Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Arthur Koestler and Meyer Levin: The Trivial, the Tragic, and Rationalization Post Factum in Roth's "Eli, the Fanatic"

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Arthur Koestler and Meyer Levin: The Trivial, the Tragic, and Rationalization Post Factum in Roth's "Eli, the Fanatic"

Article excerpt

This study explores Roth's "Eli, the Fanatic" (1957) in the context of the first of Meyer Levin's autobiographies, In Search (1950), and of historian and novelist Arthur Koestler's Promise to Fulfilment: Palestine 1917-1949 (1949). Building on recent disclosures of Roth's debt to In Search in "Defender of the Faith" and The Plot Against America,1 I propose an association of ideas within "Eli, the Fanatic" that joins Levin's analysis of Holocaust survivors' guilt to Koestler's claims about the emotive bases of 1939 White Paper policy under the Civil Mandatory Government of Great Britain (1920-1948). That policy limited the influx of Holocaust survivors into Palestine and obstructed the purchase and settlement of land by Jews. Those measures, according to Koestler, were driven by "emotional conviction and traditional prejudice" that became self-accrediting pantomimes of rational, evenhanded governance (175).2 We shall see these contexts come into play in the efforts of the Jews of Woodenton to rid their community of the Holocaust survivors at the Yeshivah. They do so, in part, through arguments advanced in Eli's legal "papers" (266). Those documents, along with the prejudicial attitudes that inspire them, resonate with White Paper policy, and specifically as described in Koestler's account of the emotive foundation of British policy in the Middle East. Moreover, in "Eli, the Fanatic" Roth's alignment of otherwise distant and incongruous issues-some trivial, some tragic-exemplifies what Koestler, in Insight and Outlook (1949), calls "bisociative"thinking.

Significant for the political resonance of "Eli, the Fanatic" is the fact that Jewish settlers in Palestine were referred to as the Yishuv (Hurewitz 27, 38-50; Meir, 56-57, 162), with the etymology of Yeshivah and Yishuv traceable to the Hebrew yshv, meaning to sit: the first, sitting to learn; the second, sitting to settle. In "Eli, the Fanatic" reverberations of White Paper policy illuminate obstacles to the settlement of the Yeshivah in Woodenton as well as the emotional bases of ostensibly rational appeals to zoning ordinances. That recourse to legalism allows the Jews of Woodenton to dodge the survivors' guilt that, as scholars have noted, comes to overwhelm Eli.3 The current study goes further, arguing that the psychological evasion of Woodenton, as dramatized in Roth's White Paper allegory, unifies key concerns of Koestler about post factum rationalization, and of Levin, who, in In Search, likely coined the term "survivor's guilt."4 This alignment of works by Roth, Levin, and Koestler complicates the issue of Jewish shame in "Eli, the Fanatic" by redirecting attention from shame over one's religion to subliminal shame for, and overt evasion of, sins of omission. Indeed, Roth's story suggests that the reluctance of American Jews to welcome Displaced Persons (DPs) was indebted to factors more psychologically complex than those espoused by commentators who identify the motive exclusively in the exacerbation of anti-Semitism within suburban communities.5

Germane to this symmetrical regard for fiction, autobiography, and Middle Eastern history is the fact that events in "Eli, the Fanatic" occur during the final week of the British Mandate in Palestine-indeed, just prior to the 14 May 1948 Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which transformed the Jewish Homeland into a formal State, leading the next day to the ultimately unsuccessful assault of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Transjordan upon the State of Israel.6 In Roth's narrative, also about a contested home for Holocaust survivors, Tzuref dates one of his letters 5/10/48 (256), with events transpiring over the next few days-that is, "two days later" (263) and "the following day" (281). This places the story in sync with political and psychological issues surrounding White Paper policy to prevent Holocaust survivors from entering Palestine in sufficient numbers to constitute a majority of the population (Koestler, Promise and Fulfilment 121). …

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