Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Tragedy Wrought to Its Uttermost": Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater and the Art of Dying

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

"Tragedy Wrought to Its Uttermost": Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater and the Art of Dying

Article excerpt

In the late twentieth century, a specifically American discourse on tragedy began to emerge, responding to what Brenda Murphy has described as "the putative inability of Americans to fully understand the tragic vision of human experience" (488). Perhaps the best-known figure within this discourse is the contemporary novelist Jonathan Franzen, whose essay "Perchance to Dream" (1996) sought to rehabilitate Lionel Trilling's influential concept of "tragic realism" as a form of novelistic writing that would deconstruct "the rhetoric of optimism that so pervades [. . .] the American imagination" (53) and its commitment to the pursuit of happiness.1 Trilling's interest in considering the political valency of a tragic sensibility for American liberalism has been the implicit inspiration behind many American thinkers' turn to tragedy. For instance, the distinguished American philosopher Martha Nussbaum made her name in The Fragility of Goodness (1986) by defending an Aristotelian model of ethics supplemented by ancient Greek tragedy's emphasis on the necessity of contingency and vulnerability to living morally meaningful lives. In Cultivating Humanity (1997), Nussbaum further argued that the study of Greek tragedy should be incorporated into programs because tragedy expands the sympathetic imagination fundamental to democratic citizenship (74-75). Robert Pirro has thus framed Nussbaum, alongside the prominent American public intellectual Cornel West, as a proponent ponent of what he calls "the politics of tragedy," which holds that the artistic genre of tragedy possesses a political utility that can advance the fulfilment of American democracy (75).

The equally influential American philosopher Stanley Cavell has similarly noted that American pragmatism seemingly "lack[s] the sense of tragedy" (56), but in his earlier work Cavell turned towards Shakespearean tragedy as an alternative form of philosophizing. In "The Avoidance of Love," Cavell's extraordinarily influential reading of King Lear, first published in Must We Mean What We Say? (1969), republished in Disowning Knowledge (1987), Cavell actually performs Shakespearean psychoanalysis when he envisions America's imperialistic involvement in the Vietnam War as a displaced enactment ment of Shakespeare's tragedy. Cavell argues that America must follow Lear in relinquishing its narcissistic nationalist fantasies-originating in its insatiable need for love-by accepting the limits of its finite identity and acknowledging the independence of others. This line of argument has most recently been continued in Judith Butler's recovery of the feminist political potential of Greek tragedy in Antigone's Claim (2002) and her subsequent response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Precarious Lives (2004), where she seeks to replace the politics of terror with a politics of mourning in which American exceptionalist fantasies of sovereignty are dismantled by grief's anguishing reminder of our primary powerlessness.

In American Dream, American Nightmare (2000), Kathryn Hume charts how, co-extensive with this increasing philosophical interest in tragedy, an entire generation of post-war American novelists have developed an increasingly tragic literary sensibility devoted to demythologizing American ideology. Philip Roth's representation of American-Jewish experience has consistently resisted the generic "definition of the Jew as sufferer" and the "tragic dimension of Jewish life in Europe" and European literature (Roth, Conversations 128). Yet following Sabbath's Theater (1995) came the American Trilogy's narratives of nationhood in which American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000), respectively, trace the devastating impact of the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, and President Clinton's impeachment, upon American idealism within the context of Jewish identity-and in some respects, these novels do seem to share much with the democratic politics of tragedy. The Human Stain is explicitly interested in how the very processes of scapegoating underlying contemporary American society originated in Greek tragedy, while the legacies of the Vietnam War become the stuff of Miltonic tragedy in American PastoraLs ambitiously titled subdivisions: "Paradise Remembered," "The Fall" and "Paradise Lost. …

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