely painful transition from Old World to New that would have shaped the childhood Roth idealized and rebelled against.

Roth’s lack of genealogical curiosity is curious. Here was a self-reflexive, confessional writer—or rather, meta-confessional writer, since he created alter egos to do the confessing for him—yet he didn’t start soliciting details about his grandparents from living relatives until late in life. Bailey’s incuriosity is curious too. What a reader wants from a biographer is to have blind spots like that pointed out. What didn’t Roth want to see, and why? And why didn’t Bailey realize that those were precisely the questions he was supposed to answer? 

...What I gleaned from Bailey’s book, despite its shortcomings, is that Roth’s woman problem was fundamentally a reality problem. Bailey quotes Roth talking about women as if they stood for something, which is very different from being somebody. Roth dated and married women who represented a place or class that was out of his reach and that he wanted to learn about or escape to. The most disastrous emissary from this fantastical out-there was his first wife, Maggie Martinson, a working-class single mother from small-town Michigan who told tales of childhood incest and had divorced her previous husband on the grounds of physical cruelty. Martinson brought him closer to “goyish chaos,” Roth said. After Martinson, Roth dated her opposite, a Pittsburgh socialite.* Both women appealed to him, he later wrote, because they were estranged “from the very strata of American society of which they were each such distinctively emblazoned offspring.” To turn that around, what they had in common was that, alienation notwithstanding, they served as emblems of exotic worlds. The trouble started whenever these “emblazoned offspring” piped up with actual human needs and desires.

...Bailey’s incuriosity made him an indifferent biographer. How Roth saw around his own blind spots well enough to produce a few great novels and memoirs (the rest range from good to terrible) is a mystery someone else will have to solve. I’m glad I got the chance to read the biography before Norton pulled it, because I have no doubt that if I were diving into it now, I’d mix scandal and biographer and biography into one confounding mess. But reading my suspicions about Bailey into the book now does make it easier to imagine how biographer and subject could have tapped into the worst parts of each other to construct a collective monument to un-self-awareness. And that, in turn, gives me a glimpse of how men collude to deny women reality and reduce them to inviting targets. In that sense, Bailey did this reader a service, though probably not the one he meant to perform.

"How Roth saw around his own blind spots well enough to produce a few great novels and memoirs (the rest range from good to terrible) is a mystery someone else will have to solve."

Shulevitz is better than Robin, but they both miss the point. 

No one will ever "solve" the mystery of Philip Roth or anyone else. Art is honesty, even of that means being more honest than you want to admit.

Do the Right Thing is the newest entry in the expanding catalog of films inspired by Italian-American family virtues. If it is less engaging than Moonstruck, it can be commended for the earnestness of its effort to convey the suffering and final defeat of a rational man by an irrational world.

Roth and "doubling". Arendt and Du Bois. Robin is too stupid to remember that Du Bois thought double-consciousness was a problem. 

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