Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Naiveté of Malamud's Calvin Cohn and Roth's Seymour "Swede" Levov: Comic, Ironic, or Tragic?

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

The Naiveté of Malamud's Calvin Cohn and Roth's Seymour "Swede" Levov: Comic, Ironic, or Tragic?

Article excerpt

Henri Bergson once said, "A comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself. [. . .] He becomes invisible to himself while remaining visible to all the world" (71). This is particularly true for Malamud's Calvin Cohn in God's Grace (1982), and Roth's Seymour "Swede" Levov, m American Pastoral (1997). Both characters exhibit extreme naivete as they exert all their energy in pursuit of a hopeless dream. Though Malamud did not publicly affirm a belief in God, all his works stress Torah values and morals. Malamud explained, "The purpose of the writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. [...] My premise [. . .] is for humanism-and against nihilism. And that is what I try to put in my writings" ("Not Horror" 7). God's Grace is Malamud's "visionary tale with a prophetic warning" (Alter, "Theological Fantasy" 66). Following Leviticus-"Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self" (19.18)-Malamud warns his readers to care for the other. Leviticus's rule seems to be comprehended best by the term "compassion," defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "suffering together with another," having "fellow feeling, sympathy."

Responsibility and compassion for the other are expressed by Morris Bober to Frank Alpine in The Assistant: "'What do you suffer for, Morris?' Frank said. 'I suffer for you,' Morris said calmly" (150). Morris tells Frank, "Nobody will tell me that I am not Jewish because I put in my mouth once in a while, when my tongue is dry, a piece ham. But they will tell me, and I will believe them, if I forget the Law. This means to do what is right, to be honest, to be good. This means to other people. [ . . .] This is why we need the Law. This is what a Jew believes" (150, italics added). This law, as Victoria Aarons points out, is "the law of compassion, a merciful companion to its indifferent, intransigent other" (Aarons 50).

The Yiddish term rachmones suggests compassion, love, empathy, and pity. It is what would have saved Malamud's protagonists in The Tenants: two writers, a Jewish writer, Harry Lesser, and a black writer, Willie Spearmint, whose desire to overpower the other is all consuming. In their last confrontation (which may be a dream sequence rather than reality), each rails at the other, and each destroys the other while a third character pleads that they have rachmones Tenants 206). In The People, an unfinished novel published posthumously in 1990, Malamud has Jozip, a Jewish Indian Chief, engage in dialogues with white Americans in an effort to save the land of his tribe. A colonel, carrying orders from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D. C. says:

"We must therefore affirm our right to this land in the name of our nation, and our inalienable right to direct your next move within this country. If you disregard us we will exercise the right of eminent domain and do with our land what we have to do to fulfill our destiny."

"So what is eminent domain?" Jozip whispered to Indian Head.

"The strong man does what he wants. The weak man listens."

"Will they make a war against us?"

"We will fight back"

"I am a man of peace."

"You are chief of this tribe."

"If you will speak to us the truth, we are not afraid of your words," Jozip replied to the colonel.

"We don't need any lessons in ethics, my good man," said the colonel.

"And preachment won't put any pork in your pot."

"From pork I am not interested," said [the Jewish] Jozip, speaking for himself. (45, italics added)

Compassion and responsibility are important themes in Malamud's fiction. Without responsibility and compassion for die other, people go to war, and war can accelerate into a nuclear holocaust. Malamud's warning of destruction is implicit in the epigraph to God's Grace, taken from Robinson Crusoe: "I came upon the horrible remains of a cannibal feast."

Roth, unlike Malamud, is hesitant to state a purpose directly. This does not mean that Roth is not morally serious. …

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