Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Queering Philip Roth: Homosocial Discourse in "An Actor's Life for Me," Letting Go, Sabbath's Theater, and the "American Trilogy"

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Queering Philip Roth: Homosocial Discourse in "An Actor's Life for Me," Letting Go, Sabbath's Theater, and the "American Trilogy"

Article excerpt

As the editors of Queer Theory and the Jewish Question (2003) point out, "modern Jewish and homosexual identities [have] emerged as traces of each other," perhaps most conspicuously and tragically in "the ways that Jews... were powerfully associated with the abjected homosexual" in Nazi propaganda (1, 2). Sander Gilman, among others, has documented the long history of the feminization of the Jewish male--what Adam Seth Rosen calls "the age-old stereotype of the nonmasculine Jew" (58)--in particular the perpetuation of the myth of the menstruating Jewish male, culminating in the proliferation of nineteenth-century (pseudo-)scientific discourse (Gilman 74-76); Daniel Boyarin has argued that "the effeminization of Jewish masculinity" was the product not just of anti-Semitism but also of a desire among Jewish communities to promote a model of "Jewish self-affirmation" based on a "rabbinic masculinity" that valorized Talmudic scholarship rather than physical prowess (Boyarin et al, 2); Jonathan Freedman has used what he calls "the contiguity between the Jew and the queer" as the basis for a model of cultural production that he calls "queer diasporism" (44, 42); and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has pointed out both the analogies between the "epistemology of the closet," as it applies to gays and Jews, and the limitations of such analogies (2008: 75-82). In this context, one might reasonably expect to find, in the work of a writer as interested in Jewish masculinity as Philip Roth, material that, in the broadest, contemporary theoretical currency of the term, could be termed "queer." Yet Roth has no entry in the index of Queer Theory and the Jewish Question and is in fact only mentioned once, in passing, in the four hundred pages of the volume (7). Moreover, in the entire body of Roth criticism (by now consisting of fifty-odd books and hundreds of articles and book chapters) there is virtually no discussion of queerness. A number of critics, such as Remi Astruc, Mark Fulk, Alex Hobbs, Monica Hogan, Velichka Ivanova, Maggie McKinley, Sally Robinson, and Debra Shostak, have discussed Roth's representation of masculinity in somatic, socio-cultural, and psychoanalytical terms, and many other critics have engaged more generally with the sexual politics of his work. Yet such discussions tend to be sited within a heteronormative frame of reference.

There are three exceptions. In an unpublished essay on male intimacy in I Married A Communist and The Human Stain, Michael Kalisch argues that "the place of same-sex intimacy in Roth's career-long exploration of male sexual identity has been overlooked," although his discussion of this intimacy is framed more in terms of classical traditions of male friendship than queer theory (Kalisch unpublished). Neil Davison and Warren Hoffman go further in their readings of Portnoy's Complaint. Davison represents the "homosocial environment" of Portnoy's father's generation of Jews as an idealized, de-eroticized space in which "unself-conscious masculinity" is allowed free reign--a space that Portnoy, as a cripplingly self-conscious second-generation American Jew, cannot inhabit (187). (2) For the most part, however, the focus is on Roth's (re)negotiations of what Davison calls "the Jewish-gender-Zionist complex" through the figure of the "feminized Jew" (163)--a figure who is "passive and neurotic, but not homosexual per se" (181-82)--and his theoretical framework is drawn from postcolonial studies and Lacanian psychoanalysis rather than queer theory. In contrast, Hoffman's claims that "Portnoy's attempts to pass as a butch American man... ultimately read as hysterical" and that "one of the most heterosexual characters of all Jewish American literature is actually inherently queer" (Hoffman 17) situate his work squarely in the field of queer theory.

Perhaps Roth's popular reputation as an aggressively heterosexual, libidinous, masculinist, and in some versions sexist or even misogynist author has determined the parameters of critical discourse. …

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