Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Disjunctive Predicaments: Philip Roth as Novelist of Uneven Development

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Disjunctive Predicaments: Philip Roth as Novelist of Uneven Development

Article excerpt

Everyone knows ... How what happens the way it does? What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs? Nobody knows, Professor Roux.

-Stain 208-09

The laws of history have nothing in common with a pedantic schematism.

-Trotsky 5

This essay does not, as some colleagues of mine have guessed from its title, assess the peaks and troughs of "Roth's notoriously uneven career" (Balbert 77).1 Instead, it turns to theories of uneven development in the fields of Marxist historiography and critical geography in search of a model of historical process that is congruent with Roth's narrative practice. This project is motivated by the problem of understanding how a novelist so committed to a principle of skepticism and an "art of narrative deception" can produce novels celebrated for their historical insight (Royal 118).2 To be clear, I do not intend to make the case that all historiography depends on narrative forms. Nor will I argue that we depend on imaginative fiction to achieve historical understanding. Both of these arguments have been made compellingly by greater authorities.3 Here, I pursue a more modest and specific inquiry about Roth's narrative engagements with history. What historical and historiographic premises are implied when a writer whose fiction is committed to confronting a) the solitary fate of narrating one's reality, and b) one's incapacity to get that narration right in an antagonistic marketplace of competing narratives, is credited with "cutting through our national mythologies" and laying "bare the shades and stages of American life during the American century" (American Academy)?

Of course, that credit is not given by all, and my occasion for considering these questions arose on the eve of Roth's eightieth birthday when the Posen Foundation hosted a conversation between Liel Leibovitz, Adam Kirsch, and moderator Jacques Berlinerblau under the somewhat ominous title "Philip Roth and the Modern Jewish Predicament." Anyone who has read Leibovitz's critical assessments of Roth might guess this was a distinctly chilly birthday party. Leibovitz castigated Roth for "insufferable self-indulgence" and his adolescent and intellectually disingenuous engagement with the world ("Predicament"). Not content merely to channel Irving Howe, Leibovitz brought a copy of Howe's "Philip Roth Reconsidered" along with him to quote from. In 1972 Howe had characterized Roth as a writer in a "severe predicament," finding sustenance in neither "the tradition of Jewish self-criticism and satire" nor in "mainstream" America's "great sweep of democratic idealism and romanticism" (Howe 73). In "The Grapes of Roth," Leibovitz sustained Howe's critique and distinguished Rothian narcissism from the canonically legitimized preoccupation with the self in American letters:

Put simply, while all American writers write first and foremost of the individual, the great ones are, to use a sterling phrase, large enough to contain multitudes; peek into Emerson, say, and see America in its entirety.

Do the same with Roth, and you'd be lucky to see much past New Jersey. That is because Roth's primary preoccupation is Roth.

Leibovitz's choice of the transcendentalist Emerson as a point of comparison is telling, and in his conversation with Kirsch and Berlinerblau he repeatedly drew Saul Bellow into the tradition of American transcendentalism to illustrate that, by comparison, it was not merely narcissism but a sort of spiritual poverty that denied the intellectual (and historiographic) potential of Roth's fiction.4

Kirsch, unwillingly cast as defender-of-the-Roth, agreed there was "something trivial at the heart of Roth's metaphysics" but stressed that these limitations and anxieties were part of what makes Roth, trivial metaphysics notwithstanding, the "great chronicler of Jewish American life" ("Predicament"). …

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