Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Nathan Zuckerman, Plato, and the Lost Republic of Newark

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Nathan Zuckerman, Plato, and the Lost Republic of Newark

Article excerpt

In an October 15, 2000 article for the New York Times, Andrew Jacobs told the story of Jews returning to Newark. The account was not that of a triumphant return, however. Jacobs reported how a few Jews who left the city (and dieir descendants) return annually, during the High Holidays, to visit the graves of family members interred in Newark's many Jewish cemeteries. Illustrating the current socioeconomic conditions of the city, the return is facilitated by a police escort. This is not the same city mat the Jews left. The cemeteries, left virtually abandoned for decades, have fallen, in Jacobs' words, "to vandalism and neglect." As the Jews of Newark left for oudying communities, bodi attracted by the promise of comfort in the suburbs and repelled by the '67 riots, the memory of the city's Jewish heritage was left to decay, and, along with it, Jewish cemeteries. The condition of Newark's Jewish dead reflects the state of its living; Jewish Newark is gone.

Jewish Newark will however always be reproduced, for better and worse, in the fiction of its native son, Philip Roth. Roth has repeatedly returned to Newark as a setting; in Portnoy's Compkint (1969) and Goodbye, Columbus (1959), die city's Weequahic neighborhood grounds the narratives in concrete detail from Roth's childhood, giving the books a strong sense of verisimilitude. The city does not simply offer Roth a rich location, however. Often, Newark functions as a metaphor for a lost homeland, with Plato's Republic serving as a kind of template for Zuckerman's lost home.

In Raphael's famous painting, The School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle are prominently depicted in the center of a great room that is filled with other philosophers and their pupils. Plato is shown gesturing to the sky as Aristode points to the ground. These actions effectively demonstrate the philosophical distance between the two great philosophers of the ancient world: Plato is concerned with die metaphysical, while Aristotle is concerned with the material. Plato's metaphysics dictate that truth lies in the ideal world of the forms and diat the material world is made of copies of those ideals. In Plato's Republic, privileging the ideal over the physical means that no aspect of life, particularly art and poetry, can be viewed independent of its effect on Plato's ideal state. Conversely, Aristotle, in the Poetics, addresses poetry and art as material artifacts that are to be studied on their own terms, without regard to dieir effect on the state.

This dichotomy, beautifully depicted by Raphael, is what drives Philip Roth's Nathan Zuckerman books - in particular, die Zuckerman Bound Trilogy & Epilogue (1985) composed of The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), and The Prague Orgy (1985). In sum total, these novels act out die classical tension between artist and community and, not coincidentally, it is in these books that Newark takes on a new role in Roth's fiction. Unlike Goodbye, Columbus, which was written before the great Jewish exodus from Newark, the Zuckerman Bound books were written in the decade following the 1967 riots, which all but destroyed die Jewish-American "republic" of Roth's youth. Unlike Neil Klugman, Nathan Zuckerman has a lost city to mourn, though Zuckerman himself, because of his art, is ultimately deemed (by his community elders) complicit in Newark's destruction.

Zuckerman, like Aristode, believes in the particularity of art. This belief leads him to write fiction that comes into conflict with the values of his Jewish family and community, who, like Plato, cannot divorce literature from its effect on society. Roth's autobiography, The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (1989), concludes with die fictional Zuckerman responding to Roth's life story and reducing the essential conflict of Rodi's own life to: "You rebel against the tribal and look for the individual, for your own voice as against the stereotypical voice of the tribe or the tribe's stereotype of itself" (172). …

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